Designing Site Navigation. Introduction | WebReference

Designing Site Navigation. Introduction

[Dmitry's Design Lab]
Dmitry Kirsanov's monthly column
May 1997
Designing Site Navigation
Even with the best possible design of any single page, your site will fail to attract visitors if not equipped with a neat, consistent, and intuitive navigational interface.  This article addresses the main issues designers confront when building effective navigation tools.

On every page of your site, you must provide clear and unambiguous answers to the two basic questions your visitors will ask themselves, "Where I am?" and "Where do I go from here?".  I wouldn't say, though, that this should be given priority over the niceties of design (as you may expect me to), simply because thoughtful and professional design is highly unlikely to hinder navigating the site.

The principal vehicle for travelling around a site is a set of buttons commonly grouped on each page into a navigation bar or navigation panel.  This article is mainly concerned with different aspects, both functional and artistic, of designing navigation panels.  Rather than theorize about what makes a good or bad navigation panel, we'll deduce the main do's and dont's from real-world examples.

You shouldn't be surprised to learn that the home page of a site is primarily responsible for the impression your visitors get about the entire design---its importance far exceeds that of any of the subpages.  The same applies to the navigation system of a site: If you manage to persuade your first-time visitors to make one step down from the home page, the chances of them getting involved with the content and wishing to explore your site thoroughly become much higher.

That's why we'll start by examining in depth the main navigation panels on the home pages of two hardware companies, Sun and Digital, which present a very instructive contrast in their approaches.  Then, we'll cover features of their subpages' navigation machinery, and finally, discuss some miscellaneous navigation issues.

Note: Since the article was written, both Sun and Digital redesigned their sites and navigational interfaces, making them quite different from what than they were looking like in May 1997. However, since the article uses these sites only as a starting point to arrive at some general---and still relevant---conclusions, I decided to keep the text unchanged. When reading, refer to the large screenshot illustrations to see the old design of these sites.


Created: May 23, 1997
Revised: May 26, 1997