Designing Elegant Navigation Systems
Designing navigation systems that work well is challenging. You've got so many possible solutions to consider, and lots of sexy technologies such as pop-up menus and dynamic site maps can distract you from what's really important: building context, improving flexibility, and helping the user to find the information they need.
No single combination of navigation elements works for all web sites. One size does not fit all. Rather, you need to consider the specific goals, audience, and content for the project at hand, if you are to design the optimal solution.
However, there is a process that should guide you through the challenges of navigation system design. It begins with the hierarchy. As the primary navigation system, the hierarchy influences all other decisions. The choice of major categories at the highest levels of the web site will determine design of the global navigation system. Based on the hierarchy, you will be able to select key pages (or types of pages) that should be accessible from every other page on the web site. In turn, the global navigation system will determine design of the local and then ad hoc navigation systems. At each level of granularity, your design of the higher-order navigation system will influence decisions at the next level.
Once you've designed the integrated navigation system, you can consider the addition of one or more remote navigation elements. In most cases, you will need to choose between a table of contents, an index, and a site map. Is the hierarchy strong and clear? Then perhaps a table of contents makes sense. Does the hierarchy get in the way? Then you might consider an index. Does the information lend itself to visualization? If so, a site map may be appropriate. Is there a need to help new or prospective users to understand what they can do with the site? Then you might add a guided tour.
If the site is large and complex, you can employ two or more of these elements. A table of contents and an index can serve different users with varying needs. However, you must consider the potential user confusion caused by multiple options and the additional overhead required to design and maintain these navigation elements. As always, it's a delicate balancing act.
If life on the high wire unnerves you, be sure to build some usability testing into the navigation system design process. Only by learning from users can you design and refine an elegant navigation system that really works.