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5 Steps to Create the Optimal Navigation for Your Website

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Ability to navigate through various levels of content is a critical success factor for any site, but particularly for marketing focused sites. The navigation bar has a number of purposes:

  • The navigation bar gives visitors — your prospects — an overview of the content that is available on your site.

  • The navigation bar keeps visitors oriented as they digest your content so they don't feel lost.

  • The navigation bar provides shortcuts to the content users want to see next (or to review) without making them trace a path back to the original entry point.

Unfortunately marketers don’t always do a wonderful job of creating usable navigation bars. A study by User Interface Engineering found that users cannot find the information they’re looking for 60 percent of the time! Given that you have less than 2 minutes to convince site visitors to stay, creating a usable navigation bar is a must.

Follow these 5 steps to develop the ideal navigation bar for your prospective customers.

1. Determine what search terminology your target audience uses.

You can determine common search terms in a variety of ways. A focus group or surveys would be great, but it isn’t simple to conduct those properly, or easy to get statistically significant results. Alternately you can start by searching online to see what language appears in conversations relevant to your offerings in blogs and social media spaces. Use keyword research tools to confirm whether your initial hunches about ideal keyword terms are on target. Free keyword research tools include Google Keyword Planner and SEO Book Keyword Tool.

2. Understand the typical decision making process your target uses.

Your front line – your sales force – can provide valuable insight if you don’t already know the details of the typical buying process for your industry. If you’re introducing a new product in an emerging industry, start with the traditional sales funnel and adapt it as necessary.

3. Inventory and organize your content.

Keep in mind that informational categories should be rolled up into broad levels that match your users’ decision making and filtering processes. If you have two very distinct target audiences that will need different types of content, the main navigation bar might be a place to provide separate entry points. Then again, if one of those audiences is secondary to the other, perhaps that entry point should be in secondary navigation.

TRESemme screenshot

Best Practice Example: Tresemme focuses on products, styling tips, news and the hair profile app in its main navigation. Items of lesser importance to users, such as social media connect icons and email sign-up are placed in the secondary navigation. Tresemme has done an excellent job of keeping navigation uncluttered, with proper use of hierarchy.

4. Choose a maximum of 5 – 7 navigation items.

Now that you’ve researched the terminology your prospects use, understand the decision making process they go through that might lead them to choose your product, and have categorized your content accordingly, you’re armed with the information you need to choose your navigation items.

Each navigation item should be no more than 12 characters long.

Usability studies have shown that 5 – 7 items are the maximum number that can be used in the navigation bar without overwhelming users. Remember: the more overwhelmed visitors feel, the more likely they are to abandon your site. If you have done a stellar job with content organization and you still cannot narrow down to this number of items, use a secondary navigation bar that includes the 2-3 least commonly referenced items from your larger list. The design should make a clear hierarchical distinction between the secondary and main navigation. Also keep in mind that each navigation item should be no more than 12 characters long.

nike image

Best Practice Example: Nike has determined that their prospects filter by gender, age and product types, and have chosen their navigation terms accordingly.

5. Order items.

Usability studies have shown that horizontal navigation is more comfortable for users than vertical navigation. Start with “Home” on the left, which is increasingly represented by the site logo instead of text. Assuming your site is meant for western cultures, starting on the left and moving right, place the navigation items in order of the frequency you expect users to look for them. However, be sure to place action items such as “Join” to the right.

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Best Practice Example: Apple uses the main navigation to highlight the Store first, followed by major product categories, then its music service iTunes, and finally Support. Apple follows, and in fact helps set convention. Notice the Home icon is on the far left, and the search bar — highly action oriented — is on the far right.

The best part about the web as a marketing medium is that results are easily measured. You can test your navigation with prospective customers (a group of 10-12 is probably sufficient to uncover any usability issues) and adjust if necessary – ideally prior to launch.


This article was originally published on my previous blog,

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