As a website becomes larger and more complex, navigation should focus on helping customers move forward. Helping them move backwards or sideways can cause major distraction and confusion.

In February 2014, the Nielsen Norman Group published an article entitled “Killing Off the Global Navigation: One Trend to Avoid.” The global navigation is a set of links to major areas of a website that tends to be placed in the top banner of every page on the website. Is it necessary? Is it useful?

For years, I had assumed it was essential. Jennifer Cardello and Kathryn Whitenton of Nielsen Norman explain that it:

  1. Allows users to switch between top-level categories easily, no matter their current location
  2. Ensures that even users who don't enter through the homepage can quickly get a sense of what is available on the website

These points are accepted wisdoms of design that I used to believe strongly. However, I have found that they decline in importance as a website becomes larger and more complex.

When was the last time you went on the web seeking to buy a plastic wrap and foil dispenser but instead bought a frame stand for your guitar? It doesn’t happen. The vast majority of web behavior we have observed over the years is deliberate, zoned and very much about a specific task.

Perhaps there is a mythical unicorn-like creature out there that spends their days wandering around websites gazing at the global navigation and gushing: “Wow! I didn’t know they did that!” Perhaps. But we haven’t found much evidence.

Walmart and Amazon and many other large websites do not have global navigation because it adds distraction. The links it provides are often out of context. And Amazon and Walmart and many other e-commerce companies have discovered that if you want to maximize sales for a particular product group you must remove all distractions not connected with that product.

The Google design principles are to streamline the experience and remove distractions. If you search for “millet flakes,” you will get search results and a type of global navigation with links such as Images, Videos.

However, there is a vital difference between this global navigation and the global navigation found on most sites. It is contextual. If you click on Images you get pictures of millet flakes.

We have often watched customers navigate down many levels of a site to get to a product homepage. After going on that journey and spending that time clicking and moving, the mind thinks that it is in the world of that product. When it clicks on Support or Solutions or Buy, it expects that it will find solutions, support and buying options for that product. Instead, the customer usually gets sent back to the top level for Support. Very frustrating.

The core purpose of navigation is to help customers move forward. We should relentlessly focus on streamlining and simplifying that ability to keep moving forward. Particularly when we are managing large websites, we must ruthlessly prune any links or content that do not serve the forward momentum.