Naughty Navigation

Website navigation is a hot-button topic for me. Navigation can be great, but it can really do harm, too. This note will reveal a bit of the “grumpy old man” in me while also projecting some rays of sunshine-y hope. The important thing to understand is that, for most websites, navigation is a tool that helps your audience find what they desire. In some cases, navigation is the tool that fuels success for a company (think about any type of website that sells a product).

Here’s the good part: great website navigation makes everyone happy and helps visitors accomplish something.

Here’s the bad part: too often, website navigation becomes the target of applying cool, nifty, fancy effects that, ultimately, obstruct goals and cause frustration — even anger.

I was reading an article by Jen Cardello of the Nielsen Norman Group called Four Dangerous Navigation Approaches that Can Increase Cognitive Strain. That’s just a brainiac way of saying, “navigation that sucks” and, ultimately, doesn’t help anyone. Reading the article reminded me of (too) many encounters with clients that desire features to fancy-up their website navigation. And reading this article got me to start wondering “why do clients desire something that hurts their business?”

One of my clients has an answer. He builds homes. Big, unique, fancy, expensive custom homes. He has been building since the mid 1970s and knows that people like “shiny stuff”. The shiny stuff triggers positive reactions — emotions — that make folks feel great. Clients are influenced by things they see — other websites — and make them feel excited and desire to be seen as “fancy” and on the cutting edge of cool website design — the “shiny stuff”.

Here’s a bit of truth: the new, cool, cutting edge “shiny stuff” will frequently lead to problems. Think about new technology in automobiles. Those new shiny things usually break very quickly and cost a ton to repair or replace. Think of the same thing for home media — your big screen TV or fancy DVR that time-shifts your favorite shows. When you purchase one of those items with new, cutting-edge “shiny” features they frequently let you down — then cost you even more to repair or replace.

Now relate that scenario to the website that (you hope) fuels success for your business. When you should choose to keep the navigation simple, easy to find and easy to use, you do the opposite — make the navigation all fancy and cute and cool. Y’know what happens next? Website visitors can’t figure it out — they can’t find their way around! Here’s an interesting nugget of fact: most website visitors use a search tool to navigate a website. That means the native navigation is not truly usable.

Why would you do that?

I get that you want your website to be impressive, but to who? Satisfy the needs of your visitors — don’t try to impress your peers. Making your business more successful is truly the way to impress your peers — not the cool navigation in your website.

Keep it simple. Deploy navigation tools that are easy to use, easy to understand and always help the visitor find their way through your website (and back to where they came from). Help them. Be a great tour guide for your visitors — not some puzzle master challenging your visitors to solve a visual riddle to progress through your website.

Ponder this as you climb into an unfamiliar automobile and encounter dashboard controls. Are they easy to figure out? Easy to use? Or do they make you feel stupid?

Don’t make your website visitors feel stupid.