For the most part, website stakeholders (whether it be developers, designers, marketers, or CxOs) don't take website navigation seriously enough. The reason I know this is because I look at A LOT of websites. Rarely do I not spot a significant problem that sticks out quickly upon clicking through the site for a couple minutes (or even a couple seconds).
There may be a number of reasons for this, but it's usually because these people design the navigation based on their perspective about how their information should be organized and labeled, not based on how usable it is. They probably design for business goals, but pay little to no attention to user goals.
While doing this, they likely don't consider all of the important functions that web navigation plays in the user experience on their site.
In the book Designing Web Navigation, James Kalbach talks about 6 ways that navigation systems on a website can make life difficult for users. You should think seriously about if your website may have any of these characteristics. If it does, you should start to take necessary steps to fix it, because it’s surely costing you customers.
Of course navigation is how users access information. But it's ultra-important HOW your site allows them to do it. Do you provide link navigation when your users would find it easier to filter for what they're looking for? Maybe you have products with distinct features that make it easy to narrow choices down to only those that are applicable to the user.
Do you make them search when they'd find it more effective and engaging to browse through your categories and products? After all, maybe they'd do more shopping if they spent time wandering around and seeing everything you have to offer than simply doing a keyword search and landing on one product they're already aware of. In a study by User Interface Engineering, they found:
"...the way you get to target content affects whether you'll continue looking or not...if the users search to locate their target content on the site, only 20% of them continued looking at other content after they found the target content. But if the users used the category links to find their target, 62% continued browsing the site. Users who started with the category links ended up looking at almost 10 times as many non-target content pages as those who started with search."
Many sites simply get this wrong. They make users navigate to the content they want in a way that's much harder than it could be with another navigation model. There's a good chance they'll go somewhere else that makes it easier.
No Location Display
It's been said that every page on your site is a homepage. While not technically true, the point of that statement is that users arrive on your site on all sorts of different pages. They don't just enter through the homepage. When they get there, they immediately begin to familiarize themselves with the site while these questions go through their minds:
- Where am I?
- Where am I at relative to all of the other information?
- How can I get to all the information I want to access?
Good navigation design doesn't leave the user with any of these questions unanswered when they arrive on the site.
Site's "Aboutness" Unclear
Websites in the same industry can be very different. From the amount of information available to what it's labeled, each site is unique. The navigation helps to communicate the answers to these questions that paint a picture of a site's uniqueness:
- What kind of information is here?
- How much information is available to me?
- Is there enough information here to meet my needs?
The site’s ability to answer these questions contributes to the users decision to stay, as well as how much they will interact with it.
Brand Image Not Reflected
The choices you make with your navigation give your users an experience with your brand. From how it's designed, to how options are ordered and labeled, it communicates the image that your brand carries.
If a brand is classy and sophisticated, the navigation probably shouldn't be flashy. On the flip side, if the brand is hip and trendy, their navigation probably shouldn't be simple and classy. You want to make sure your navigation mirrors the image you want users to associate with your brand.
No Apparent Credibility
Trust is huge on the web, where users are interacting with faceless entities. While it's fairly well-known that user trust can be built through things like design look, reviews and testimonials from customers; navigation also plays a big role in establishing trust. Kalbach points out this finding from a Stanford University study:
"...design look was the most important factor influencing web site credibility, and information organization was second. When judging credibility, participants commented on how easy or hard it was to navigate the site and on how well or poorly the information fit together. The results show that easily navigable sites are likely to carry more credibility."
If users have trouble navigating a site, it sends signals to them about the business behind the site. If the user has a hard time navigating your site, what makes you think they will believe their experience will be any better if they do business with you?
Your Website Costs You Sales
When it comes to how a site attracts customers to a business, stakeholders typically first think about traffic. "If we want more customers, we just need more traffic" is a thought that is common. Part of the reason may be because it's so much easier to measure. Theoretically, if you double your traffic, you double your customers (although it almost never works this way).
Or if they think about conversion rate, their minds immediately jump to things like call to action buttons and checkout funnels. These are also easier to measure. While these are great places to optimize, the importance of navigation in the customer journey shouldn't be underestimated.
As Kalbach says, "a customer can't buy what they can't find." But let me take this a step further. Even if a customer finds something, they are less likely to buy what they have trouble finding. Every time your site creates question marks about where to click, what something means, where a piece of content is located, etc., it creates frustration in that user.
While you might think little frustrations aren't a big deal, they stack up on each other quickly. Some users will be more tolerant and stay with you longer. Others will bail more quickly.
But when our salesman asks how many sales he needs to get in a given month, he always gets the same answer from us. "All of them, Kevin!" Do you just want sales from really tolerant users? I know you don't! Add to this the fact that support costs increase and users are not likely to come back and use your site, what used to be a boring topic just got a lot more interesting.
Hopefully I've convinced you that web navigation is not a part of your site to treat lightly. To make it work seamlessly for both the business and its users takes research and study. In the end, the design shouldn't leave any question marks in users' heads when they're completing any of the tasks they might come to your website for. If it doesn't, then you can be guaranteed it won't be an obstacle in the way of your business growth.
Have you noticed an increase in conversions after making your site more navigable? Let us know about it in the comments!