Does Your Navigation Pass the Test?

As a usability consultant, navigation is really the bread and butter of my work. All the user research, the wireframes, the perfectly architected homepages and site designs – well, they don’t mean nothin’ if the navigation doesn’t work. Unfortunately, there is no quick-fix or band-aid I can prescribe that will make it all better. (you really do need to do the research!) I can give you some tips though that may help identify some problems and some iterative changes you can make along the way.

1. Do you follow the 7 plus or minus 2 rule?
This rule is based on the fact that people can really only absorb about 7 (give or take 2) options in a list before they start forgetting the first options they read. So, for your navigation, you should be sure that each group of navigation hovers around 7. That means you should have around 7 main navigation options and that in each section, you should only have around 7 options also. And, just because you asked, this applies to drop-down, or flyout navigation too. I know that this may come as a shock to many, but because of the psychology behind the 7 plus or minus 2 rule, I’m going to go ahead and say that if your main navigation options are named clearly enough, you should not need to display drop-down options. Now, a lot of sites have more pages than this, right? Well, then you may want to consider a tertiary navigation, but remember that it’s also okay to have some pages on your site that are not represented in the navigation. The navigation below is a good example of one that follows the 7 plus or minus 2 rule.

2. Is your main navigation unambiguous?
Try this – take each of the options in your main navigation and say it out loud alongside each of the other options. Do you get confused at all? Do any of the words mean something similar? If they do, think about how you may be able to rename one to make it clearer. Chances are, if it’s ambiguous for you, your users are totally confused. The navigation below is a good example of an unambiguous navigation since each choice is really distinct.

3. Is your main navigation representative of your entire site?
Identify the key goals that users would have when they visit your site. Maybe they want to learn about your organization, read the latest news about you, take action on an issue, or make a donation. Whatever those key goals are, make sure your navigation provides clear ways for users to access each of those goals. There are two types of navigation below, both from the same site, that provide options that are representative of an entire site. This particular schema uses an informational, or topical navigation along with an action-oriented navigation to provide a wide array of choices.

4. Does your navigation pass the navigation stress test?
The navigation stress test is all about seeing if your navigation does its job of getting users around the site. Your navigation should tell users where they at any point, where they’ve been and where they can go. This test provides an easy way for you to check and see if your navigation is successful in doing these things. You can read all about the navigation stress test here. (Thanks to Keith Instone for the link) The navigation schema below shows how you can provide visual cues to users about where they are on your site through your navigation. First, you’ll see the breadcrumb navigation that many sites offer as a way to see the path the user has taken on the site. Then, you’ll see the left navigation from the same site that also highlights the section and page the user is on.

Asking yourself these 4 questions is a good starting point to getting your navigation in strong, working order, but remember that it’s also important to get feedback from your users when making changes to your site too. It can be as simple as sitting down and having conversations with a few of them or as complex as running a card sort test or a usability process test. Let me know in the comments how you’ve made changes to your navigation over time and what successes you’ve seen as a result.