Your website’s navigation is the map to your content. It tells visitors what information they can find on your website and more importantly how to navigate to that content.  

When you land on a website with poor navigation the feeling is similar to getting lost while driving or being stuck in a maze. Visitors quickly get frustrated, angry and restless. Unless your website offers something that no other company does, visitors will quickly exit and go somewhere else. 

A good navigational structure on the other hand, greatly contributes to the success of your website and accomplishes many goals. It helps group your content into logical and manageable categories, it uses language that is intuitive to your visitors, it helps search engines index your website, and it increases conversion rates.

Most importantly, a strong navigation works wonders to improve the usability of your website. It is the key to having visitors find the information they are looking for and it is what makes your website enjoyable to visit.  

Despite its importance, navigation is something that most companies struggle with and that many get wrong. This is because organizing content into groups is rarely straightforward.

Most things can be categorized in a number of different ways and the best way often changes depending on who you are and the context of your visit.

It is also difficult for companies to put themselves into the mindset of their users. Users who most likely do not know the company’s objectives, offerings, or departmental structure. 

To illustrate this pretend you are organizing your books at home. Do you group them by:

  • genre?
  • alphabetically by titles?
  • alphabetically by authors?
  • by the year they were published?
  • by how much you enjoyed them?

What if I told you that you could only group the books into seven different piles. Could you come up with logical groupings and give each one a label? Will others understand your groupings without you being there to defend your logic? Is your method of grouping something that all of your friends and family will agree on?

What seems like an easy task at first can quickly get complicated. This is especially true with digital products and content.

Now before you get too discouraged, I want to share with you ways of reducing guess work and improving your chance of having a rock-solid navigation. If you want to know what makes the most sense to your users the logical approach is to ask them! Here are a number of very valuable tools that will help you work with your users to develop a navigational structure that makes sense to them:

Open Card Sort:

Open card sort test

In this activity participants are asked to organize cards into logical groups. Each card has a topic written on it from content within your website. When participants are done they give each grouping a category label that describes the group's content.  

An open card sort is great at revealing patterns in how users classify and organize your content and shows you which category labels are the most intuitive. An open card sort works best with a smaller sample size (30-40 people) because in this test users are suggesting their own category names.  If you have too many participants you will be left with too many suggestions and it becomes very difficult to analyze the results and narrow down the list.

Closed Card Sort:

Closed card sort test

This activity is very similar to an open card sort, only this time participants are asked to organize content cards into predetermined category labels.  

A closed card sort is more evaluative as it gives you a way to test your proposed category labels. When developing a new navigational structure a great strategy is to first carry out an open card sort with a smaller group of people and then validate the results with a larger group using a closed card sort. There is no maximum to the amount of participants for a closed card sort but in most cases 50-100 is sufficient to gain actionable insights.  

Tree Test:

Tree test

In this activity participants are presented with hypothetical "find it" tasks such as “Imagine you are buying a present for your mother who loves to bake. Where would you go to find personalized baking supplies?”. They are then shown a text version of your navigational tree and must make selections (moving down through the tree and backtracking if necessary) until they find a topic that satisfies the task.  Using a simplified text version of your site structure ensures that it is evaluated in isolation, removing the effects of navigational aids, visual design, and other factors.

A tree test is great way to evaluate a large website’s structure/hierarchy.  It can reveal to you which parts of your navigation work really well and which cause users to backtrack or go astray.  Your results will show you direct/indirect successes, direct/indirect failures and the average time each task took. There is no maximum to the amount of participants for a tree test but in most cases 50-100 is sufficient to gain actionable insights.  

All of these tools help companies confidently make decisions about their navigation. They support decision-making based on user research instead of assumptions or internal biases.  

The more user-centric your navigational structure is the better it will perform. 

If you would like more information about how to run one of these tests please reach out to us.  We would love to help!