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Website navigation menus: Why less is more

By Drew Strojny on July 24, 2013

Your navigation is an important part of your website, and it might be hurting more than it’s helping.

You’ve got lots of important information to share on your website. Organizing it all can be a challenge. So you slowly start adding more and more menu items. Drop down menus become your best friend. More menu items are better, right?

Imagine you walk into a big department store to buy a shirt for your five year old nephew. On the wall is a large sign with four words: Women, Men, Kids, Customer Service. Each word has a floor number clearly marked next to it in orange. Kids is marked with “3rd floor”. You quickly head up to the third floor to look for a shirt.

Now, imagine you walk into that same department store, and you’re greeted by the same large sign, but this version features: several long lists of categories, information about the store’s policies, a warning about shoplifting, a flyer with the latest sales, and a reminder to follow the store on Twitter. After scanning for 30 seconds, you finally figure out that shirt is probably somewhere on the third floor.

Did the department store lose a sale in either case? No. But, there is a key difference between your website and the store: Once you’re at a physical store, you’ve already made a commitment and you’re much more likely to “stick with it”, even if you are a little bit annoyed.

Visiting a website requires no commitment. The slightest confusion might send you off in a different direction. Your website navigation can be a helpful guidepost that gives someone a reason to stay, or it can be a good reason to leave.

So, how do you choose what to include in your main navigation menu?

Start by re-evaluating what’s really important on your website. Ask yourself — “What absolutely critical information do I want to share with a new visitor?”. Try to stick to five concepts or less. If you’re a photographer, your answers might look like this:

  • My best work.
  • My story
  • How I can help them.
  • My blog (if I post regularly).
  • My contact information.

They probably won’t include things like:

  • Visit my Twitter profile.
  • Visit my Facebook page.
  • Browse my Sitemap.
  • Read my Privacy Policy or Terms of Service.

What’s critically important will be different for each website. If you’re posting articles and news, “Provide an easy way to contact me” might not be critical information. Instead, you might place more value on the different topics you post about. The information is entirely dependent on the purpose of your website.

You’ll want to translate that critical information into good concise menu titles. Your main menu from our example above might look like this:

  • Portfolio
  • Our Story
  • Services
  • Blog
  • Contact

That’s all you need. The less important information from our example (Twitter, Facebook, Privacy Policy) is better off in a footer or sidebar.

Try to avoid drop down menus. They can be useful in certain scenarios, but for most small websites, they really aren’t necessary. Instead, concisely communicate the ideas you would normally include in a drop down menu into your important pages.

When someone visits your website for the first time, you have a few precious seconds to make an impression and provide important information. If they can’t find what they need, or if they’re confused, they’ll probably just leave. Remember, it’s your job to make sure they find that important information.

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  1. Mahender

    Agree. Along the same lines, let people flow through searches, but don’t confuse repeat visitors.

  2. Kym Sheehan

    Thanks Drew – I was on my own website clicking through the menu while reading your article. I’ve played around with my menu a bit over the time I’ve had the site. I’m about to do it again. I can see how a drop down menu that works beautifully on a full size screen (15″+) is different when you get onto a smaller screen. Currently the responsive menu feature in the theme I use takes the top level menu items and shows the drop down from each item in the smaller screen size. This leads to a long list of options. Maybe a better approach would be to have a way to choose to have drop down on full sized screen and not drop down to the sub-menu items on a smaller screen?

    I hope this is one of a continuing series of practical insights…


  3. Drew Strojny

    Thanks Kristy and Mahender!

    Kym: Good points! That might be something to think about with the drop down menus on mobile. They definitely shouldn’t be taking up lots of screen real estate. I still think a more long term and consistent solution would be to try and get rid of the drop downs altogether in favor of a consolidated menu of five items or less :-)

  4. app103

    Whenever this subject comes up, and everyone seems to be in agreement that less is more, I always seem to be the disenting voice.

    The truth is that less is not always better and can even be a disaster, causing visitors to leave your site because they get the false impession that you have nothing of interest to them.

    What if your website is a book store? Under the less is more idea, you’d only have 2 items on the menu: fiction | non-fiction

    Somewhere in that you are going to need a submenu with quite a few items more if you don’t want to lose visitors.

    What if you have a very specialized book store that only has programming related books? How do you present the over 100 categories that your books fall into with the less is more approach, that won’t give the visitor the impression that your site doesn’t have anything that they would be interested in? How do you make that first impression that your site has EVERYTHING they would be interested in? Remember, you have only seconds to do this. If the visitor has to click around to find out, you have failed.

    I think in a case like this, the size of the list is very important, and more is much better than less.

    But in a case like this, the real problem is in presentation of the huge list, how to do it in a way that it jumps out at the visitor, encourages browsing, without making the site look cluttered. And yes, that is a challenge…and an even bigger challenge if you expect your site to also cater to visitors on mobile devices.

    Now, I am not just saying all this to be disagreeable. I am actually faced with this issue for an upcoming redesign project on a directory site that is in bad need of a face lift (currently using a WP theme that is so old that it isn’t even widgetized), and I still have not come up with the right plan for handling this huge list.

  5. Drew Strojny

    Good points Apps!

    Like you mentioned, it all depends on the site and it’s purpose. For most small business site too much navigation probably isn’t a good thing, but for a book store, they could make sense if done well.

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