Developing and organizing your website content can be a daunting task. Depending on how large your site is, it can take a lot of preparation to pull all of your content together. Once you do that, you need to figure out on which page(s) all the content will reside. This is where your navigation comes into play.
Each link on your navigation bar leads the visitor into a new area of your website. This is a great opportunity to help guide the visitor to each area with ease and simplicity. If your navigation is clean and organized, it will make for an enjoyable and informative user experience for all your visitors.
In this process, there are at least 8 “best practices” to follow to ensure that the user experience is optimal and efficient:
Each button/link should have a short name… preferably one word. If you are directing people to the “The Philosophy Behind our Work” page, the navigation button can simply say “Philosophy”. That pretty much says it all. Clear. Straight to the point. Understood. If you have the whole page name in the navigation button, you will either run out of room or you will lose the attention of the visitor.
If you have many pages (more than 7 or 8), it may be best to organize them by category and have drop down menus. The cleaner the navigation, the easier people will be able to find what they are looking for. If you have 15 navigation buttons AND they each have drop downs, the site will become much more challenging for the visitor. The “less is more” concept is always a good one to follow.
3. Drop Downs (or Multi-Level Drop Downs)
If you have or intend to use sub-menus in your drop downs, try not to use too many sub-levels unless you absolutely can not do so. If someone has to rollover 4 buttons and find themselves 5 levels deep into your navigation, chances are their mouse will slip and everything will disappear. Then they have to navigate all the way back into that maze again to find what they are looking for. It may be better to just create a new category in your navigation bar to keep things simpler.
Navigation should be somewhat interactive. If you rollover the button, the visitor expects something to happen. Something that will indicate that it is in fact a button and if clicked, something else will happen. If you rollover a link and nothing happens, then it may not get clicked. This means the page may not be seen, read or visited. Always assume that a visitor has no idea what YOU are thinking or wanting. Remember to design with your visitor in mind.
Navigation does not have to be super fancy-schmancy. You do not need to have flashing stars, sounds, clicks or dancing bears that appear when a button is hovered or clicked. This does nothing more than create a “wow, that was really annoying” reaction in the visitor's mind. A simple state change (i.e.: change of color, size, text decoration or background color) is all that is necessary. These effects add a little flair to your design without interfering with the overall experience or the site's aesthetic.
Website navigation is inherently expected to be in 1 of three places on your website: Top, Left Sidebar, or Right Sidebar (as many blogs do). As wild a concept as it may seem, some folks like to hide their navigation somewhere else on the page because they think it makes the site more interesting. Unfortunately, this leads to a frustrated visitor who can't seem to find the information they need, and ultimately leaves – never to return. This is a HUGE missed opportunity.
Your navigation buttons should stand out from the rest of the content on your pages. If your navigation utilizes text that is the same size as the rest of the text on your site, it may get lost (visually) and the visitor may not see it. Of course, if your text is dressed with a background color or shape, that will help, but the navigation should always stand out. Making things easier for the visitor is always a good decision.
My philosophy: You should be able to get to any page in the site from any page in the site. The user should never have to click the “back” button to navigate. If your navigation is clearly posted, it will be obvious to the user that they can (and should) use the buttons to explore. Of course, many people are used to clicking “back” but that is usually because they want to go back to their Google search results or to the last website they were on. Once you get people in your site, keep them there with a clean architecture.