You would think that easy navigation would be a part of website design 101 for any program, curricula or book that teaches the art and craft of designing a web site. Of course, you would also think that by the now the National League would have learned that the single most boring thing to watch in American sports is a pitcher flailing away at a fastball. Making your website easy for visitors to navigate may well be the single most important element that is most often overlooked by website designer. Think of how many websites you have visited that looked like it contained incredibly useful information, but that you navigated away from because you simply could not figure out how to get to the information you wanted.
Style over substance is the key application to media today. From the films of Quentin Tarantino (whose style I absolutely love, by the way) to the lineup of reality TV shows, substance not only takes a back seat, but can often be seen in the rearview mirror running hopelessly after the car that has taken off. When it comes to website navigation there is just one important word to remember: utility. And there is one important phrase to remember: utility over style. Website navigation is not about fancy hovering links or photos that change from one image to another. Website navigation is about telling visitors how to get from Point A to Point B. Simple as that.
If you opened a 500 self-contained encyclopedia, you would expect to find simple table of contents that tells you on which page you can find information about the history of silent movies and on which page you can find information about the history of teak wood as outdoor furniture. What would happen if you were to open that book and find the equivalent of the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that contained all the information that the table of contents would offer, but in such a way that you can’t even begin to figure out? You’d probably put that encyclopedia back on the store shelf and look for another encyclopedia. And even if that second offering contained less useful information but was organized in a way where finding the information you wanted was much easier, you’d probably choose to purchase the second alternative.
A website is really just a book. Yes, it can contain movies and sound and interactive experiences, but as far as organization goes, there is almost no difference between a website and a book. You need to offer visitors a recognizable alternative to a table of contents. This does not mean that you can’t offer some options. Web novices and others enjoy website navigation that is nothing more than a list of essential links to guiding their way around your site. More experienced users might enjoy the creativity of a floating their cursor over an image and discovering it is actually a secret passageway to specific information. By giving visitors several different options of navigating their way through your web site, you ensure the potential of making those of different levels of expertise stick around.
It is also important to remember that not every visitor to your website arrives on the front page. A website is different from a book in that you want to make the table of contents available on each and every page. Doing this inside a book is a practical impossibility, but not so much when it comes to websites. Each page should let the visitor know exactly where they are while also providing a reference point to where they want to go.
Another key point is making your website navigation consistent throughout. While you may worry about boring visitors to the point where each section of your page has a different design, you should worry more about confusing visitors. Repetition is far less sinful than losing your website visitor so don’t be afraid of conformity. When a web surfer knows exactly where on the page they need to go to get to your home page, to get back to a previous page, to go to page of links associated with the topic at hand and so on, they culture an environment of comfort. You want your website guests to be comfortable enough that they come back often because you offer what similar sites don’t: utter ease of use.
Conformity is also a good idea when it comes to using navigational conventions. That means offering visitors things like a Contact page, About page, E-mail link, search boxes, FAQ and the like. You should also protect yourself against the vagaries of your own boredom. It can become almost an obsessive disorder to constantly tinker with your web site. Choose a design style and leave it alone. Choose a color scheme and leave it alone. Choose a navigational style and LEAVE IT ALONE.