Establishing Context Through Navigation

The most important purpose of navigation structures in a website or an app is allowing users to move around. Links on​ a navigation menu make it possible for a person to go to different parts of the information environment​; they give the user clues on where they can go next. However, these structures also play another important — and often unacknowledged — role: they help establish the right context in the user’s mind. By this, I mean that they help answer the following questions:

  • Where am I?
  • What type of place is this?
  • What can I do here?

These questions are on people’s minds when they come to a new information environment — and navigation can help answer them. The distinctions we establish through the choices in a navigation menu tell us something about the place. Take a look at the following options from a navigation structure; let’s call it structure A:

  • Studio
  • Classes
  • Poses
  • Schedule
  • Search

You may not know what these options refer to, but a picture may be forming in your mind — a picture triggered by this unusual collection of words. Compare that with another structure, let’s call it structure B:

  • Products
  • Services
  • Support
  • About us
  • Search

Whereas structure A may pique your curiosity, I bet you don’t find structure B surprising: you’ve likely encountered it in many other information environments. “Products” and “Services” are generic terms; they could refer to anything. Structure B could work for healthcare or financial services or a myriad other fields. Structure A, on the other hand, is much more specific: that particular collection of words is likely to occur only in a few areas.

A new user encountering structure​ A must imagine him or herself in a particular context for these choices to make sense. This takes some cognitive effort. The labels in structure B, on the other hand, are familiar — clichéd, even. This can be useful: The user doesn’t need to know how the place is different in order to predict what s/he’ll find in each area of the environment.

On the flip side, the more generic labels in structure B sacrifice something important: the opportunity to quickly put the person in the right mindset to make skillful use of the place. Structure B trades off specificity for familiarity; “services” hints at a much broader range of possibilities than “classes.” This tradeoff influences people’s ability to understand the place. It also affects the positioning of the environment in search engines, since there are many more information environments offering “services” than “poses.”

One of the potential downsides of using domain-specific labels is that the more specific labels can be obscure, so you risk alienating visitors who don’t yet understand the subject matter domain. I see this most often with navigation structures that use proprietary labels (e.g., brand names.) If the proprietary name is relatively new, users may not know what it refers to. So these structures work best when the proprietary names are well known. For example, consider the following options:

  • Office
  • Windows
  • Surface
  • Xbox
  • Deals
  • Support

You may have already guessed that this is from Microsoft.com’s primary navigation bar. Here the (otherwise) generic words “office,” “windows,” and “surface” refer not to the everyday concepts bearing those names, but to well-known brands. This set of labels depends almost entirely on their context — which they reinforce. If this site wasn’t related to Microsoft somehow, we’d be wondering why we’re seeing this particular collection of concepts.

The set of labels we present in navigation structures help people move around. But they also frame the experience. They put the user of the environment in a particular mindset. For example, imagine you stumble unto a website that offers the following options:

  • Banking and Cards
  • Loans and Credit
  • Investment and Retirement
  • Wealth Management
  • Rewards and Benefits

I don’t need to show you anything else — not even the website’s name — for you to know that you’re now in some kind of financial services environment. Just looking at the words would lead you to conclude this is most likely a bank. And if you’ve had experience with online banks in the past — a safe bet for many users — you’ll have expectations about what you can find and do in each of the areas of the environment. For example, you’d expect such a place to have a way for you to log in to see your own accounts and to transact with the organization, since that’s a feature offered by most bank’s websites. If your structure doesn’t allow users to do this, they’ll be wondering why.

When establishing a new navigation structure — especially its top-level options — you should strive to have the set of choices create and reinforce the right context. Ask yourself: Are the options understandable? Are they particular to this information environment? Do they help the environment stand out? Or are they generic? Are we establishing the right degree of familiarity for this environment? Are we sacrificing understandability for expedience? Getting the balance right requires a clear understanding of the people will be using their environment — especially the degree to which they already understand the subject matter and the organization’s role — and lots of testing.