Part 1: Help Users Find What They’re Looking For
This is the first in a series of three articles that focuses on how you can make a big impact on usability with small changes to your website. The thought of completely overhauling a website can be daunting: so daunting that it can cause inaction on the part of businesses, web teams, and marketers. However, even small changes will improve users’ experiences on your website, perhaps more dramatically than you might expect.
There are a few elements critical to creating a good user experience on any website:
- Users have to be able to find what they are looking for.
- They have to understand what you offer and how you can help them.
- They have to be able to complete their tasks easily.
This series of articles will explore these issues one at a time, and look at some simple solutions that you can quickly implement. Let’s start with helping users find what they’re looking for.
Your website navigation is one of the most important ways users get around on your site. People expect navigation systems to be easy to use and well organized. While your website should be unique and creative, the navigation should be standard enough that users don’t have to search for it or question how to use it. This is not the place for wildly unconventional thinking.
Here are a few things you can do to help users find what they are looking for with your navigation. Making one, two, or any of these improvements will enhance the usability of your site.
Make it Obvious
Users should easily be able to find and identify your primary navigation. Use standard placement, either horizontally across the top of your page, or vertically down the left side. If your main navigation is too small, in a non-standard location, or too crowded by other elements, your site’s bounce rate is likely to be high.
Here are two examples:
Horizontal Primary Navigation
Vertical Primary Navigation
Keep It Consistent
Your primary navigation should remain consistent, visually and structurally, from page to page so it’s always there when your visitors need to access it. If your primary navigation varies between sections or pages of your site, is it beneficial and helpful to users? Might they be better served by consistent navigation? The answer is usually, yes.
About half of users expect that your logo will link to the homepage. This is a standard industry practice that your site should be following. But what about the other 50% of users? Many of them don’t know that logos typically link to homepages, and then they become frustrated trying to get back to home. For those users, it is best to include a “Home” link in the primary navigation. In order not to take up too much space and clutter the navigation, many sites successfully employ a home icon to help users navigate to the homepage.
Use Relevant Keywords
Your primary navigation is one place to tell people and search engines about what you do. This is accomplished by using navigation labels with top-of-mind keywords and phrases for users, which you can identify within your analytics data or by using Google Keyword Planner.
Make sure that navigation labels reflect the keywords that users are looking for. Avoid obscure or less-used terms, jargon, and clever wordplay. For example, most people planning a trip search for “Hotels” rather than “Lodging.” Navigation should reflect that.
Keep It Simple
The fewer items in your primary navigation the better. Six or seven should be the absolute maximum number of top-level items. Did you know that human short-term memory cannot handle more than seven chunks of information at a time? It’s true. Also, place the most important items at the beginning and the end of the navigation list, or highlight them to draw attention.
Avoid Dropdown Menus (Most of the Time)
Most regular dropdown menus are annoying and rife with usability problems. They’re hard to read and difficult to use. According to usability studies from Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), dropdown menus create a less efficient and less pleasant user experience, making people more likely to abandon your site.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. NNG’s usability studies have found that “mega drop down menus” often test well and overcome the downsides of regular dropdowns. Be sure you’re following best practices if you feel that your site is well served by having dropdown menus.
Let Users Know They’re in the Right Place
Whether users have arrived at a page on your site from Google or through your site’s navigation and internal links, you want to reassure them that they have indeed found the content are looking for.
The headline text of a page has proven time and time again to impact the page’s potential conversion rate significantly. The headers should stand out on the page and be the first thing a user reads when they arrive. There should be only one primary headline, with <h1> coding tags. Secondary <h2> and tertiary <h3> headlines can be used as needed.
Consistency is important: it builds confidence in users, and makes them feel at ease. Page headers and the navigation links to them should match. For example, the “About Us” link in the navigation should take users to a page called, “About Us,” and not one called, “Meet Our Team.”
The following image shows a page with a nearly invisible page header.
Users will have trouble understanding both what content is on this page, and where they are within the site.
In contrast, this next page has a large header and non-cluttered layout that assures users they have found the content they came looking for.
Highlight Active Navigation
Another way to let users know they’re in the right place is to use highlighted active navigation. Active navigation allows users to understand where they are within the site and confidently get around using the different navigation elements (primary navigation, secondary navigation, breadcrumbs, etc.). Active navigation states are something can be implemented fairly easily with CSS styles.
Helpful Error Pages
What happens when a user mistypes a page URL, or clicks a broken link on your site? They are taken to a 404 Error Page.
The absolute worst thing you can do is send users to an error page like this one:
This is not helpful at all. Rather, the error page is your opportunity to engage users, help them find what they’re looking for, and keep them on your site.
You should have a friendly custom 404 Error Page on your website like this one:
Smashing Magazine has a is a useful article about how to decrease your site’s errors and optimize error pages here.
Every business can make usability changes to improve their website so that users find what they are looking for quickly and easily. We must try to think like our users, understand their frustrations, and make changes that will enable them to feel confident navigating our websites.
Can you identify one or two things in this article that you could do to improve your site? Make these small changes, track your analytics data, and conduct user tests to see if they improve your site’s user experience and move your business toward meeting its online goals. Let us know how it works for you!