The most basic component of a Web site is its navigational structure. This is the oldest and most common factor in Web design, but also the most underestimated. Simply stated, if the visitor cannot navigate or negotiate a Web site with ease, and if the information is difficult to access, then they will leave. It takes only a few months of reviewing select Web sites for the Webby Awards to discover that even in this age of advanced Web design, most designers fail to achieve navigational organization beyond the very basics on their sites. Instead, it seems that the art of creating effective navigation has been superseded by the desire to host the latest technologies and communication addons. Yet, visiting a site that has videos, Flash and all the bells and whistles is a fruitless experience if sufficient attention has not been paid to the navigational structure of the site. Encountering this hurdle is particularly frustrating when the site is extensive, which makes searching for specific information hidden in a mysterious maze of links and directions time consuming.
An apt term has been coined to describe sites that neglect the subtleties of navigational structure: Mystery Meat Navigation. This name refers to those sites that provide esoteric and mysterious forms of navigation under the false premise that “this is cool”. For example, sites that do not clearly differentiate between elements on the pages that are navigational and those that are not. On these sites, https://eternia.to/ one only discovers that an element contains navigational information on mouseover, when new links and info suddenly and mysteriously slide or pop out. Exploring sites like these becomes a game for users to find the hidden links, which is fine if it is a games site but very frustrating if you are attempting to explore the site to search for information or products. There are a host of sites that have been labeled as ‘mystery meat’ and these can be found at 10 Worst Web Site Uses of Navigation for 2007 – The Final List.
Not all sites are this obscure and many are competent enough in maintaining a basic level of navigational competence. However, most sites on the Web today have forgotten the art of effective navigational design. Even though a site may have an eye-catching and intriguing interface, this means very little if the navigational structure is not capable of providing the necessary direction and guidance to the viewer. The word “intuitive” is often used to describe the ideal experience that a viewer should have in exploring a site. This rather overused term is still applicable in 2008 and the aim of good navigation is to make the experience of browsing the web site seamless and virtually self-explanatory.
The experts stress that creating an effective navigational structure is much more than just adding a few links at the top or side of the page. What has been forgotten is that site navigation and structure go together and should therefore be integrated. This is not much of a problem if your site is only a few pages in size. Larger sites need that vital integration between the structure and organization of the site as well as the navigational components.
To achieve a fully integrated site that flows seamlessly and in which the different navigational structures are linked takes detailed planning and time. The Web site designer has to put himself in the place of the visitor and attempt to anticipate how that viewer experiences and explores the site. Questions have to be asked such as: if there are large sections of data on the site can these be accessed without the viewer having to guess where to click next? Are the side or topbar links integrated with the content in each page so that they lead intuitively and almost spontaneously from one page or section to the next?
The process of navigation design must take into account categories, subcategories, and the way that these are linked to relevant information that appears on each particular page. An example of well-integrated navigation is WebMd at htp://women.webmd.com/default.htm. This site manages to control and provide easy access to a huge amount of data and categories, without making the site confusing at any point. Another site worth looking at is RoyalMarines.mod.uk, where attention has been given to navigation and structure on each page, including links that guide the visitor to sections relating to the content on that page.
Of course, it is understood that poor navigation not only translates into users clicking away but most importantly to the loss of potential sales and revenue. In today’s super-slick, fast online environment, the site that is not immediately accessible and which cannot be explored ‘intuitively’ is simply relegated to the growing pile of unvisited Web pages.
So how does one go about ensuring good navigation? There are no simple quick-fix solutions here. The art of navigation is to scrutinize your site through the eyes of the visitor. Pre-planning is essential when creating an effective, comprehensive site layout and navigational structure. The way the site is organized into sections or categories should correspond to the way the navigation is organized. One has to anticipate what a visitor would look for on entering a specific section or page. The designer should be aware of questions like; where would the visitor go in response to content or info on that page, and then provide logical links or access to related pages and sections. Many expert designers insist that a site should “tell a story” to facilitate straightforward browsing and navigation. In other words, the site should have a structure that follows logically and makes immediate sense to the visitor. A simple rule is: “Any good global navigation scheme should, at a glance, answer the top three questions every user has at the back of their mind when landing on any page: