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Planning your website navigation for visitors - not departments

Planning your website navigation for visitors - not departments

Luke Holderness   Posted: 04 February 2013

The beginning of the year has seen us start working with three more large associations with an all too common problem. In some ways it’s a problem of success, as associations develop and create more and more great content the neat areas of the website designed for it become overgrown and the once ordered lines get blurred.

Warning signs of poor navigation

Here are some of the classic indications that your website navigation needs reorganising:

- You receive hundreds of phone calls from members asking for documents and information that is already on the website.
- Use of internal website search (Monitoring what people search for can help indicate hard to find content)
- High bounce rate / low page views (Analytics can tell you the number of people that left a page without looking at a second)
- Staff members asking for you to email documents that are already available on the website
- You say out loud "where was that page?".. a lot

Please feel free to add any i've missed to the comment section below :)

Common website navigation mistakes

Confusing labeling

Terms bandied around your company daily may mean something very specific to you. Sadly it can't be expected of a first time visitor to read your mind or tell the difference between news, announcements and bulletins. Try to keep navigation labels understandable, in line with industry convention and jargon free.

Lets just add another section

Too many sections means a website's navigation can quickly become complicated and difficult to use. It’s a good aim to not exceed 7 or 8 sections in your primary navigation. Drop down navigation and mega drop downs can help users see what's in each section at a glance but again try not to overloads these either. So the next time you hear "lets add another section" it should set alarm bells ringing.

Department silos

You have your events team in one room creating conferences and events, your policy team working on documents and your news team hard at work on the latest articles and it all goes directly into their own section of the site. The problem with this is that the average website user is probably more interested in content based on what’s new since they last visited, their job role, their own interests, specialisms, region or a particular difficulty or problem they need a solution for.   Adding additional ways to find content such as audience navigation, popular/latest pages panels, a good site search and showing related content are top ways to help break content out of the large dark departmental silos and share it around the site.

Navigation planning

It’s easy to joke and criticise but how do you manage to get 25,000 or 250,000 web pages into a easy to use, ordered navigation. There is no easy answer, It all comes down to planning and testing.

Card sorting

A good process to help when organising the primary and secondary navigation structure is card sorting. Card sorting is a manual process where participants write out key pages of the sites on to little pieces of cards. The cards are then grouped by the participants by what they think belong together and give them an overall name which they think clearly describes the contents which become the section name. Remember to try and keep organising until you get them into manageable piles of 7 or 8.

Who should participate? Several small groups or teams of staff, members and target audiences are all good candidates to help test the process. There is a very good online tool call Websort which we use, that allows you to to set up the cards and ask people to arrange them online. This means the link can then be emailed to a section of members and users and the results are all organised into an easy to process chart.

User testing

Once you have conducted the card sorting exercises and agreed a new structure of the navigation it is a good time to test it out. Another great tool we use from the same company is Plainframe. You start by setting up the proposed new navigation is an easy to use menu builder. The next step is to create a range of informational goals or tasks which users to the site will be looking to do. You can use your organisational goals and personas information to help guide these.

Some example tasks may be:

- Join the membership organisation online
- Find out when the next event is taking place
- Find directions to the company HQ
- Rent a conference room 

Individuals can then be given individual tasks via a link to see if the navigation structure is easily understood and efficient to use. The data you get back is very powerful, each task is graded on number of click to find the content, time taken and where it had a successful outcome. You can even watch a video of each interaction with the menu - which can be fascinating!

The results give you complete confidence that something is working correctly or requires more work. At this stage it is easy to change navigation labels and terms to see if it improves the usability also.

If you think you navigation is not doing your website justice, try the above processes and start to see where it all could be going wrong.

Here are some good navigations sites for inspiration:


Obviously! It has huge amounts of content in an easy to digest form.  The BBC main navigation is present across all sites, news, sport, iPlayer, weather etc. Once you are inside a section of interest such as sport or news, you may find that you will rarely use the typical navigation menus and more likely pivot from story to story in a natural way of related and popular panels.


A site we have worked on recently for The Leadership Foundation makes good use of an audience based navigation, The ‘I’m looking for tab’ allows users to identify their requirements for example if they are looking for something for themselves or their University, the page then is tailored by displaying relevant news, events, consultancy and publications.


(Mobile view - just grab you browser and resize to be the size of a mobile phone screen, the website will change automatically).  Mobile navigation is a large topic in itself, but after research it was decided that visitors to west thames college website via mobile would benefit from a reduced navigation of simply ‘courses’ and ‘Find us’. There is also a more tab that still gives users access to the remaining sections of the site but they just have less prominence.

Please feel free to share any websites you particularly love or hate the navigation of in the comments below, and let us know how you get on with your navigation restructuring!

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