Imagine the scenario: you need to drive to a city you’ve never been to, say Milton Keynes (since I’ve never been there). You know the M1 takes you pretty close so you set off, safe in the knowledge British roads are well signposted and all major cities can be reached with a bit of concentration.
You drive for a few hours but there are no signs for Milton Keynes, other obscure towns and cities seem to get a mention but not your destination. Eventually you spot a sign for Milton Malsor, that sounds near enough so you turn off as instructed. It turns out Milton Malsor is not connected to Milton Keynes*
So you try to get back on the motorway, except you can’t because you can’t go back the way you came (slip roads quite rightly being one-way) and you’ve no idea where you are.

Sound ridiculous? It is, and yet it’s no more ridiculous than the navigation systems employed by countless websites.

Many businesses (& web designers) build their sites on the assumption that users will happily explore their site until the cows come home. This imagines web users to be the online equivalent of Sunday drivers, just taking it easy spending an afternoon getting from A to just outside A, then maybe head towards B if they feel like it.

But most web users are not Sunday drivers, they are caffeine-fuelled, highly stressed commuters stuck on the busy motorway who want to reach their destination before their last thread of patience evaporates with the exhaust fumes!

Granted some have more patience than others but it’s wise to cater for the ones in a hurry as they think less and buy more!

So, given you need to direct users to their goal asap, here are 5 simple website navigation tips to make things easier:

1. Make it simple

Remove any obstacles that may impede your users reaching their goal. These can include sign-up forms, feedback questionnaires, and intrusive adverts. Don’t try to be too clever with your navigation, people are not impressed if it takes a first class degree to find your contact details.

2. Give some context

Let users know where they are. Many people will arrive at a page that’s not the homepage (due to search engine results pages or links from articles) so it’s imperative you give them some bearings. This can be a breadcrumb menu for larger sites, or simply highlighting active tabs/links. (See the screen-shot below from the Augustine United Church website for an example of both methods.)

Example from Augustine United Church website - www.augustine.org.uk

Example from Augustine United Church website - www.augustine.org.uk

3. Clearly label your links

Take time to think about your menu titles and links. Keep to clear and simple headings and carry these through the site so users are in no doubt where they are and where they are going. This principle also applies to links within the body content (eg. “we sell red roses and carnations”). Note clear labelling can also have SEO benefits if used wisely, so make sure your link text is relevant to the content of the destination page.

4. Organise your content

Clear labelling will be infinitely easier if your content is well organised. Limit your site to a small number of key sections (eg. Products, About, Contact) and then organise your content into these sections. You can then divide this content into sub-sections if necessary. (eg. About > History, Vision, Staff.) Some may see this point as blatantly obvious, yet many sites get their main sections wrong and have to put content in seemingly random categories.

5. Give an overview

If your navigation is doing it’s job users should get along fine without additional help, but there’s no harm providing backup in the form of a site map. A site map is an organised list of links to every page in the website, ideally within the set hierarchy we discussed in point 4. Don’t make users rely on this though; having to go to a seperate page just to find yet another page is a step many users will refuse to take – remember stressed motorway drivers!

Following these simple rules should help you provide clear direction to your users, whether they be impatient communters or curious explorers. After all, even Sunday drivers appreciate directions!

*Milton Keynes is actually just 15 miles down the M1 from Milton Malsor, but without maps or signposts you wouldn’t know that so my point stands!

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