The process of developing a website is always an exercise in finding a balance between pursuing creative ideas and adhering to convention. The best websites — the ones that satisfy your needs and provoke your curiosity — land somewhere in the middle. The worst can be found at either extreme.
Each part of a website-to-be is subject to this balancing act. Do we do what everyone else does, or do we try something new? Marketers will try to answer this question using careful research and trend analysis, but research and trend analysis have led many well-intentioned projects astray.
Good data and so-called “best practices,” when interpreted incorrectly, can lead to negative outcomes. In this post, we’ll consider the ways in which data-driven decision making and usability concerns meet head to head in the design of website navigation systems.
What is Navigation?
In the context of a website, navigation describes the system which allows users to get from one part of a site to another; it includes universally recognizable elements such as search bars, top-level menu items, and dropdown lists. Nielsen Norman Group, leaders in usability research, state that:
“The primary goal of navigation is to help users find information and functionality, and encourage them to take desirable actions.”
What these definitions may fail to communicate, however, is the sacred nature of navigation systems. These systems have remained relatively unchanged since the early days of the internet, and have informed our fundamental web-browsing behaviors. Their standardization allows us to visit a website for the first time and immediately know how to get around — even if the content on that site is completely foreign.
As Morville and Rosenfeld write in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Navigation systems provide “a sense of context and comfort as we explore new places.”
There’s a big difference between a Ferrari 458 and a Volkswagen Bus, but a competent driver could probably figure out how to operate either. That’s because steering and transmission controls are relatively universal. When you begin departing from these fundamental conventions, you end up with high interaction costs and negative user experiences.
The Saab Prometheus is a perfect example of good research leading to bad outcomes. Based on the very real data that steering wheels cause injuries in auto accidents, Saab engineers decided to forego the steering wheel altogether, replacing it with an airplane-esque joystick. This concept car was notoriously difficult to drive and never made it to production.
We’re not suggesting that website navigation conventions should never be challenged — only that extra care must be taken when considering breaking from traditional navigation systems, even if the idea is based on good data.
Here are three marketing best practices which can lead to bad navigation design and reduced usability when interpreted incorrectly:
Best Practice #1: Website content should be driven primarily
by an understanding of buyer personas.
At Salted Stone, we start most engagements by working to develop a clear, well-documented image of our client’s buyer personas. It’s well-understood that having a deep understanding of these personas enables more targeted marketing and sales efforts and improves business outcomes.
The website development process is no exception. Buyer personas should be top-of-mind when developing a website’s information architecture, and should inform all of the content that eventually makes it onto the finished site — after all, we’re operating under the assumption that these personas represent the bulk of our intended audience.
This mindset leads some organizations to pursue the idea of persona-specific navigation. Bucknell University is one example. They opted out of a traditional navigation structure, instead creating an “I’m looking for…” menu filled with points along their buyer's’ journey.
Unfortunately, this kind of navigation is likely to alienate users and decrease the availability of information. According to Nielsen Norman, “forcing people to self-identify creates an additional step and takes people out of their task mindset.” In addition, users will often feel anxious that the information they’re seeing on their persona-specific page is incomplete, and may be afraid of missing out on important content.
In addition, it’s important to remember that buyer personas are representative, not comprehensive. Bucknell University probably identified their buyer personas as students, parents, and alumni. However, there are various other groups who might be interested in learning more about the school, like high school teachers or guidance counselors. Because they don’t fit in with the persona-based navigation, these outlying visitors are left without a starting point.
Best Practice #2: Video is the most engaging form of content and
should be a point of focus for online marketing.
Users absolutely love video, and the statistics that back up this claim are staggering. For example, four times as many users would rather watch a video about a product than read about it, and just including the word “video” in an email subject line can increase click-through rates by 65%.
This much is clear: Video is a great way to increase time-on-page, deliver information about your business in an engaging way, and promote social sharing and organic growth.
However, often these facts are misinterpreted to mean that users are specifically seeking out video when they come to a website; unless that site is called YouTube or Netflix, this probably isn’t the case. As a result, when developing navigation, project leaders may decide to include a section called “videos.”
This is an example of format-based navigation, something many web usability experts strongly recommend against. The issue with this navigation style is that, with rare exceptions, users aren’t coming to your site to seek out specific types of content. Instead, they’re seeking out answers to specific questions.
In other words, resources separated into categories like “Videos” “Ebooks” and “Blog Posts” are far less useful than resources separated in categories like “Starting an Online Business” or “Understanding Regulations.”
Best Practice #3: Creating branded terminology is good for SEO.
The basic principle behind search engine optimization is that your business is in competition with countless others to rank on the first page of search results for certain terms — a ranking that’s based on how authoritative the search engine determines your site is. The most straightforward strategy for getting to the top is generating large quantities of high-quality content — however, this is expensive and difficult.
Another way to go about SEO is to target more specific keywords, and one of the best ways to do this is to invent branded terms and target those instead of their generic alternatives. For example, HubSpot doesn’t appear until page 3 when you google “online marketing,” but they’re #1 for “inbound marketing,” a branded term they coined and then disseminated.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to come up with branded terms for your products and services, so that as they increase in popularity, they don’t get drowned out by competitors with similarly titled offerings.
The one place where this concept does not apply, however, is top-level navigation (despite what some bloggers would have you believe).
Remember: the primary goal of navigation is to help users find what they need.
SEO is an important consideration, but if it keeps navigation from accomplishing its primary function, then it’s going to be detrimental to the user experience.
Take a look at the navigation on Airtable's website:
By using the words “Blocks” (a branded term for a feature of their platform) and “Universe” (their name for their resources database), they’ve increased new visitors’ interaction costs. A visitor may not be able to find what they’re looking for immediately, and instead have to click blindly into unknown pages hoping that the desired information will be there. Airtable’s decision may be working for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you.
Going back to the automotive example from above, it’s perfectly acceptable to call the way your car drives “SKYACTIV-VEHICLE DYNAMICS with G-Vectoring Control,” but if it doesn’t say “D” on the gearbox, then drivers are going to have a bad time.
As Nielsen Norman puts it, “Navigation should not be like a box of chocolates: people must know what they are going to get before they bite.” So, before you give your users a big mouthful of almond praline when they really wanted nougat, consider the long history of standardized navigation systems and the high costs of breaking from these conventions.
Talk to the agency that knows which best practices are made to be broken. Drop us a line.