Why Web Site Navigation Should be Boring

Managing the design of your Web site should be an opportunity for you to be creative.  A Web design project is a blank canvas where expressing creativity, differentiation, and ingenuity is the norm.  Whether it’s imagery, content, or dynamic integration with social networks, emphasis creativity and the notion of being interesting.  One exception to that thinking, however, is your Web site’s navigation structure.  This is an area where you simply don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

While your Web site should be an imaginative, engaging “place,” it should be easy to get around.  Your Web site should not expect users to “figure out” how to find things or lead them astray.  On the contrary, it should do the opposite.  As Web site usability expert Steve Krug puts it, “don’t make me think.”

The items in your site’s navigation are precious and should be scrutinized as much (if not more) than the color scheme or imagery selection of your site’s layout.  Why?  Because they are passively relied upon by users to make decisions on your Web site in much the same way that we all rely upon signs like ‘Baggage Claim’ and ‘Ground Transportation’ in an airport.  In much the same way that airports don’t get “creative” and use ‘Grab Your Gear’ and ‘Get Rolling’ to spice up their signage, your Web site’s navigation should duplicate many of the same conventions that other Web sites use.

You should have a really good reason to not use common navigation items like:

Sure, there are alternatives and industry-specific considerations.  If you’re designing a site for an architecture firm, you might want to use a navigation item like ‘Our Work’ or ‘Portfolio.’  If your site is for a restaurant, you will certainly have items for ‘Our Menu’ or ‘Hours of Operation.’  You will also notice that hotel/motel Web sites will often have a main navigation tab for ‘Accommodations’ where you can easily view room types.  And as users move from hotel site to hotel site, they passively “train themselves” to look for that navigation choice.  But it is advisable to stick to the basics and norms on even these selections.

The problem with getting creative with (or not paying attention to) navigation items is that “creative” choices for naming your navigation items can mislead and distract users by either their lack of clarity or ambiguity.  For example, a navigation item that uses a main navigation tab like “Media” is too ambiguous for a user to understand; the term ‘media’ might refer to either downloadable media or information for the news media.

It is important to note that it is a good idea to be creative in terms of roll-overs and can be a good idea to associate icons with your navigation items.  As a client once told us, the male and female symbols in an airport are awfully helpful when looking for the proper restroom!  But users have gotten accustomed to finding (and expecting to find) certain pieces of information under certain tabs.  Getting creative simply for the sake of getting creative can really harm your user’s experience.  And nobody wants that!