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In our recent survey about web design we asked many questions about web design and how it affects our opinions of an organization or their products or service.

By far the most important factor in web site design is the feeling that “I can easily find what I’m looking for.” Of all the questions we asked, this had the highest number of respondents—95%—stating it was very important.

95% of people said it's very important to find what they're looking for on a web site

It is essential that the navigation on your web site be easy to use and intuitive.

First impressions are critical

People who cannot find what they are looking for are very quick to leave and you’ve probably lost your prospect for good. Back in 2006 the journal of Behaviour & Information Technology crunched the data and found that you have 50 milliseconds to make a good first impression with your web site. I’ve been unable to find any more recent data about this, but I think it’s hard to argue that first impressions are critical.

Keep your web site content organized

There are several ways that web sites get off track, and become confusing for users.

To begin with, you want to group your navigational items in a way that makes sense to your viewers. It’s a good idea to organize the content of your web site like a big org chart. This is the same thing that a sitemap should reveal for you. All of your content should be arranged by levels, with subpages clearly sitting below landing pages or section-heads that make sense.

Be careful with sticking content outside of the org chart / sitemap. Sometimes, a special event, offering or news items is announced that doesn’t fit into the regular flow of pages, so it gets built like a stand alone landing page. Landing pages typically sit outside of the main navigation and may even have navigational items stripped out of their design. This can be great as part of a marketing campaign but can be very confusing when integrated into a site and visitors cannot find their way out.

Spend some time analyzing your traffic, it may help you understand typical paths through your web site and ensure that key information is easy to find.

As your company changes, so much your web site

Most business web sites start out with a navigation that is well-organized. The problems most commonly arise as the business changes and the navigational buckets no longer makes sense. As your offerings change (and it seems like most businesses are always changing!), make sure you can move around pages or rename pages and sections. If your business grows and changes enough you may need to consider an overhaul to the navigational system.

Effective web design aids navigation

Remember that not everyone enters your web site from your home page. Assume that some visitors didn’t start at the “start” so you need to give clues about where someone is and how they get to other places.

  • There can be design clues, such as highlighting within the navigation what page you are on, rather than having it revert to an “off” state.
  • There can be clues within the URL by making the specific page address show clearly it’s place within the web site. For example: domain.com/about/team
  • Use breadcrumb navigation to show path
  • Be consistent with all these systems
Example of good web navigation
Using multiple design signals helps web visitors understand where they are on your site. (click to enlarge)

Here is an example, from a site we designed: www.swiftmeap.com As you can see, the URL structure, the main and subnavigation menus, and the breadcrumb navigation all consistently reinforce the visitor’s place within the site. It also makes it clear where they could click to go somewhere else.

Sitemaps are not the answer

Good web design navigation doesn't rely on sitemapsMany web sites offer sitemaps to help aid visitors in finding the right information. There is certainly no harm in offering a sitemap (and there is some potential SEO benefits from adding one), but do not force your prospects to use a sitemap. The organization of your web site should be clear enough, that it is unnecessary.

This sentiment was echoed by our web design survey respondents. Compared to many other questions we asked, 33% really don’t care where they are on the web site. Only about one third of respondents found it very important, to know where they are, compared to 98% who felt it very important to find what they are looking for.

It’s a subtle difference: knowing where you are is not critical, finding what you are looking for is!

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