Global Site Navigation: Not Worthwhile?

Jared Spool

October 19th, 2005

Marjorie caught me. During my UI10 presentation, The Essence of Scent, I made an offhand comment about how global navigation is “unnecessary and rarely helpful.”

I thought I had gotten away with it.

Apparently not. Today, Marjorie wrote:

During your “The Essence of Scent” presentation on Thursday you said something to the effect that — global navigation is unnecessary and not very helpful. I found that surprising and wondered how people are to get around a site when they are several pages in? This has been an ongoing debate for our site — should we include the left hand global navigation on all pages and if not, when not?

Global navigation (versus local navigation) is often static on the site (meaning that it doesn’t change from one page to the next). We know that most of the time, users come to the site with a specific goal in mind. Maybe they’ll click on the global navigation on the home page (however, probably not, if the page is well designed). Then they’ll never click on it again, because, after all, they are now looking for local information — not global information.

Take the FEMA site, for example.

If you’re coming to the site to see if you qualify for disaster assistance, you might find yourself on this page:

Click here to see the FEMA Assistance Qualification Page
FEMA Assistance Qualification Page

If you’re on this page because it’s the right page, what are the odds you’ll want any of the five links in the global nav?
Disaster Communities | Emergency Personnel | Education & Training | News Media | Regions

The local navigation is probably useful:
Right (Local) Navigation on FEMA page

So, we could see users clicking on that. But it’s very unlikely someone would ever think to click on Disaster Communities. (Or even bring their mouse up to it to see what the next level of menus are.)

We’ve observed that it’s almost always the case that if a user is clicking on global navigation, it’s because they are completely lost. In fact, many clients report that their most clicked global navigation links are for the page the user is currently on. It seems users keep clicking on the global link hoping it will bring up a less frustrating page. (It doesn’t.)

Having global navigation isn’t a bad thing. It’s just not something that should garner a lot of resources, as it’s unlikely to be important in the user experience. You’re probably better off putting your resources elsewhere (such as increasing scent for the most important content on your site).

21 Responses to “Global Site Navigation: Not Worthwhile?”

  1. Dave Linabury Says:

    I confess I agree. I am the IA for a major car manufacturer site. On automotive site, it’s quite rare for a user *not* to have some idea of the vehicle type they are looking for. The comment we hear again and again is, “Can you get me into the [colors/gallery/pricing/etc.] page in one click from the homepage?” They simply do not want to click on the global navigation and prefer an instant deep dive.

  2. Mike Madaio Says:

    I wonder how this principle applies to the retail space — I work for a general merchant and think that it is certainly possible that someone could be browsing one product line (say, beauty products), and then decide that they want to instead browse another line (say jewelry).

    Obviously the best scenario is that they add a product to the shopping cart and then turn to the global nav, but at the same time I feel like they should have the ability to change course and choose another product area to browse at any point.

    (Although I have to admit that as I type this I agree that this nav is of secondary importance behind relevant nav to the page the customer is on.)

  3. Jeroen Coumans Says:

    I guess an important factor for global site navigation is the size of the website’s content. We typically build websites ranging from 20-100 pages (pages being different URL’s), where the distinction between global and local navigation is based on specificity, not on difference. I think with websites as large as 1000 or perhaps 10.000 pages and more, the content is often more differentiated and thus it’s more fragmented in separate sections which may not be relevant for visitors. Of course, it’s completely dependant on the content and its organisation (information architecture).

    I would be interested to see the difference for small and large websites. Not only are they organised in different manners, but they’d also have different interaction patterns and thus different usability issues.

  4. Jay Small Says:

    Managers of the many news-oriented sites I’ve worked with through the years seem hopelessly attached to global navigation systems — not just a bar of explicit links or a rudimentary site outline, but global cascading DHTML menus.

    I keep saying if we could ever implement effective search for all components of those sites, including not just news articles, but jobs/cars/homes/merchandise ads, retail ads and rich media objects, we could create a much leaner, more effective global nav scheme. And we could emphasize local navigation more in the context of articles.

    But how many news sites do you know that have truly effective search?

  5. Dave Lindberg Says:

    Time and again in usability studies, we encounter different people who tend to navigate sites using different tools. Some folks seems to prefer using search while others gravitate towards the global or local nav options. Others apparently feel more comfortable with a firm grip on the back and forward buttons. All of these choices are perfectly valid, and deserve sitewide support. I’m beginning to look forward to the time when our sites will display appropriate navigation based not only on IA, but also on patterns of a specific user’s behavior.And while I agree that “Having global navigation isn’t a bad thing,” the prospect of being “better off putting your resources elsewhere….” doesn’t hold a lot of water, since a global nav is by definition a global site asset — one that doesn’t require an excessive amount of resources to implement or maintain.

  6. Jared Spool Says:

    Dave,

    You said:

    Time and again in usability studies, we encounter different people who tend to navigate sites using different tools. Some folks seems to prefer using search while others gravitate towards the global or local nav options.

    Actually, that’s not what our studies find. Our studies find that the choices designers make force users to use these different approaches. For example, we’ve learned that it’s not that there are people who prefer to search, it’s that the designs force them to do so.

    So, is there a need for global nav or have we forced users into requiring it to accomplish their objective? Our studies show that it’s more the latter—well design sites don’t need global nav at all.

    Also, you mentioned:

    I agree that “Having global navigation isn’t a bad thing,” the prospect of being “better off putting your resources elsewhere….” doesn’t hold a lot of water, since a global nav is by definition a global site asset — one that doesn’t require an excessive amount of resources to implement or maintain.

    I guess that depends on your definition of excessive. We have many clients who spend tremendous amounts of organizational effort and angst deciding what should get attention on the global nav. And as Jay mentioned, when you get into cascading DHTML menus, the implementation and maintenance headaches start to accumulate quickly.

  7. Jon Horn Says:

    I agree in that a user might not have a need to click any of the global links but I believe they are still necessary. They help the user understand a) what the organization is all about; b) what other products/services they offer; and c) just gives the user a bit more confidence as to where they are

    If you started a trend by taking the global links away, it would just be a matter of time until they came back.

  8. Art Gelwicks Says:

    If the architecture of a website is such that the internal pages can get a user from key area to key area without necessitating the use of a global navigation structure then you have simplified the user experience. Too often I’ve seen users on a site complete a path of action then struggle briefly to recognize which part of a global navigation to enter for their next action. In my experience, global naviagtions should contain those items that are truly “global” such as contact us, etc.

    The difficulty in implementing this approach is that the use cases for the end users need to be robust enough to plan for the majority of their interactions with the site.

  9. Jon Says:

    Less than half of the first-time visits to my company’s site begin with the home page. As Jon Horn noted, just because people don’t click on it doesn’t mean that they aren’t using it.

    We have found in our studies that navigation (global and local) helps the user to gain a quick mental model of the content and structure of the site.

    Global nav is also helpful for placing the sorts of things that users will infrequently require, but need to be able to find very rapidly: contact us, manage your account, get help, etc.

  10. Dominic Jones Says:

    If you had said “global navigation should not be neccessary” rather than a blanket it is “unnecessary” I would have an easier time agreeing.

    However, due to poor IA, many of the sites we see make global navigation necessary and helpful. For example, we work extensively with investor relations sites. Once in the investor area of a corporate site, investors should not have to use the global nav to go to another area to find information that is relevant to them.

    But this is not how many sites are structured. Often, if you want news releases (a key reason for an investor to use a corporate site), you have to use the global nav to go the the “media” section.

    Yes, the problem in this example is that the investor section is not designed around the user. (Typically, it is designed around an Information Architect’s view of what is efficient, not the user’s perspective. IAs seem to hate duplication between sections — even when it works for the user, but that’s another issue.)

    So yes, global navigation should be unnecessary, but often it is essential for the user to be able to accomplish their goals.

    Also, the comments about global nav as a location device are relevant.

    Finally, your point that too much time is spent sweating the wrong things is well made.

  11. Máirín Duffy Says:

    What about web applications though? I have to agree with Mike’s comment above. For example, maybe you’re visiting amazon.com to purchase a particular book and notice on the global nav the link to their toys section and browse there. For a shopping web app, it seems as if global navigation is pretty important.

    I agree with the points you made using FEMA’s website as an example. It’s a website with a fairly broad set of user goals to meet, though. Almost more of a meta-site, or a portal/directory to link you to other sites. This makes me think we need a clear definition of what is meant by “site,” basically along the lines of Jeroen’s comment above. It seems that if the scope of a “site” is small enough (as in web applications, where there’s a clear set of related goals, i.e. “shop”), then global navigation is ok, but there’s a point beyond which it causes the sort of problems you outline the FEMA site as having. People with very different goals visit FEMA’s site while people with more similar goals visit Amazon.com.

    Art, I wonder what makes something global. What you say makes sense, except it doesn’t work with the Amazon.com example. You can take the “Books” link out of the global nav and seperate it such that you have a bookstore where users don’t have to worry about “toys” or “electronics” and perhaps have a simplified user experience, but now you’re losing sales, aren’t you?

  12. Matt McSherry Says:

    I always find website navigation confusing when I can’t find my way back, so to speak.

    If there are some navigational options that are always there, unchanged on my screen then I know that if I have a bit of a miander I can always start back at the top and work my way through again.

    I think it’s universally accepted that what you said about global navigation being ‘unnecessary’ was a weak point. You even say yourself it was flippant and off the cuff.

    I know you can design several different ways of leading someone around your site and each one has it’s merrits, however I do like to be able to get anywhere in a maximum of 3 clicks.
    You just need global navigation to do that.

  13. Nick Says:

    I was on the team that redesigned the University of Wisconsin website (http://www.wisc.edu/) and we made the choice to get rid of the global navigation for the “core” website in favor of well-tailored (if we do say so ourselves) local navigation. Out of 1,100 bits of email feedback, we didn’t receive a single complaint about navigability, a “missing menu,” or anything else a careful ear could discern as “hey, why isn’t there a global nav bar?” The technique might not be for everyone, but it certainly worked on this project.

  14. pwb Says:

    Máirín, yes, look at Amazon, indded! It’s moved *away* from global nav. Used to be Amazon put the same dozen or so tabs at the top of every page. But they are no longer, instead replaced with more relevant links and buttons.

  15. Máirín Duffy Says:

    pwb I see your point; I should have visited amazon first to double-check, haha. Now instead of having global navigation for the whole gamut of what they offer, depending on the product you’re looking at the top nav fills up with the categories of similar product items (e.g., looking at a webcam, there are nav items for camera and photo, computers, software, audio and video.) However, this is sort of like a global navigation for a smaller scope of the site. With a store app, you want people to be able to browse your products, right? So they decided to limit the scope of the navigation to the subcategories underneath any given category of the store since I’m guessing they found out people tend to buy products while browsing through one particular top-level category rather than across categories.

    I don’t know, I think talking about defining scope is more interesting than talking about getting rid of global navigation. But then again maybe my definition of global navigation is too fluid. To modify my earlier comment, the scope should perhaps be defined by user goals (“shop”) and the content.

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  21. Alfonso Says:

    Alfonso

    Global Site Navigation: Not Worthwhile? » UIE Brain Sparks