Are Your Navigation Structures Working?

One of the most important elements of a digital product is its navigation structures. By this, I mean the sets of links that allow users to move from one part of the environment to another. This includes global navigation bars, hamburger menus, contextual navigation blocks, etc. At its most basic, a well-designed navigation structure will help your users find the stuff they’re looking without fussing about. They’ll look at the choices before them, pick one, and find themselves faced with the information they’re looking for.

Achieving this best-case scenario is easier said than done; there are many ways to mess up navigation structures. I’ve experienced broken structures in major websites that leave me scratching my head. Often, the problem is that the structure reflects the organization’s conceptual model of its business without considering that the user may bring to the interaction a different mental model. Labels that may be clear to people in the organization can be ambiguous to outsiders.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to gauge​ the effectiveness of navigation structures. For example, studying site log files can reveal patterns of use that reveal navigational gaps. Observing users interacting with the environment (whether in production or using prototypes) is also a very effective way of revealing issues with navigation. Interviewing users is also valuable​ since it can help you understand​ how they see the domain. When examining the outcomes of such studies, you should ask questions such as:

  • Are we offering users the choices they expect?
  • Are choices labeled clearly? (By this I mean that they’re understandable to users.)
  • Are choices clearly distinct from one another? Or are some possibly ambiguous?
  • Are we offering users too much or too little choice?
  • Are choices presented at the right level of granularity for this part of the environment?
  • Is the set of choices helping bridge the user’s mental model of the business domain?

This last question is particularly important to me. Users bring to the interaction expectations of how the domain is organized. These expectations may or may not match reality. Situations in which users come to the experience with a clear, accurate understanding of the domain are relatively easy to deal with. But in some cases, users’ understanding may be off the mark. What then?

Navigation plays an important role not just in helping users move around, but also in educating them on the options available to them. Options in don’t exist in a void; people read them as sets. Users will understand the domain not through individual labels, but through the groups of choices they represent.

Defining these choices, the distinctions​ between them, and the labels that represent them​ is a design act that requires understanding the people who will be using them. In particular, understanding users’ mental models of the domain — and the degree to which those mental models differ from the organization’s conceptual models — is essential for designing navigation structures that work. This calls for research: understanding how folks think about your business’ domain, what they expect from you, and how they talk about those choices.