5 Steps to Optimize Website Navigation

Organizations have much to gain by applying the principles of design to the user experience (UX). When properly implemented, a cohesive UX design can improve nearly every customer-oriented performance metric — from lead generation to sales and returning customer loyalty.

The reason behind this is simple. Organizations that keep their customers’ feelings in mind are able to arrange information and interactions in ways that augment those feelings. When your website solves customers’ problems and makes them feel good doing it, it generates more value than a purely functional solution could.

Great UX design needs to be consistent to produce these positive feelings. Every customer-facing element of your organization has to point towards a cohesive set of values. This is the founding principle of excellent UX design, and it explains why seemingly small issues like website navigation can have major effects down the line.


Website Navigation As Part of the User Experience

When coming up with the main value drivers for a business, it can be tempting to focus entirely on what you want people to know (like why your products are so good) and what you want customers to do (like click on the big, friendly-looking “Buy Now” button). But without a great UX design approach, you can’t help users with how they achieve either of those things.

Website navigation plays a critical role in UX design. If your website is confusing, or your brand comes off as unsympathetic, you will lose buyers who would otherwise become customers.

Users tend to have specific (and largely subconscious) expectations regarding website navigation. If you address those expectations in your website navigation system, you’ll improve the overall results of users’ interactions with your brand:


1. Limit Choices and Menu Selections

Too much freedom is not always a good thing. The more choices you force users to make, the greater the degree of decision fatigue that can eventually set in. For this reason, having more than seven or eight menu selections is a bad idea.

Of course, there are exceptions, such as highly trust-sensitive experiences, where users are willing to put more time into determining the value of different options by themselves. However, getting them to that point typically requires guiding them there first.


2. Use Clickable Links and Limit Drop-Down Menus

Drop-down menus feel appropriate on desktop devices with large screens. On mobile devices, however, they quickly crowd the visual field and often get in the way of other website elements — a single mistaken tap can lead the user to give up, close their browser, and get on with their day.

The key here, like with so many other elements of UX design for navigation, is balance. Website visitors will value the ability to link from one part of the site to another, easily, and may not need to access the same page from a drop-down menu.


3. Design for Web Accessibility

Very few commercial websites meet the stringent accessibility guidelines stipulated by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While the ADA obliges websites to offer accessible navigation alternatives to users, no hard-and-fast guidelines are available to web developers, and there is a nearly limitless set of potential disabilities that might make accessible navigation options necessary.

In short, while you can’t predict and serve every potential accessibility need, there are certain things you can do. For instance, you can implement visual and audio alternatives and make sure you have alt text available for every clickable image. Every small step counts.


4. Don’t Hide Your Website’s Search Bar

For most websites, the search bar is the most commonly used home page element. People are used to using search bars and are more likely to resort to yours than remember the specific set of menus and sub-categories that led to the page they looked at last time they visited.

The best location to place your search box is at the top of your home page sidebar, or in the header area. This has become a standard expectation of the majority of web users. There aren’t many other options for using that area in a way that would be more useful for users than a highly visible (and functional) search bar.


5. Never Force Users to Use the Browser’s “Back” Button

Sometimes users browse an e-commerce site and then wish to return to the home page. Can a user easily do that without resorting to their browser’s back button? If not, you should always have a navigation guide available for each page, showing users where they are and how they can get home with a single click.

If you let users use their browser’s back button, they may accidentally back out of your website entirely. Not all of them will expend the effort to come back — especially mobile users.


Keep UX at the Core of Your Design Decisions

Websites, users, brands, and products are all dynamic things, subject to the flux of changing expectations, cultural attitudes, and social norms. Few, if any, of today’s principles of design can be expected to last indefinitely. Design remains a fluid subject, and designers must continue improving their approach to the craft and looking for opportunities to simplify user interactions to guarantee success.