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.
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.
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