How to Design Good Website Navigation
No matter how good an artist you are, designing a navigation scheme is not an artistic endeavour. It should be cold, functional and so simple and intuitive that your visitors never realize that it is an integral component of your website. In fact, a good website navigation scheme will probably never elicit a compliment from a visitor. ("Hey, I just visited your website, the navigation was great"). A bad scheme will. ("I tried visiting your site but I could not find anything so I left")
You cannot design a decent website without first designing the navigation system that your visitors will use to find their way around. A website's navigation scheme is the 'human' component upon which it will work or fail.
I first became involved in computer graphics and animation as a post-graduate architecture student. I was taught that the first thing an Architect does when designing a new building is to create a "balloon design". This is a very rough sketch that shows the relationship between the various functional areas of a building and how people move and relate to those areas. A website design should start in exactly the same way.
Before worrying about the appearance, nifty graphics or promotional text on your site, you should first consider what the most important functional areas are that you wish your visitors to experience. Draw rough balloons on a piece of paper to represent these functions and then draw lines between them to represent how people are going to move between them. Should it be a direct path or do you want them to pass through another functional area first? Move the balloons around until you have each main function sensibly positioned with efficient paths between them.
Another University I am familiar with did not put any paths between the buildings at its new campus when it was first built. Instead they left grass between them for the first year or two. Then they built the paths wherever the grass was worn out by foot traffic. Although you cannot avoid creating links when you create your site, you should be aware of where your visitors wish to go and ensure that they can quickly and easily be able to do so. Use a good stats analysis program to find out. Once you know where your visitors are going, you can improve your navigation by placing links at appropriate places.
Graphics can add a lot to a web page but text usually generates more links. Whenever you write about any topic, product or service on another web page, include a link within the text. Don't expect the reader to look for it. If your graphic links are not absolutely clear, add text so that your visitors don't need to guess where they go.
Once your visitor has figured out your navigation scheme, don't change it. Repeat the same navigation on each page. Use the same text in the same color at the same location. As I said before, this is really not the place to express your artistic skills.
Finally, a visitor will have a hard time knowing where to go if they don't know where they are. Clearly identify each page in a fashion that your visitor can quickly locate and identify. This can be in the form of a large page title or a small tag. The key is to make it obvious and consistent from page to page.
I am a great believer in artistic expression. The Internet has provided more people with the opportunity to express their artistic skills through Web Page design than anything else I can think of short of designing costumes for a carnival. No matter how elaborate a carnival costume is, it must still be able to stay on the wearer (I think). Other aspects of a web page can be as elaborate as you like but the navigation is the simple component that will make it work.
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