How to Evaluate a Website: Navigation

Last Updated by Curtis Newbold | The Visual Communication Guy on
This is the third in our three part series on evaluating your website. Missed a previous post? Read now to see how to evaluate your homepage and branding, and your site content.

A lot goes into making a good website, so you want to make sure that whoever visits your site has a good experience. But how do you know if the website you’ve created or use is effective? You can perform your own usability test using the checklist below. This week's topic: Navigation.

Navigation

A Way Home

I always tell my students: don’t let your website feel like IKEA (or a hospital)! When we walk into most buildings, we know where we are in relation to the front door–IKEA and hospitals are the exception. There is nothing more frustrating than feeling lost. If visitors don’t know how to get back to the homepage, they’ll probably just leave. (If only that were a luxury we could have in IKEA–you can’t just leave until you find the door!

Search

If your website is larger than 15 – 20 pages, you really should have a search bar. Research has shown that about 50% of all web users expect a search bar, and go to it almost immediately on any new site they visit. Don’t count out half of your visitors because you don’t have a search bar. Simple, small sites can get away with not having one.

Page Grouping

The way you group your pages is important. If you sell leather gloves, will you put them under “lawn and garden” or “automotive”? Or both? Make sure the way you group your information is consistent with industry norms and customer expectations.

Organization/Visual Hierarchy

Websites should be organized by importance. Is the most important thing the most obvious? Largest? Highest on the page? Is anything important “below the fold”? (Meaning, is it below the bottom of the monitor, where visitors will have to scroll to see it?)

Section Titles (Menu Links)

Sections are the main links on your homepage. The wording of those sections is crucial. Come up with very clear menu link names. Sometimes there is a tendency to be really cute or funny with the section names. But, trust me, people will be annoyed by them the second they realize that they don’t understand where the link will take them.

“You Are Here” Indicators

Visitors need to know, at all times, where they are in the site. If a visitor is on the “Contact Us” page, then the Contact Us link needs to have some visual indicator that that is the page they are on. The page link shouldn’t link (to itself) and it might be a different color or have a little icon next to it. Something. There should be an indicator that the visitor is on that specific page.

Breadcrumbs

Especially for websites that have hundreds (or even thousands of pages), it is crucial that visitors know how to link backwards. Do you ever go to a webpage and say to yourself, “I don’t remember what I clicked to get here, and now I can’t find the page I was on!”? Well, so have your visitors. Don’t let them do it on your website. Give them links that show the path to where they’re at (Home > Lawn & Garden > Tools > Power Tools).

Nesting

Nesting has to do with the way your pages link to each other in an organized path. You have your main menu links, for example, which lead to pages with more links, etc. Often, you’ll use drop-down menus to nest linked pages. It is critical to a strong website that your pages are nested in a way that makes sense to your visitors. People who come to your site need to know exactly the path to follow to get them where they need to go; if pages aren’t carefully nested, your visitors will likely get lost and frustrated.

Pathway Pages

Related to nesting, sites that use drop-down menus should have pathway pages. Pathway pages are pages that are one step away from the homepage (typically link from the main menu) and then provide “pathways” to other sections. If, for example, you are a grocery store, you might have a link from the homepage that says “Deli.” That would link to a pathway page that provides six more categories: cheese, meats, sandwhiches, salads, soups, and party trays. Strong pathway pages tend to use good images that link to the next sections and they make navigation smooth.

Clickability

Clickability refers to whether or not items that are a link appear clickable (and vice versa). Often, visitors will see things (like images or headlines) and assume that they are a link when they really aren’t. Be conscious of what might appear like a link but isn’t and what is a link but doesn’t appear to be. If you want people to click on things, make the links look like links by changing colors, underlining, or directing attention to them.

Meaningful Links (Internal)

Users should know exactly where a link is going to take them, so the words you use to link within your site are critical. Don’t get to funny, cute, or fancy with the terms. A link that says “explore” isn’t really that helpful. “Online Store” would be better.

Meaningful Links (External)

Just like in #24, links that link outside of your site need to use specific words to clarify where the visitor will be sent. When you say “click here for more information,” visitors don’t understand where they will be going. Rather, say something like “visit the Hogle Zoo’s website for more information” to let them know exactly what they are linking to.

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