lighthouse at night
PHOTO: Rodrigo Soares

Design navigation for forward momentum. The core purpose of navigation is to help you move forward. Designing digital navigation is not that different from designing navigation for a road. You always want to be able to help people maintain their momentum and get to their destination as quickly as possible. The essence of momentum is to help people move forward, and this is the essential purpose of navigation — to help people move forward.

Yes, there may be some navigation to help people move backwards (do a U-turn) but that should be minimized. Always assume that the page that person is on is the page they want to be on. How do they move forward from this page so as to get to their final destination (assuming that the page they are on is not, in fact, their final destination).

So, for example, when you choose “musical instruments” on the Amazon website, the vast majority of the navigation becomes focused on helping you choose a musical instrument.

  • The search is filtered to musical instruments.
  • Most of the horizontal navigation is about musical instruments.
  • All the left side navigation is about musical instruments.
  • All other products and services have been squeezed into a single link: Shop by Department.

Navigation should help people maintain forward momentum. Focus on the task. Trust people that they are where they want to be. If they’ve made a mistake they can use search or hit the Back button. The job of navigation is to get them to the end of their journey as quickly as possible.

Navigation should be as unified as possible — kept together in the same physical space. There’s nothing worse than having pieces of navigation put all over the place without any real logic as to why. Of course, it may make sense to separate certain types of navigation (login, my account, etc.), but the core navigation — particularly about the products and services — should be as unified as possible.

Disparate, disunified navigation is a common mistake, particularly on older websites. Why? The website launches with a poorly designed navigation. Someone tries to fix the problem by adding some more navigation (but doesn’t remove the old malfunctioning navigation.) Little by little, new pieces of navigation are added, all trying to address specific issues.

Before you know it, there’s a spaghetti junction of disparate, overlapping and competing navigational models all over the page and the whole thing is a mess. This is also a very common mistake made by those who don’t understand the Top Tasks approach. They add a little section to their website navigation called “Top Tasks.” This just adds to confusion and clutter and makes the customer experience even worse, as people try and navigate through a hodgepodge of navigation approaches. 

To reemphasize: Top Tasks is an approach for the entire customer experience (including the tiny tasks). If you’re not going to use it for your entire environment, you’re much better off not using it at all.