Support users' need for alternate navigation

People are often using alternative means to get around your web site. Your main navigation is not the only means they use. Popular features like Site Map, Top Links, A-Z Index, Search, and language selection offer an alternative. We discuss some upsides and downsides we see in usability testing.

  1. Site map
    Upside – People expect the site map to be organized the way the site is, so the site map provides them more description of the site structure and main menus.
    Downside – If the site structure and main menus do not make sense to the user, neither will the site map! Plus, the links on a site map give an overall view of the site, yet users really just want an overall view of important things they can do. People get frustrated when the site map is not chunked into lists of links that are easy to scan and quick to grasp.
  2. Top links or Quick links
    Upside – Sometimes users look for a list of links that take them directly to key information. Users can be very efficient at common tasks when links to frequently-visited pages are based on user input, web statistics, or call centre data. Frequent visitors get used to them.
    Downside – People don’t easily scan long lists of un-organized links, and they pay special attention to the top and last links in the list. Sometimes quick links are so well-used they keep users from getting comfortable with navigational menus, so they do not know how to navigate to related information.
  3. A-Z Index 
    Upside – An A-Z Index is a helpful alternative where users share a common vocabulary, or scientific language, or naming convention. They expect it to be a list of links without much descriptive text, and expect it to be long, but to have clickable letters to skip to that part of the alphabetized list.
    Downside – People get frustrated when they cannot find a common word, or when they have to guess a few times at where in the list to look. They also get frustrated when many index items begin with the same word – like “Canadian this” and “Canadian that” – it forces users to scan longer. If the task takes them too long they leave the A-Z Index. See our articles on how to put meaningful words first in links, and how to make lists easier to scan.
  4. Search
    Upside – Search is the big alternative for people. They can use their own words in finding content directly. In search results they see ranked links, alternative spellings, search terms in context, HTML as an alternative to native-format .DOC, PDF, etc., and options to filter or sort.
    Downside – Often users are not as happy with site-search performance, and defer to an off-site search engine like Google. Also, no Search will help users get around the site once they are deep in content. Good navigation is still needed to drill down, move upward, and see related content.
  5. Language selection
    Upside – If your website has a button on each page to switch from French to English, Chinese-English, etc., it will be used as an alternative way to navigate. A website that supports more than one language is a great tool. Users appreciate the way it helps them browse in their own language as well as learn the words to use when conversing in the other language.
    Downside – Users expect menus to be in the same order, and buttons to be in the same position. If they switch back and forth, they are comparing the menus or buttons quickly. Sometimes they are looking for the meaning, or a word to use in conversation. However, alphabetic menus change order in the other language, and users click to the wrong content, assume wrongly what words mean, or get lost.
  6. Directories
    Upside – People appreciate ways to find contact information. It may be the single most-frequent task on your website, especially for intranets. It has tangible benefits, getting customers directly to the right person, taking the directory-assistance load off call centre agents, and making people more efficient. Frequent visitors to your website also appreciate a directory that allows them to browse by organizational function or topic.
    Downside – Directories can produce very long pages, or lists that are difficult to scan. Though many directories are searchable, rarely does a directory-search box appear in overall site navigation. Sometimes a phone directory cannot be searched by topic. When contact information exists on several web pages, it is often not cross-linked. When someone is looking for information about a person, and gets to content by that person, it rarely links to that person’s department, organizational chart, or related output from that person. People get frustrated when a web page offers an out-of-date phone number.

Support alternative navigation in your information architecture. Put links to alternate navigation in a common place so users can compare which alternative suits them. When users are looking for alternate navigation, they don’t want to scan all over the page. Another implicit alternative to navigational menus are links in content. Construct links with the top user tasks in mind. Once users get deep into content, make sure your authors offer navigational links with words that really matter to users.

Contact us for an expert evaluation of your alternative navigation.

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