Navigation structures hint at how designers want us to understand our role in the environment. For example, the primary structure of a bank’s website may look like this:

  • Banking products

  • Lending products

  • Credit cards

  • Investment products

  • Access to your accounts (“Log In”)

This is a common structure for bank websites. This typical structural “bank” configuration has evolved over many years of testing. Many banks use such a structure because this scheme has proven to work well for many people.

We take structures like these for granted for bank websites. But it’s important to recognize that they’re not a mandated default. This website’s designers had many options when it came to structuring the environment. For example, they could’ve chosen to a structure based on the size or type of their target customers:

  • Products for individuals

  • Products for small and medium businesses

  • Products for large corporations

Up until a few years ago, some banks were still organized like this at the top level. Today, many have re-organized around a product based structure.

These structures have an important impact on how we experience the environment. The product-based navigation structure sends a very different message than the audience-based one. A person using the audience-based navigation will try to locate herself within the available choices; this sets the tone for the interactions to follow.

It’s not that one structure is better than the other — they’re different. The key is finding the one that best matches the users’ mental model: what the environment does, how it works, and what their expected degree of agency is within it.