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Five Steps to UX-Proof Your Website: Part 5 Sitemap and Navigation

We’ve all been to websites with triple dropdown navigation menus, extensive lists of blue hyperlinks in a sidebar, and overcrowded headers full of items. We’ve all left a lot of those websites, too. Clear and thoughtful navigation promotes lead generation, customer conversions, and SEO. Bad navigation confuses and overwhelms your users, and increases your bounce rate. The sad part is, most companies have unknowingly adopted bad navigation habits on their websites in an attempt to list all of the user’s options at once.

The best main menu on a website is 3 things: descriptive, concise, and purposefully arranged. Better yet, it’s complemented by secondary forms of navigation that are so well placed that the user rarely needs to consult the main menu. That’s when you know you’ve truly mastered the user experience of your website.

This is the final chapter in our series on UX Proofing your website. Let’s build on top of all the hard work you’ve put into defining your purpose, creating personas, streamlining your user journey, and sculpting your information architecture.

You must unlearn what you have learned.

Before we talk about how to master your site navigation, let’s talk about a two common issues that plague the web.

Stop using your main menu as a crutch to hold every single one of your pages. Navigation is not just your main menu at the top of the page—your main menu is simply one (glorified) component that is available to the user. When you understand this, you no longer feel the need to overwhelm your user with a crowded nav bar and dropdowns that extend to the earth’s core. Make full use of secondary navigation to supplement the user flow.

Second, users don’t like dropdowns. They’re annoying and overwhelming. Use them sparingly when you can make a case for why the included pages are necessary for the user journey, and make sure the dropdown is designed for usability. If your site is one of the cases that really needs a lot of dropdowns (for example, NIKE) use a well-ordered mega menu. These are much less frustrating to operate and can enhance a search-heavy user experience.

Use {Your Words} Luke

Think of your main menu as the extra heading that appears on every page. This is prime real estate for being as specific as possible about the content your website offers and what makes you stand out. Don’t waste this space. Try to use navigation labels that are both true to your content and specific to your website. It’s easier than you think, and you can keep it to two words at the most while still being informative. Instead of Services try Digital Services or maybe Tutoring. Instead of Shop try listing what you sell, such as Apparel. No matter what page your visitor enters on, they will see these descriptive links and get a sense for what your website is about.

Descriptive link text improves your website usability and boosts SEO. When a user clicks on a well worded link or menu item they aren’t guessing where it’s going to bring them. Accurate and descriptive links minimize your bounce rate since users are able to confidently complete their journey. Apply this to the links in every area of your website.

Google is watching your link text, too. Google bots “crawl” your links to better understand your site content and architecture. They pay specific attention to the pages that you’ve placed at the top of your hierarchy. The more you can tell these bots, the better they are able to serve your content to people who are Googling what you offer.

Google penalizes game-players, so don’t go around trying to hide descriptive link text everywhere to pump up your SEO juice. The bots read minds.

When nine hundred {links} you reach, look as good you will not.

Your main navigation menu should only contain 5-7 items, at most. If you are making full use of landing pages, sidebars, and text links, you shouldn’t feel the need to list every single page in your main menu. If you do, your user will ignore it anyway. Us humans aren’t good at taking in too many choices (hello, every single person in line at Starbucks), so it’s a waste to overload your user with everything you offer all at once. Options walk a fine line between meeting a need and becoming a distraction. Every time you take an item out of your navigation you increase your ability to serve your user with a tailored user journey.

Many businesses overcrowd their nav bars because they haven’t taken the time to write good web-ready copy that creates a funnel. Your content is the most undervalued navigation tool on your website. Thoughtfully written and arranged content takes users on a more effective and memorable journey than a menu full of options ever could, and negates the need to overcrowd your nav bar. Be mindful of the user journey and brand experience you want to lead your site visitors through, and carefully choose navigation options that enter them into the funnel.

{Purpose} you must have, my young padawan

Our brains are better at remembering things at the beginning and end of lists, so place your most important pages accordingly. The order of your navigation items matter. Make your first nav option the one that is the most critical for new users (for example, your services), and make the last one another important item, such as contact, or your primary call to action.

Supplement your main menu with secondary forms of navigation, such as breadcrumbs and footer menus. Breadcrumbs are an effective, yet undervalued way to help users orient themselves. These are the “You Are Here” maps on websites that allow users to easily see the page above where they are in the hierarchy. You can also add a utility menu and a footer menu with supplemental pages (for some businesses this may be items like Employment or FAQs.) Don’t leave your users guessing what pages are most important—show them.

Summary

Know your users, and serve them a navigation that makes sense for their goals on your website. Navigation is often mistaken as a buffet that tries to cater to everyone. Chances are though, someone looking for a mall pretzel and someone looking for an aged ribeye aren’t showing up at the same buffet. Your menu options should stay in their lane and make sense for the specific group of users you are serving.

Navigation decisions start all the way back when you determine your business purpose and your user need. Limit the number of items in your main menu, arrange them thoughtfully, label them distinctly and clearly, and use them as a bridge between compelling groups of content. Experience-driven navigation is the name of the game.

Don’t just help people navigate to new pages—take them on a journey, give them a brand experience, and create something special.

If this is something you’d like help with, consider a Resound UX workshop.