Website Navigation: Tips, Examples and Best Practices

Many of us have been to a restaurant and we generally expect to see a menu there. The purpose of this menu is to inform the patron of all that’s available to them. How this menu is designed will determine not just if the customer will eat there but also what specifically they’ll eat.

Many of the strategies applied in developing a physical restaurant menu can be applied to the design of your navigation bar. Here’s what every website designer ought to pay attention to when creating a website menu:

  • Use descriptive labels
  • Try an extended menu design
  • Serial position effect
  • Optimize according to device and data

Let’s continue with the cake example. There are wedding cakes, birthday cakes, optical illusion cakes, cupcakes, tiered cakes/cupcake combos, naked cakes, classical cakes, and so on! What you absolutely do not want to do is include more than seven labels in your menu. So, what should you do about all these types of cakes you want to feature?

Dropdown menus are a great way to include more labels without crowding the menu bar. However, it can be easy to get carried away. Friction is anything that confuses, discourages, or distracts a customer from a particular action. Though a little friction can be good for conversions, making navigation on your website difficult can hurt your bottom line.

“Navigational friction can stem from website design mistakes, like product listings that are difficult to find or a confusing checkout page.” (Business.com)

Probably the best design to solve this problem is to use a mega menu. Mega menus are, as the name suggests, very large dropdown menus that group related items together. They present much like a mini site map. There are so many options to choose from that it makes the friction a drop-down creates worth the trouble.

This makes the most sense for websites with many pages and products/services. The main website menu might have the label “Food.” The mega menu might have sub-labels that are “Dinner,” “Desserts,” and “Dietary” with their various options. “Desserts” may have “Cakes,” “Chocolate,” and “Pies” for buttons.

This doesn’t mean you should include every link from your website in the mega menu. Understood as the paradox of choice, having too many options can overwhelm someone to the point of not making a choice at all. This is bad friction! Be succinct and tell a unique story about what your products and services are as it relates to what your customer is looking for.

Serial Position Effect

The order in which objects appear plays a significant role in how well we will remember them. The serial position effect says that items at the beginning and the end of any given list are more likely to be remembered than those in the middle. The primacy effect and the recency effect together form the serial position effect.

  • Primacy Effect: the ability to remember the beginning of something
  • Recency Effect: the ability to remember the end of something

Because of this, the first and last menu labels of your navigation structure will naturally stand out the most. That’s not to say no one will engage with the other buttons. The main point here is that your strategy ought to consider what you want people to engage with first. Chances are very high that the first button on any given menu has the highest click rate compared to all other buttons on that page.

It is important to prioritize the items in your website’s navigation menu, with the most important items at the beginning and the least important items in the middle. This helps ensure that users can easily find the most important content on your website first and can easily access the contact page when needed

Now think about the “Home” label on your menu. Since we’re limiting the navigation bar to up to seven labels, every label must be well thought out. We’re entering a digital age where the “Home” label is no more. Many businesses are opting to omit the “Home” label and use their company logo as a button to navigate to the home page.

Digital real estate is highly valuable. Avoid using the limited space you have for concepts that are already universally known. If your audience is likely to understand that clicking the company logo will send them to the home page, there’s no need for a “Home” label in your menu bar. Use that space to link to a high ticket item or some other web page that’ll move your site visitors along the buyer journey.

Optimize According to Device and Data

The best way to know how something is working is to look at your data. When most of your website visitors are coming to your site via a mobile device, there are some things you’ll have to pay closer attention to.

If you see three horizontal lines stacked upon each other, that’s the hamburger menu icon. Some audiences using a mobile device, such as a phone or tablet, might get confused and not understand that this is indeed the website menu. Know your site visitors and decide if a button that says “Menu” or some other design makes the most sense.

Even though the first button is likely to get the most engagement, you still need to pay attention to which web pages are getting the most traffic. Pulling from the mega menu design example, you might find that the “Pescatarian” and “Vegetarian” pages under the “Dietary” label have minimal traffic. At the same time, the “Vegan” label has a lot of clicks. This is a signal that your website traffic may benefit from rearranging the navigation structure to highlight “Vegan” instead of “Dietary.”

Wrapping Up

There is so much more to talk about when it comes to designing the best navigation structure. The only way to know for sure if a strategy works for you is to experiment with different ideas. To sum it up:

Use descriptive labels: Avoid generic terms and incorporate keywords into your labels. This will tell your audience exactly what they’ll find on the page and it’ll boost your SEO ranking.
Try an extended menu design: When your main navigation bar is approaching seven labels, it’s time to consider menu extensions. Avoid overusing dropdown menus and explore the mega menu option if you have many, many links.
Serial position effect: Use the natural functions of the brain to your advantage. Leave the most important items at the beginning and end of your lists to encourage navigation to specific web pages.
Optimize according to device and data: Your data will tell you what is working and what isn’t. As you experiment, change your design and website menu options to complement the natural flow of traffic to and around your website.

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