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Navigation, as crucial as it is to the user experience, is merely a means to an end — the end being to consume content. This is why users have very contrasting expectations about content and navigation. While content is supposed to be unique, surprising and exciting, navigating to it is supposed to be as simple and predictable as possible.

Four Steps To The Ideal Navigation System

This series of articles, divided into two parts, is a four-step guide to efficiently simplifying the navigation experience, by analyzing the type and amount of content as well as choosing and carefully designing the right type of navigation menu.

To build a usable navigation system, a website designer has to answer four questions, in this particular order:

  1. How do I best structure the content?
  2. How do I best explain the navigational choices?
  3. Which type of navigation menu is best suited to accommodate the choices?
  4. How do I best design the navigation menu?

The first two questions concern the structuring and labeling of content, which is often referred to as information architecture. Information architects typically visualize the results of their efforts in a site map diagram.

Structuring The Content

To properly structure the content of a website, first consider how users look for information, and then structure the content in a way that best aligns with those preferences.

HOW USERS LOOK FOR INFORMATION

When a user is looking for something — be it a car, recipe, financial service, item of clothing, news article, fitness exercise, entertainment video or any other item or piece of information — they may or may not know the exact name of what they’re looking for. If we assume that users will always know the exact name of what they’re looking for, then we could argue that the best way to take them there would be to provide them with a large A-to-Z index or simply have them type in a search field.
Of course, things are not that simple. As will be explained in more detail in part two, even if users always knew the exact name of what they’re looking for, both an A-to-Z index and search have inherent interaction problems that make them inadequate as the primary or sole means of navigation. Moreover, users often do not know the exact name or do not even care about the item or its name; rather, they have a keyword or feature related to what they’re looking for.
The first step to safely guiding users to the right content, then, is to aggregate and categorize the types of items on the website.