A website's navigation is one of its most important parts. Sure, your users mostly come in through search engines now instead of via your homepage, but how can they get from whatever page they're on to any other page they might want to go to? The limited space available at the top and sides of most web pages (at least when compared to the amount of content many contain) makes good navigation design difficult, but vital. Here, then, are five principles of effective navigation.

1. Don't Be Original.

What? Don't be original? What kind of advice is that? Well, if you spend any time visiting sites on the web, you should realise that it's better advice than it might sound.

Let's say you've just landed at some website for a search. You read a bit, you're interested, but you'd like to know more about what this website is and why it's here – basically, can you trust it? If you're anything like me, you look around for a navigation link called ‘about', ‘about us', or something similar. Calling this link something else – ‘philosophy', for example – will only confuse your visitors, and make them less able to find what they're looking for. However much you might dislike the conventions of the web, you have to accept that we're stuck with them at this point, at least if you want your website to be as usable as it can be.

2. Clicking the Logo Always Goes Home.

As a corollary to the above advice, it is extremely important to make sure that clicking your website's logo will take a visitor back to your home page. I recently visited a website where clicking their logo caused a pop-up window to open, describing the logo. Do they really think that was what I wanted? Why on earth would anyone click on the logo to learn about it? That kind of thing is just bad navigation design.

People treat the logo-home link as a lifeline in the same way that they do the Back button: you break it at your peril.

3. Always Include Search.

Often, visitors can't be bothered to search through your menu systems for what they're looking for, especially if you have a large website. This fact makes it all the more important that you provide a search box right there on the navigation bar. No, not a link that says ‘search' – an actual input box where your visitors can type, with a button next to it labelled ‘Search'.

People have been to enough websites to know what to do with a box like that, to the point where they even get upset if they can't find one. Oh, and make sure that pressing the enter key after typing in the box takes them to the search results page.

4. Highlight on Hover.

When someone is hovering over part of your navigation system, you need to highlight the option they've got selected, so that they know where they are. Every non-web navigation system you've ever used no doubt does this, so there's no reason why websites shouldn't. You don't want your visitors to be guessing what their clicks are about to do – you want them to be absolutely certain.

This principle is even more important in navigation that has more than one level (that is, where you can follow an arrow to get to a sub-menu). You've got to keep both the name of the sub-menu and the selected item on the sub-menu highlighted: if you don't, visitors are likely to forget which sub-menu they selected, or not realise that they accidentally selected the wrong one.

5. Use Breadcrumbs.

Finally, if you have pages nested deeply in a navigation hierarchy, make sure you offer ‘breadcrumbs' to let visitors know where they've come from. For example, a set of breadcrumbs for this article might look like this:

Articles > Web Design > Navigation > The 5 Principles of Effective Navigation

In this case, clicking on ‘Articles', ‘Web Design' or ‘Navigation' would take you to indexes for those categories, containing sub-categories and perhaps more articles. For examples of breadcrumb navigation in action, take a look at the big search directories like dmoz.org and yahoo.com.

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