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Designing Web Navigation by James Kalbach

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Given the many potential roles web navigation plays, you can see that its design requires a mix of skills and levels of understanding. Many factors influence navigation design and, in turn, navigation affects many aspects of the site. Web navigation design can't be done in isolation. When considering a navigation design, ask yourself these fundamental questions:

Why are you building the site?

Though seemingly obvious, this question is overlooked all too often. Or, if it is asked, the answers are unclear or based on the wrong reasons. The first step in navigation design is understanding the purpose and motivation for the web site as a whole, as well as in the broader business context.

Who will use the site?

This is perhaps the most important question to ask. It's also one of the trickiest to answer. User research is the process of systematically investigating the visitors to a given site. It not only gives insight into the types of people visiting your site, but also into their needs and behaviors.

What does the navigation provide access to?

People come to a site to find answers or to perform a task. You must be providing the right content for the site to have value.

How is the site content organized?

Information architecture represents the underlying structures that give shape and meaning to the content and functionality on your site. It also has a major and direct impact on the navigation. As the designer, you must understand the content and how it is organized.

How will users navigate to the content they need?

Page layout and graphic design give the navigation its final form. This is more than just cosmetic window dressing, however. Aspects such as the order of options, their arrangement on the page, the font type and size used, and color, can be critical elements. They can make or break the navigation system.

Make no mistake: navigation is problematic, particularly on larger web sites. It's one of the thorniest parts of web design. Providing access to web pages on information-rich sites is remarkably complex. Web navigation design is ultimately a craft—a mix of art and science, intuition and facts, form and function.


Most web projects have a prevailing design perspective. Often this is implicit. It may not be written or spoken, but it's there. Understanding design perspectives can be important in creating a common team understanding and for guiding design decisions. Some of the many potential approaches to design are:

User-centered design

A user-centered design process places people at the center of attention while developing a product or service. It consists of methodologies that make the user an integral part of the development process, with activities such as interviews, observations, and various types of testing. This replaces guess-work and assumptions about user behavior with research. In the end, the overall design of the site should mirror how users understand the subject matter and how they expect to find information.

By carefully considering the actual context of use before a product hits the market, user-centered design potentially increases adoption rates and lowers learning curves. In this sense, user-centered design seeks to reduce the risk of product failure. User-centered design is not easy, however, and many point to the extra time and costs that user research adds to development. The benefits are not short term and pay off in the end.

Designer-centered design

From this perspective, the designer—in the broadest sense of the word—knows what's best. Decisions are made from a personal view of the world. The creative growth of the designer is valued, and her interests are highly valued. A type of free exploration may be encouraged, and there may be a need to make a statement through the final design. The designer-centered design approach can resemble perspectives found in art to some degree; personal expression is important.

This approach might be successful for smaller, design-focused enterprises and be able to produce successful sites. Creative teams also find this approach enjoyable and rewarding. However, such designer-centered design is also self-indulgent, and business goals may be overshadowed by personal interests. The designer-centered approach quickly becomes unsuccessful for sites that deal with vast amounts of information or complex interactions.

Enterprise-centered design

This is an all-too-common perspective. The web site is designed around the structure and needs of the stakeholder's company or organization. The main categories of a site, for instance, may reflect the departments of an enterprise. Also included in the perspective is the need to please the boss. Success may be measured by how well the key stakeholders react to the final product, perhaps even on a personal level.

This perspective may increase the efficiency for site maintenance later on: each department is responsible for only its own slice of the site. But it generally runs the risk of users becoming confused, getting lost, or going somewhere else.

Content-centered design

This is similar to enterprise-centered design, but an existing body of information is the basis for structuring navigation. For instance, you might organize content by document format rather than subject: all text pages in one place, all PDFs in another, images in another, and so forth.

You can easily argue that it's hard to provide access to something you don't have. In this sense, the content-centered design approach is only natural and to some degree constantly present. However, the amount and type of content available shouldn't be the only force determining navigation priorities.

Technology-centered design

This perspective also prevails on many web projects. Technology is the driving force here. Design might be determined by the easiest way to implement a solution. The focus is on implementation and reaching a final product.

This may also be cost effective and efficient. It may help meet a project deadline. But you run the risk that people won't be able to use or understand the final web site. In the long run, technology-centered design is generally counterproductive to project and business goals.

This book advocates a user-centered design perspective. This implies a holistic approach. It assumes that you—the web navigation designer—should consider a wide range of user behaviors. It requires you to actively validate assumptions about users' behavior by seeking various means of contact with them.

Note that user-centered design does not mean "do what users tell us to do," nor "ignore other project constraints." Of course, business goals and technology are important. Of course, the intuition of the navigation designer plays a vital role. But user-centered design methods can inform a designer's intuition, or better reach business goals in the long run. It's a question of the starting point and focus of the project. User-centered design mandates that the user experience is the primary goal: all other perspectives are secondary.

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