The primary purpose of web navigation is to help people to move forward. It is not to tell them where they have been, or where they could have gone.Web behaviour is impatient. The eye darts across a page. Decisions of what link to click on are made quickly. That's why we need simplicity in web design, because complexity leads to confusion and poor decision making.
Every time you add a word to a webpage, you take something away. You take away the ability to focus on the words that are already on the page. Every time you add a link you offer a choice. What you also do is impact on the ability to choose the links already on the page.
Let's say you're out driving. You come to a junction where you are offered a choice between heading to New York or Boston. You take the road to New York. That's a decision you have made. Would you find it useful to be constantly reminded that you can still turn around and head to Boston? Would it be helpful to be reminded of all the places you've passed as you head to New York?
It is confusing to be reminded about all the decisions we could have made. It clutters the ability to focus on where we are going. It increases the chances that we might make a mistake.
Navigation should primarily be about helping us keep on going in the direction we have chosen. If I choose a link for "notebooks" then I have made a decision. Continuing to present me with links for servers and desktops decreases my ability to focus on the notebook direction I have chosen.
When I choose a link for "ultralight notebooks" that indicates that I am not interested in multimedia notebooks. Once I arrive at the ultralight notebooks webpage, the overwhelming focus of the navigation must be to help me find the right ultralight notebook.
Good web navigation design is not about giving people lots and lots of choices. It is not about second guessing decisions we have made. It's not about asking what if we want to get back to where we were. It's about looking forward, not about looking backward.
The Back button helps us to get back if we want to get back. The global navigation allows us to reach major sections, no matter what part of the website we are on. (It is usually found in the masthead at the top of the page.)
Designing a website can be a bit like being a kid and inheriting a sweetshop. It's easy to get carried away. There are so many choices. A website can be like an attic that never fills up. Space is not the problem. Attention is.
Your job is not to design for all possible directions someone might want to take. That leads to a cluttered website and it will clutter the mind of and overload the attention of your customers.
Your job is to understand the primary direction your most important customers are heading, and to remove obstacles in the way of them arriving at that destination. Forward-looking navigation options should dominate.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.