“I want the website to tell people about our company.”
If you’ve heard statements like this from your company’s executives (C-suite) and stakeholders, you’re not alone. It’s easy for the teams who run your company or brand to have their eye on what makes your organization great.
As you approach a new navigation experience for your website or mobile app, you’ll eventually start feeling repetitive when you tell your C-suite: It’s not about them, it’s about everyone else.
Unfortunately, they don’t live and breathe user experience and user flow diagraming like you and your fellow marketing colleagues. Because of that, navigation, content, and even design of the website can feel a little organization-centric rather than focused on the journey of bringing target audiences to the products, services, or information they really need.
Why Navigation Matters to Users
”Navigation is not a murder mystery,” writes user experience expert Gerry McGovern. “A great link tells you what it is, and just as importantly, tells you what it is not.”
While site search has value to many users, navigation reigns supreme. According to Nielsen Norman Group, search only works when certain expectations are met. Meanwhile, when placed and designed appropriately for target audiences, navigation is immediately available and sets the tone for what type of content a user can expect to find.
McGovern and his team did usability research on site search versus site navigation in 2010 and found that 70 percent of participants relied on navigation over search. Studies since, have found that site search users are just more comfortable using it that way; but by-and-large, first-time visitors trust a well structured IA.
It’s easy, when your C-suite is involved, to not only get information architecture (IA) items that don’t make sense to external audiences (e.g. anyone outside of your company) but also, it can be easy to overload your navigation with too many items as well. In their world — and rightly so — everything about your organization and brand is important to share.
Types of Navigation
As a web expert, you may already be aware of the types of navigation on the web today and depending on which ones you use, it could have a specific effect on your user experience (UX).
They include things such as:
- Task-based navigation most often relies on on active verbs to spur conversion, such as ‘register now,’ or ‘sign-up today.’
- Audience navigation segments visitors into specific groups and provides navigation based on their persona. Audience-based navigation is not often recommended by the likes of the Nielsen Norman Group, but may have a place if you are trying to reach many audiences at once.
- Icon-based navigation is exactly what it sounds like, relying on small imagery to convey navigation elements or destinations on the site. If you’re considering this format, be sure to keep accessibility and clarity in mind.
- Drop-down navigation lets developers group content under drop-down menus of many sizes, functions, and abilities (Learn how to strategize your drop-down navigation from Slickplan).
- Hamburger navigation groups all navigation under a “hamburger” icon that’s found its most familiar home on mobile devices.
- Horizontal navigation is the most popular design approach to navigation as it remains a constant for users throughout the site.
Main, Secondary, and Footer Navigation
Main, or primary navigation, is the navigation you see that runs along the top of a desktop site. It’s usually going to rely on the most powerful words to grab you, and it should. If done correctly, it shouldn’t be organization-focused, such as About Us, Our Mission, Our Leadership, etc., despite what your C-suite might think.
Your secondary navigation (which usually runs in close proximity to your main navigation, but often with deprioritized font size or color), and footer navigation (which runs along the bottom of your site) should be available across every page of your site, regardless of where a user enters. This acts as a compass for your user to travel the site forward and backward with ease.
However, before you decide what your main, secondary, or footer navigation will be, you have to start with discovery. This will be vital as you work with your C-suite toward a common goal of a better user experience.
Get to know the primary and secondary navigation elements in more detail from Smashing Magazine.
Preparing to Retool Your Site Navigation
Maybe it was a dip in traffic that tipped you and your team off to navigation struggles. Maybe it was an influx of calls to your customer service line, with users unsure of how to find what they need on the site. Maybe your Google Analytics shows an uptick in site search reliance from your visitors.
No matter what drew your team to decide a new navigation was in order, to put the right parts in motion and get your C-suite in on the ground floor without their organization-centric recommendations, consider starting with Google Analytics, competitors, stakeholder feedback, and your direct consumer experience first.
If you aren’t already tapping into your Google Analytics data to understand your users, you’re missing a great opportunity. Google Analytics can be a great introduction into how your users are relying on your website navigation to get around, and if you’re battling your C-suite and executive interference with navigation, it can help prove your reasoning for taking your IA in a user-first direction.
Site search queries, for example, are a helpful place to see what topics users are seeking that they can’t seem to find easily in the IA or sitemap. You can also get an idea of the page paths including bouncing, start-overs, and exit pages. Check out this article about how to use Google Analytics to understand user paths.
If you’re trying to stay competitive in your market, you should be keeping a finger on the pulse of your competitors — their websites, apps, print ads, and marketing approach. The same should be said for their user experience online, especially when it comes to content and site navigation.
Getting an idea of how your competitors route users through the site with a helpful, intuitive navigation can be vital to making needed improvements to your own. Also, don’t forget to share what you find with your stakeholders and C-suite to help them get on board with your recommendations. Read these additional tips for conducting a thorough competitive analysis, which can also help guide design changes.
Opinions are like belly buttons: Everyone has one, and your stakeholders do, too. Getting your stakeholders and C-suite in on the ground floor of your navigation discovery can help you understand what’s important to them. This also puts the ball in your court for controlling the impact of the new navigation and aligning benchmarking and expectations post launch.
It also leaves room to hear about priorities that may come from your stakeholders that – while not suitable in the primary navigation – may have a home elsewhere for easy access to secondary or tertiary audiences. Browse Slickplan’s tips on how to talk to your stakeholders and have a meaningful conversation with your C-suite.
Direct User Feedback
Whether you conduct a card sorting exercise or you just get in front of your users with a focus group, getting feedback directly from people who use your site — your consumers — is invaluable information for improvement.
This gives you the chance to ask things like:
- What drives them to your product, service, or brand?
- How do they find you (or your competitors) today?
- What turns them off in a web experience?
- What’s difficult or enjoyable about your current site?
Want to conduct a focus group? Check out these tips from the Interaction Design Foundation for hosting one. And like everything else in your discovery, share these experiences with your C-suite to continue shaping your navigation improvements in your favor.
Build Your IA and Sitemap
After you’ve gotten all the information you can about your users, it’s time to build your information architecture and sitemap. Slickplan’s Sitemap Builder is a great place to start. With an easy drag-and-drop format, you can build your entire main navigation as well as the subpages you need for structuring the best UX possible.
Start With an Inventory & Audit
Before you tackle improving your navigation and sitemap, start with what you have:
- Run a content inventory of what you have on your site for content pages today. Slickplan has some great tools and tips from its suite of features that can help.
- Audit what you have. Consider the ROT (redundant, outdated, and trivial) approach to evaluating your content and deciding its future.
- Create a plan for what needs to be migrated, improved, or developed. It’s important to do a gap analysis, too, of what content you don’t have that you’ll need in the future.
- Talk to stakeholders and your team about any content on the site that’s important to them to set expectations if that content will be changed or removed.
- Consider what content links to each other for building strong internal crosslinks, which can be effective for search engine ranking and for user experience.
Build an IA For Users First
From your discovery process and your content inventory, build an IA that makes sense to your end user first. If you’re selling products and price structures, label them separately and clearly in your navigation before anything else. If you offer a customer portal or e-newsletter sign-up, make sure both are easily accessible throughout the site, whether in a secondary navigation or footer.
Information that’s less important to your users, including your company’s history and board of directors, get lower priority on your site, often in your footer or under an ‘About Us’ type section. This doesn’t mean this information isn’t important — it most certainly is! — but it’s not top-of-mind conversion opportunity for your ideal visitor.
Test, Launch, and Share Your Navigation Results
Online tools such as treejack testing, let you set user scenarios that can prove (or disprove) your assumptions for users to complete their goals on your site. This, again, can be a helpful way to show your C-suite what users are really looking for, and what does or does not translate to the audience you’re hoping to attract.
As you make changes to these navigation items, consider benchmarking your goals for the new IA, such as — What were the previous bounce and exit rates, and where do you hope to see them improve? What were the previous user paths, and where would you like them to go in the future?
Each tip is worth considering internally and reporting up the chain to your C-suite to show the value in your new navigation experience. To make it easy on everyone, build a quarterly touchpoint to share these experiences, changes, and metrics with your C-suite to keep them informed on the site’s changing health.
Written By Erin Schroeder
Erin Schroeder is a senior content strategist and writer at Geonetric, where she helps healthcare brands organize user-first websites, content marketing, and brand messaging. As a former journalist, she never lost her love to write. You'll also see her articles on content strategy and user experience around the web, including UX Collective, UX Booth, and Prototypr.