We all know how horribly disorientating getting lost can be. Okay, getting stuck out in the middle of some desolate terrain, minus a map and compass, may not be a regular occurrence in the lives of most. However, in our online lives we are all too frequently left in the wilderness – crying out for directions like some demented tourist trapped in an Escher print.

Finding your way around some websites is like tackling a Rubik’s cube; accept you can’t cheat by peeling the coloured squares off and swapping them around. A badly designed website quite literally maroons the user, leaving them with no choice but to click the ubiquitous back button right into next week. Alternatively, the user can restart the whole process by hitting ‘home’, yet it is far more likely that they will just simply leave your site to the circling vultures.

To achieve a navigation system which is clear and intuitive for users you must first produce a well-designed site structure. Start by considering what you want your visitors to see when they grace your home page, and what action(s) you want them to perform. By prioritising your site’s content concisely you won’t overload the user with less important information. Remember, people are more likely to hang around a toxic waste dump than a confusing website.

Having clarified your central message you should then construct your site navigation, and this navigation should logically pre-empt the likely actions of your visitors. The main navigational menu should of course be highly visible, however it is easy to neglect sub menus, and it is within these deeper levels that users often lose their bearings. Sub menus are often displayed with ‘dropdowns’, which appear when the user rolls their mouse over a main menu item. For example, ‘about us’ could be a top level menu item which contains a sub menu link to ‘employee profiles’.

Of course, not everyone has the technical skill to create a dropdown menu, and it isn’t always easy (or possible) to insert a new link into the main menu. This is because main menu links are often represented by tightly arranged graphics, such as buttons. One simple way to ensure that your site navigation doesn’t suffer is to include a ‘breadcrumb trail’ at the top of the relevant pages. A breadcrumb trail is a series of text links which can sit near the main menu. This allows users to trace their previous steps back with the click of a mouse.

Web usability issues can be complex, and entire businesses are built around Human Computer Interaction (HCI). But there’s no reason that any site should lack good navigation, essentially you just need to think like your users. Even if your business is too small to warrant market research it isn’t too hard to gather a group of friends and family round and ask them to attempt a set of tasks on your site.

Don’t get involved, just make the tea, stand back and impartially observe their actions and outcomes. This will help you assess how effective your site navigation really is, so it’s best to do this prior to creating your functional website by using paper. This way you won’t have to sweat over later changes to your website – no love lost!

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