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By Tom Brodley

Providing good navigation in website design

Website navigation is a priority in web design. What good is great content if users can't find it? Navigation is the process of accessing different pages, or page sections, of a website through a web browser. A website navigation scheme should maximize usability.

There are a variety of ways to accomplish this, such as text links, buttons or images, drop-down menus, or menu bars. The choice of which one to use often comes down to aligning with the site's overall theme and appearance, as well as efficient use of space.

Vertical navigation
In this style, links are organized in a column down either the left or right side of the page. The fact is, most people are right-handed, and English users read from left to right, so having the choices on the left may seem more obtrusive and less intuitive.

Having too many buttons or links can get overwhelming for a user, but vertical navigation does allow for more links than you can realistically squeeze into visible page width. With a standard mouse, however, users can easily scroll up and down a vertical menu, whereas a horizontal one restricts their mouse movements. Having too many vertical links, especially if they are graphical or in elaborate fonts rather than plain text, can slow down page load and limit your content.

Horizontal navigation
This is normally in the form of a menu bar spanning the page width. Older screens required the user to scroll across over-wide pages. Most users don't like having to use the standard scroll bar at the bottom of their browser. For horizontal menus that don't fit the page, options may include drop-down menus or more than one row of links. Touch screens and mobile devices are more forgiving because they let users easily zoom or scroll with the flick of a finger.

Horizontal navigation usually takes up less space than vertical navigation. And it loads relatively quickly if it doesn't include drop-down menus. Another drawback of drop-down menus is that they can easily become too complex.

Why navigation is so important
Good website design is about enriching the user experience. Overly-complex navigation makes the user feel a little lost. Navigation also lets us focus the user's attention. Too many choices and too much information tend to distract the user from the real purpose — to buy our products.

Don't start by obscuring your own banners or headers. Use horizontal menu bars across the top of the page allowing users to jump to key parts of the site. Your main page, or landing page, is the most important. Once the user finds the page they want, then provide additional links to let them explore further if they choose. Use vertical menus where it won't squeeze page content unnaturally.

A clean, professional, well-ordered feel is what you want. Provide a prominent menu that takes users to the key parts of your site and leave it at that. From there, you can worry about letting them explore further. Good navigation means keeping it simple.

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