Navigation is for losers!


Is a complex navigation really what you want?The game is changing and there’s a major shift happening in the way we design websites. I’ve been in endless meetings with heated discussions over website or intranet navigation and information architecture. Should the navigation be aligned following departmental structures, product lines or copied from the competitors?

Once the navigation has been decided, the actual implementation often turns out to be complex and expensive. Subsequently, online analytics has unfortunately shown that the navigation is not being used as intended and user research has proved that the actual wording is misunderstood.

Enter: Search

Today, search has matured into the primary mode of navigation for an increased number of users. Not just the digital natives. Users, whether internal or external, quickly scan the site and then don’t bother decoding what’s behind your navigation. Instead, they often simply go to the search field or give up.

Another trend that is rapidly eroding the value of navigation is the continued enormous popularity of Google, which have also changed the game and significantly raised user expectations. Now, users quickly look for search if they cannot find what they are looking for on your site and expect relevant results after entering two keywords. This means that most users no longer enter your website or intranet via the front page, but land directly on a page somewhere deep inside your site. When they land directly on the page they need, they are not going to bother with your navigation.

Yet another trend that says goodbye to your navigation is the explosion in mobile access. Tablets or smartphones simply don’t have enough screen real estate to show your 7 or so different navigational items. If you recognize that mobile visitors, just like laptop users and any other users, really go to your site to solve a specific task, then the entire purpose of your navigation changes.

As you think about how this impacts your web presences, remember that most websites and intranet today offer really poor search options. This may be partly due to technology issues, but content quality also plays a big role (think: garbage in, garbage out). If you are not yet ready to substantially rethink your navigation, then make your users happy by at least improving search.

Learn more about user experience and making search work

As always, you are also welcome to continue the conversation below.

12 thoughts on “Navigation is for losers!”

  1. I couldn’t disagree more that search is “overtaking” browsing on websites, or even on mobile. For many clients I’ve worked with, searchers accounted for less than 20% of visitors. For them, searching is a symptom of a inadequate navigational structure. Searching vs. browsing is often a context or personality thing: programmers and info specialists love using search for everything, but a lot of other people only use search as a last resort after they’ve tried the navigation or the content links. Known-item visits also tend to generate more searches, like trying to find a specific product, but if you have nothing specific in mind, navigation is still your friend.

    I’m an info specialist, and I hate using website search – because it generally sucks. They don’t have basic search features like synonyms, stemming, etc. Even when I go to the J.Boye site to find out when I’m presenting at the conference (smile) I go to your homepage and browse to the calendar, etc. It’s a style thing.

    On mobile, the tiny touch keyboard or the atrocious in-phone spelling corrector can be blockers, so I think a lot of mobile users just use whatever 3 or 4 options they are presented with and navigate away. Good mobile navigation just needs to be even more concise and intuitive – it’s a design challenge that shouldn’t be ignored under a false assumption that people are just going to search.

  2. is a cucumber a fruit or a vegetable?
    The answer is: this depends on the context. How should I know the context of the user?
    Let’s take a simple example: a site about games. Try to build a navigation for this site. You will lose!!!
    Fully agree with Janus.
    And btw stemming, synonyms, acronyms, order by relevance, keyword extraction (automatically tagging), recommendations, relations etc. are in 2011 no rocket science anymore. It have only to be offered to the users.

  3. For Intranets, Search can be a great navigation tool.

    From my analytics data, I see that while only 25% of my users leverage search, those who do search are finding relevant content and clicking through to it.

    In order to decrease navigational frustration (and encourage search), there are no sub-menus on our Intranet’s homepage, only 6 menu icons. Only once entering one of these areas, a user may be presented with sub-menus in a sub-navigation area. Finally, we have leveraged a fat-footer to essentially put a top-level sitemap on the footer for lines of business and back office groups.

    This approach, combined with encouraging users to leverage search in training, has helped to increase search adoption. I am starting to receive feedback when there are find-ability issues from key content owners and executives, which shows me that search is growing.

    Finally, agreed that mobility and complex navigation are like oil and water. Your navigation should be clearly defined, touch-friendly, task-based buttons customized based on the user’s persona. This goes for public and Intranet sites.

  4. Not so easy to explain it in a comment, but a good search is a navigation and a good navigation is a search.
    Level 1 -> search concepts
    Level 2 -> search dimensions (facettes, contexts) of this concept
    Level 3 -> search categories for the contexts
    Level 4 -> search and find the entities
    In my research I didn’t found a domain were this isn’t working. The challenge is the taxonomy and a usability concept for the specific domains. The user will input a word or phrase und should be directed to the regarding content.
    In analytics I always see that the bouncerate is increasing more and more. I guess that users are less and less willing to browse sites to find what they are looking for in 2011.

  5. Thanks for the great comments. I feel honoured to have such insightful comments by UX experts.

    People are going to either search or simply give up, if they don’t easily find what they are looking for on your site.

    10 years ago you could argue that users were looking at a browser on either a laptop or PC and saying to themselves: Don’t make me think. This is a neutral, albeit lazy, approach to meeting expectations.

    Today, so many devices are in play and it is no longer about not thinking. The expectations and expertise have gone up, so users feel like losers if they absolutely have to resort to using the navigation. This is no longer neutral, but a negative feeling that users will leave your site with.

  6. I have to disagree. Sure, search is *somewhat* important, but navigation is what gets 80 to 90% of users where they need to get. Just imagine if you couldn’t easily find your folders e.g. in Gmail or would be lost where to click next when shopping on Amazon.

    Also, the title of this article is highly offending as I am a strong beleiver – and consumer – of navigation and you just basically called me a “loser”. Not the best impression from the head of such a respected brand.

  7. Search is important, certainly, but I also disagree that it replaces a good navigation system — especially on an intranet. Instead, search augments the navigation. Instead of a single path to a resource or app, you’ve got to have multiple points of entry so everyone can find what they’re looking for in the manner that makes sense to them. Search is one way, navigation is another, a promo or link list on your home page may be another, and so on.

    We’ve found that our employees generally use search to find a specific piece of content on our intranet, whereas they rely on the navigation to visit a general area or app. To that end, we’ve also found that structuring our navigation around tasks and work functions is more effective than by departments and corporate hierarchies.

  8. Search is great for all kinds of reasons (believe me, I’m not won over by the idea of the search-only intranet), especially if it is married to a powerful suggest-as-you-type system. Within a few keystrokes, you should be able to get to nearly everything you know you need. You can explore, learn how to refine your queries, and probably a whole lot more.

    Navigation-based browsing works very well for beginners and novices, but I worry that the simpler-is-better approach actually can get in the way of expert users. At least search will get people to what they’re looking for, even if it isn’t what they need.

  9. Analytics data I’ve looked at (I admit this is n=1) shows that people are searching for things that aren’t immediately apparent by nav and top content is directed by navigation. Search is still the tool of last resort for people looking to solve their problem. I suspect the majority of business sites don’t view search as navigation and make it a 2nd or 3rd tier object on a page design; off to the side in low contrast, and it’s not considered the first option but product catalogue ecommerce sites like Amazon or Etsy have search high in visible hierarchy and therefore it gets used because these sites don’t know where to direct users unlike a company selling their own products or providing whatever solution they offer. I disagree with navigation limits off the desktop and suggest that proper responsive design addresses these issues by providing clear targets but these must be provided based on both visitor need and goals of the site. Search on mobile has it’s own challenges and requires keying in terms and the cognitive effort required to do that may be too much for many people just looking for a product page on a company website or an article that was published yesterday. I am sure search will increase in prominence as the semantic content movement grows and technologies for interacting with search like voice control of mobile devices but navigation is certainly alive and well.

  10. Search/navigation discussions almost always seem to be based on personal preferences. This makes a good discussion, but does not necessarily provide the best solution for the end users – they might have different preferences than the person designing the system. The answer to this is to observe the end user behaviour, be via usability tests, search logs, web stats or user complaints and adjust accordingly.

    In addition, there is another dimension to this discussion – different systems require different solutions. Users use different approaches to find information on web sites, intranet, document management systems, wikis, blogs and this must be taken into accoount when deciding how to provide search/navigation/faceded search etc.

  11. I find that the companies Ive worked for want it all. That is they want to show as much guff about the company as possible in all places, making the requirement for lots of navigation and lots of search.

    I suggested recently that we should dispense with the website altogether and create mini sites for every search term associated with the company’s products. They’re still thinking about it..

  12. We were having this debate 10 years ago at Mass.Gov. This is an old debate, and I think a false dichotomy. Why is it always “either or” (or winners and losers)? It’s almost undoubtedly true that most users are reaching your site via deep links from external search engines. Let’s grant you that a majority of users just prefer to search once on your site (although that’s debatable – I am with the folks above, it really depends on the user, the context – type of site, type of device, etc., etc.). But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. Unlike search, navigation isn’t *just* a means of reaching your destination!!! Spot-on search results may not be the end of the story! Navigation is also CONTENT! Navigation may provide important context or “wayfinding” capabilities after a search is executed. (Good navigation may improve SEO!) While having a robust search is crucial, it’s a mistake and a disservice to users to turn your site into Google. And in some circumstances, having a good search may be beyond one’s control (as in federated government websites with distributed content management and uneven attention to SEO). Good navigation is a means of compensating for that.

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