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An effective and easy to use navigation system is essential for any site and can be the difference between making a sale and losing a customer.

The navigation should be easy to find and use, and should work consistently across the site. Make users work too hard and you risk losing them to another, more usable rival.  

Here are some checkpoints for making your navigation more effective:

  • Navigation menus at left or top of the pageThis is the convention for the great majority of websites and is exactly where users will be looking for it.

    The current convention is to use the top navigation bar for the main product categories, while the left hand menu tends to be for more detailed product menus, as with Amazon:

  • Amazon

  • Short, clear and precise language in menu optionsUsers tend to scan quickly, so keep the language in menu options clear and to the point.
  • Don't have too many optionsSomething like six or seven main navigation options should be enough for the homepage - any more and you risk confusing users.
  • Consistent navigation

    The simplest way to avoid confusion for customers is to have consistent positioning of navigation on every single page of the site, with the possible exception of the checkout. 

    This is useful to avoid customers reaching a dead end on the site and having to click the back button or leave. It also benefits SEO as it helps search engine spiders access most of the pages.

  • Use breadcrumb trailsBreadcrumb trails show a user's path to their current page, allowing them to access previously visited parts of the site with a single click.

    Breadcrumb trail

    Breadcrumb trails also deliver the added benefit of allowing customers to refine their product searches by removing certain product features, and saving them the hassle of beginning the search all over again.

  • Avoid dropdown menusDropdown menus, as used by Marks & Spencer below, are a good method of saving space, but can be very frustrating for users.

    First of all, they prevent users from seeing all their navigation options in a single glance, and can lead to frustration when the cursor moves away from the menu and the user has to start all over again.

    M&S dropdown menu

  • Make the logo link back to the homepage

    This is a convention that web users have become accustomed to, and provides a handy shortcut back to the main navigation.
  • Clear fontsNavigation headers and other options should be distinguishable from the rest of the page, so they should be in bold and in a larger font than the content.
  • SitemapThis is crucial for any website, and should provide links to every category, subcategory, and page on your site.

    This provides a third way for customers to navigate through your site, as well as making it easier for the search engines' spiders to access all of your website.

  • Search boxWhile most customers will choose to navigate through the site by using the main navigation categories, a search box provides a useful alternative, especially for customers that are searching for a specific product.

    This means that the search box is not only important for user experience, but is also an easy way to increase conversions.

Related research:
Web Design Best Practice Guide
Online Retail User Experience Benchmarks  

Related stories:
Sky Sports redesign - has it affected usability?
10 reasons why your website sucks

Graham Charlton

Published 7 February, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (2)


PPC Bid Management

For an ecommerce site search is fundamental. Good navigation can also be a great help in SEO. Kaya @ Optimisedmedia.co.uk

over 8 years ago


mike ashworth

I'd absolutely love it if the sites I visit recognised that I was in the UK. I loath those drop down boxes where you have to scroll down to the bottom (almost) to find the united kingdom.

I wonder exactly how many of their customers are in afghanistan (normally occupies the number one slot in such lists).

link broken - 404 error. maybe they could have a way of us letting them know, and enter a prize draw, being as they haven't got the time to stay on top of these themselves.

I also want to see an easy to find "contact us" section. if its a form to fill in, don't ask me for too much info, that you don't need as I have to keep using "0800 u dont need this" as my number ;-) and when i do complete it please let me have a message after clicking on submit that tells me it actually worked and perhaps even an estimated time for a response.

one last thing, and unfortunately e-consultancy your site is falling foul of this, these boxes where you have to type in the scrawl displayed above (just like the one below this form) to prove i'm not a machine posting. They are getting more and more illegible, my last post here, took 3 attempts before i got a set of letters that was recognisable.

Mike Ashworth
Business Coaching and Consultancy
Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK

over 8 years ago

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