How Can Navigation Transform A Website’s Usability? (Part 3)

The final part of this article on user-friendly website navigation looks at the last 3 principles of simple and effective website designing.

Establish Clear and Identifiable Trails

As a website user, the last thing you want to do is find yourself on a webpage when you aren’t clear either where you are, or how you get away. Website designers have to give information/feedback to users constantly, telling them where they are and providing options for where to go next. It might be a strange analogy, but website design can in many ways be likened to orienteering. If you leave visual and textual clues for users, then they are always comfortable because they know they can find their way back to the point of entry into the website.

website navigation

There are several relatively simple ways for web designers to provide this functionality:

  • Use the ‘orienteering’ method, also known as ‘breadcrumbs’, and leave a trail so that users know exactly where they are at any precise moment in time, and how to return to where they started.
  • Match the hyperlink text to the destination page’s heading, so everything is abundantly clear.
  • Create URLs that specifically relate to the users’ actual location on the website.
  • Consider changing the colour, size or style of the current active hyperlink.
  • Possibly change the colour of hyperlinks that have already been visited, so that users know the pages they’ve already been to.

Flash Navigation

Yes I know Flash can look very pretty and can produce stunning and memorable images, but it can be a real pain in website design. First of all, not everyone has a computer that can handle flash images, and the lucky ones that do, often get a little irritated by the amount of time it takes to load images: here are only so many cups of tea one can make in a day.

If designers do persist with using Flash navigation, then it’s wise to also provide some textual context: in other words a small amount of text in a visible location. Users who don’t have Flash-compatible browsers will at least be able to tell where they are.

Site Maps

Every website should be designed to incorporate an HTML site map as a navigational tool for its visitors. The site map can be in the form of a table or a simple index, and should list all the relevant hyperlinks on the website in a clear and organised fashion. If there are secondary hyperlinks, then these should be included in the index too, but they should ideally be indented so that they can be differentiated from the primary hyperlinks. The same applies to tertiary hyperlinks.

The anchor text for hyperlinks needs to be slightly longer and more descriptive than the text for the main navigational hyperlinks, so that users know what they’ll find by its description before they click on the hyperlink. It’s important for two reasons: firstly users don’t like clicking on links that clearly don’t deliver what they either promised or hinted at, and secondly, there’s a strong possibility that some of the web pages listed in the site map may well cover similar topics, so textual differentiation is crucial.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to website navigation than just these 6 simple rules, but they are as good a starting point as any.

Website usability is also dependent on many other factors like accessibility, home page and general page layout, headings, links and lists. They are all important and will be covered in more depth in future articles.

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