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Navigating Navigation

When planning your new  website, one of the first things to determine is what items belong in your main navigation.  This at first seems simple, but can often be a very tricky question.  More often than not, when prototyping a site, we’ll start with only a few main nav items, but by the end of the process, the client has asked for a staggering list of pages to have a home in the site’s main menu.  A typical rule of thumb for the number of navigation items is to not have more than seven items, but this can vary slightly.

Your main navigation items are like your big green highway signs.  They need to be able to be quickly read and understood as you go flying by them at 70mph.  The user also needs to know what they will find if they take that road.  A highway sign doesn’t just say “I-40 East,” it will also typically say that if you take this road, you will go towards Raleigh and Wilmington.  Your navigation items need to do the same.

Unfortunately, you don’t have the same amount of real estate as those giant highway signs, so you need to be brief.  For example, if I am a company named The Mary Poppins Corp. and I produce a product named “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” then I probably don’t want to list that as a main navigation item, even if it is my main product.  However, I want to make it easy to find, so I will probably place it under a “products” tab, or maybe even a “Super-Products” menu item.

Another common navigation mistake is cross-listing pages under different menu items.  While a page such as “documentation” could live under your “resources” menu item, you can also make a point to place it under “products.”  But it is usually a bad idea to have the same items listed twice because one will redirect a user to a section of the site they did not know they were entering.

A good thing to consider when laying out the navigation is to make sure that the sections are balanced.  If you have one menu item that has 15 pages and 2 different levels in the dropdown and another item that only has two pages, then maybe you need to re-think how you are categorizing things and consider a little re-organization.

However, no matter how you are organizing the site, there is one rule that I always keep in mind.  The 3-click rule.  If a user lands on my site and can’t get to any other page within three clicks, then I have issues with my information architecture.  A user is not going to stick around taking all kinds of twists and turns to get to the content they are looking for. If a user isn’t there in three clicks, then their next click is likely to be off of your site.

When planning out your information architecture, be direct and put the user first.  Make sure your site has clear road signs and trail markers.  Keeping this in mind throughout the prototyping phase, you will be well on your way to a successful web development process.

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