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Why Primary Navigation Must Die

by Kristoffer Bohmann, November 14, 2000


Users mainly ignore primary navigation bars because the information featured is less relevant to their tasks.

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Primary navigation bars provide shortcuts to main sections on a website and is displayed on most or all pages. I argue that primary navigation bars should be removed completely for three reasons:
  1. Navbar links are rarely needed,
  2. they are often hard to interpret for users, and
  3. they take up valuable space in page top/left side on all pages.

Less Needed Information

Once users start digging into content on a site, they need increasingly more related information to learn more about the subject in question and to get an idea of the structure of information on the particular site. Examples (Warning: 81 KB): Mainstream users focus their attention on content, while ignoring primary navigation in most situations. The problem worsens if users are disturbed by the primary navigation bar. Unintended disturbance of users is very likely to happen as standard navbars occupy pixels on a central location across all pages. Consequently, user performance is slowed down due to difficulties interacting with content and more user problems can be expected.

Comprehension Problems

Even if users choose to pay attention to navbars, they often find it difficult to understand the 1-3 word link descriptions provided. In many cases, it simply doesn't make sense to mainstream users.

The comprehension problems with navbars arise due to unclear information structures that doesn't match the users mental model of the subject and lack of contextual information, which could be delivered in a few words if space was available. For instance, users in a product section who see a navbar linking to customers is likely to wonder what is meant by the word - is it a list of customer references or login for existing customers?

Other elements in navigation bar design often contributes to comprehension problems:

Bad Habit: Interactive Navbars

Interactive navbars are even worse than traditional primary navigation. These navbars either function as drill-down menus that presents the next level of information on mouse over. Or, they try to tell the user where he is and where he can go in the very same navbar (see example below).

Sonofon.dk: Navigation bar is loading Sonofon.dk: Navigation bar as it appears on homepage Sonofon.dk: Product titles presented in navigation bar
Loading...:
Links cannot be used before download has completed.
Main menu:
Uninformative labels such as "Buy and sell" ("Køb og salg") - can I buy a used car here? The small text size is a hard read.
Product info:
Product titles are not obvious (e.g., how does DuoFon differ from DuoFon+?). Down-arrows and colors indicate structure but are hard to see.

Such heavy interaction technology force the user to learn how to use the navbar (which they don't) and to move mouse over navbar links to see where to click next. As a result, impatient users quickly leave to other sites.

In most cases, this leads to user problems as users need to learn how to use the navbar. However, users who don't understand navigation items tend to leave the site unless they find the content really valuable.

What To Do Instead?

I recommend that the primary navigation bar is excluded completely. So, what to do instead?

Users are better off if they only see a You are Here-indicator (e.g., Home > Articles > Why Primary Navigation Must Die) to better understand how each page on the site is structured relative to the homepage. By clicking back in the You are Here-indicator, users get a good view of content in the category from well-designed category pages. This is exactly what I do on this site; see category page and content page (the page you are reading right now).

About the Author
Kristoffer Bohmann (biography) M.Sc. thinks and writes about high-quality user experiences. His philosophy: Users first. You can contact him at kristoffer@bohmann.dk.

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