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Avoiding Website Navigation That Makes Users Never Want to Come Back

In my experience, grocery stores are one of the most frustrating places I go. I really try to avoid going at all costs. Why?  Because when I go, I’m usually looking for unusual ingredients for something special my wife is planning to make. She sends me there for things like ground red pepper, evaporated chicken broth, rare beans or chopped green chiles.

If I were going there for some milk, then no problem, because I know they always put the milk in the back corner of the store. But when I (the non-frequent grocery store user) go for unusual items, I have no idea where these random things are located (the frequent shopper who’s been up and down the aisles hundreds of times might). Anybody with me?! Can I get an amen?!

So there I am, Mr. Non-Frequent Grocery Store User, walking back and forth, up and down, and side to side cursing under my breath (and scheming how I can avoid ever being roped into this again) trying to find a store worker to direct me. They’re never around when you need them, eh?!

Mad Shopper

The problem with grocery store navigation

The problem is grocery stores suck at usability. They have a big sign on the front of the store that tells you it’s the right place. But then they jump right down to the specific grocery items, typically completely bypassing any sort of section labels (although some have been getting better). Plus, the aisle signs only have a few of the items that are actually contained in the aisle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finally found an item in an aisle where there was no indication that it was located there. If you do this on your website, you’ll make users want to never come back.

The bigger problem with website navigation

How does this apply to your website? There may be more people cursing under their breath when they enter your website and who leave motivated to never come back than you think. Consider these four facts:

  • Most of the people that come to your website are Mr. or Mrs. Non-Frequent Your Website User.
  • It can be harder to know where you are in a website than in a grocery story because there is no physical space to give you clues.
  • It’s much easier for the user to bring themselves to exiting a website without what they need (and you desperately want them to have!), than it is for a shopper like myself to exit a grocery store without what I need.
  • Unlike my errand to the grocery store, web users are not likely to stick around unless they can quickly and easily find what they are looking for.

Just like I scheme about how to never visit the grocery store again, website users will do the same thing if they’re convinced you don’t have what they’re looking for or they get too frustrated to keep looking. Do you see how important it is to your business to not partake in such a dastardly deed? Words can’t express.

How do you avoid doing such a thing? You create a clear, simple and consistent navigation that allows the user to browse your site quickly and easily or ask.

Give the user clear options

How would a user ask your site where to go? With the search box of course. Some people will always look for this when they land on a site, while others will always try to use the navigation first. Regardless of how the user wants to get where they want to go, at any point in time, it should be quick and easy for them to do so.  When it is, users will start to believe that your business actually knows what it’s doing. When it isn’t, you can bet it affects the user’s trust in your knowledge, competency and in what you’re offering them (if they even stick around to find out).

A test for each page

If you want to be a business your site users will trust, there are some general rules you’re going to want to make sure you don’t break. Back to the grocery store. It’s like having the express lane in aisle 1, every grocery store does it. If your grocery store doesn’t, you can bet your you-know-what that droves of people with more than 12 items will be entering your express lane that you put in aisle 12 (true story, this really happened to me!  And they acted like I was the idiot!?!). Meanwhile the shoppers with less than twelve items will be hanging out down around aisle 1 looking up for the express lane sign.

If your site breaks any of these simple navigation rules, you know you have some work to do…

  • For the most part, your navigation placement and function shouldn’t change. This would be like putting the highest-priced items in your grocery store on the top shelves in one section of the store and on the bottom shelves in another section. It’s confusing and makes people think more than they have to.
  • Every page should have a way home. This is done either with a “Home” link or by linking your Site ID to your homepage. Many times users feel like they’ve lost their way and just want to recalibrate themselves by going back to the start.
  • If it’s not a major section of the site, don’t put it in the main navigation.  Designers are tempted to put all of the navigation options into one grouping. Don’t do it. It’s confusing. Keep the major sections of the site in the primary navigation and all other options (like information about the company or a help section) in a separate navigation. You usually see these at the top right.
  • Include a simple search box at the top right. Not the left, not the middle, not down below your fancy image slider. At the top right. That’s where people will expect it. That’s where it needs to be. I remember a client saying once that they wanted the search box below the fold of the page so the users would use the navigation. Oh, really!?! You want to force users to use the site how YOU want them to use it, instead of how they’d like to use it? Good luck with that.
  • Every page should have a prominent name that frames the content unique to that page. The page names are like labels that communicate to the user where they are and what type of content they’re consuming.
  • Highlight and distinguish a user’s current location in your navigation. This helps the user know where they are in the grand scheme of the site. It gives them a sense of where they came from, where they are and where they can go from here.

As soon as a user lands on any page of the site, they should be able to quickly and easily identify what site they’re on, what page of the site they’re on, how that page fits in to the site as a whole, the places it makes sense to go to from this page and how they can search if they want to. If all of the pages of your site pass this simple test you’re doing pretty good. If not, you can bet your business is likely not where it could be.


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Mike Fleming

Mike Fleming stays on top of the latest strategies in Paid Search and Web Analytics to make sure every campaign he manages for Pole Position clients brings measurable, profit-maximizing value to their company and their website visitors. Mike enjoys playing, writing and recording music along with playing basketball to get his workout in. He resides in Canton, Ohio with a beautiful, sweet, caring and admirable girl who threw a snowball at him one day…then married him. Read Mike's full bio.

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2 Responses to Avoiding Website Navigation That Makes Users Never Want to Come Back

  1. Great Article, especially since I am doing nav on a clothing ecommerce site today!… FYI I went to tweet it, but decided against it because of your shareaholic FORCED API access on your share buttons.. Not pleasant…. Is that new on your site?

  2. Thanks Matt. We’ve been fixing things on our site recently, so maybe this is a glitch. I’ll have someone look into it and get it fixed ASAP.

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