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.

  • http://www.WestchesterMarketingCafe.com Jann Mirchandani

    Great article! We often fall into the trap of “knowing what we know” and working off our intrinsic knowledge of our business. It’s important to taking a step back to think about what are visitors know and don’t know about us; and getting them to the information they are looking for quickly and easily.nnBuilding of your analogy; think about your drive to a place you go all the time. Now think about how you would direct someone who’s never been there. You need to think about those directions in a new way.

  • https://www.newfangled.com/chris_creech Chris

    Jann – That is a great analogy and really does tie right in with what we’re talking about. You have to see your site as if you are looking at it for the first time, which can be very difficult when we’re on our site everyday. nnDuring our prototyping phase, we go through several rounds of internal usability reviews to get other people in the office to look at the site and discuss the general user experience, including the organization and phrasing of the navigation structure.


By Chris Creech

I'm the senior member of Newfangled's newest department. We've been building websites for over 20 years, and as we continue to build conversion-focused websites that are driven by a strong content strategy, we have identified …

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