What is intuitive navigation in web design? Have you ever grabbed a door handle and yanked on it, only to be jarringly stopped short in your tracks when it didn’t open? You pull again, but just rattling. Then you push, the door swings open, you resent the misleading handle, and you hope nobody witnessed the scene.
When you effortlessly glide through a doorway, walk down clear hallways with signs directing you, and easily get where you want to go, navigation is working well. You don’t think about it. You just go.
But what about when you practically smack into a door that doesn’t open as expected? Then you enter, take a few steps, and find multiple corridors with no helpful signage pointing the way. You mull over the options and pick a direction. Down the hall, you end up having to step over and around a bunch of painting supplies strewn about from renovations.
When you have to stop to think, to maneuver, to figure out what to do next, navigation isn’t working well. It becomes a chore and an annoyance. Intuitive navigation is invisible. It guides you without ever being noticed.
Intuitive Navigation in Web Design
If, in the above scenario, you’re in a medical building trying to get to your specialist’s office, you keep at it until you find the right place. You don’t have much choice.
But what if you’re shopping around online for an accountant in Orlando? You’re on a website and can’t easily find any of the information you’re looking for. Luckily, there are plenty of other options, and it only takes a few clicks to check them out. And you never think of that first website again.
User-Friendly Navigation Prevents Bounces
When you quickly leave that website, you’re what’s known in the web design and digital marketing industries as a “bounce.” Bounce rate is a key metric showing how effective a site is. There are lots of reasons for a high bounce rate; irrelevance to what users thought they would find, a spammy or otherwise untrustworthy appearance, and confusing navigation are three of the most common.
Once visitors end up on your homepage or a landing page, they want to find something or take some action. If they can proceed without difficulty, they will. The longer they stay on your site, the better the chances that targeted users develop a relationship with your brand and carry out their buyer’s journey through your sales funnel.
Site Navigation Has Two Jobs
Intuitive navigation accomplishes two basic things: It allows users to easily find what they want and also easily avoid what they don’t want. The second part is often overlooked, but it’s equally important.
If a user is doing initial research and only wants to acquire some facts without having to wade through your entire sales pitch, they should be able to do so. If your brand has B2B and B2C sides, neither audience should be subjected to messaging aimed at the other. If you have 247 products for sale in your e-commerce store, it better be simple for each user to find the one they’re looking for without scrolling through all the others.
Fundamentals of Intuitive Site Navigation
The most crucial part of intuitive site navigation is having the website pages visitors expect to see. A homepage, an About page, a Contact page, and others are standard for business sites, as are their names. Users have deep-set expectations about pages and what they contain. Failing to meet these expectations makes navigation complicated and often not worth the effort.
Primary web pages should be easy to browse in a top-level navigation bar that usually runs horizontally near the top of the screen, or sometimes vertically down the side. Again, this is a strongly ingrained expectation, and not one you want to mess with.
Certain options on the main menu may have drop-down menus for more specific pages. This calls for a careful balancing act. Too many options or getting into minutiae and becoming overly specific sends visitors running. It looks overwhelming and requires too much thought. However, too few options, and it’s not easy for people to avoid what they don’t want.
In-text links are another valuable tool for creating simple, user-friendly navigation (notice the link above to an article about which pages a business website should have). Use these links to lead users along a path of related information to easily continue exploring a topic of interest. It’s more convenient than making them remember what else they wanted to find and then go looking for it.
Leading to the Conversion
Intuitive navigation benefits your users, but it should also benefit you. An effective business site moves traffic along a sales funnel that ends at a call to action (typically, there’s more than one funnel and more than one goal). A CTA might be contacting you, liking your Facebook page, buying something, making an appointment or reservation, or something else.
Regardless, intuitive navigation ushers visitors along a relevant path from information to completing an action. “Relevant” is an important part. If navigation takes people seamlessly from information on one topic to a sales pitch for an unrelated service, it’s not intuitive, nor will it accomplish any goals.
As with any other aspect of web design, all it really comes down to is giving people what they want.