Should Nav be on the Left or on the Right?

Jared Spool

October 28th, 2005

On the often interesting Interaction Design Association discussion list, David Hatch from Macromedia asked if people liked their navigation panels on the left side better than on right side.

He shared some examples of right-side navigation — Macromedia and Sun — and of left-side navigation — Adobe, Microsoft, and IBM.

In his post, David stated that “industry standards” seem to prefer left-side nav, but his “inner child” likes right-side nav better. He wanted to know what the list membership liked better. Much discussion ensued.

Here is my response, for what it’s worth…

In my opinion, you shouldn’t care what I (or potentially most others on this list) like for navigation. I don’t even think you should care what your users like.

You should only care about which one best accomplishes the objectives of your users and the objectives of your organization.

That being said, having tested a ton of users on bundles of sites, we’ve learned over the years that navigation placement doesn’t matter one whit. Put the navigation practically anywhere on the page and users will find it when they need it.

And, as I discussed here, we’re recommending that our clients spend very little resources on the design of global navigation. It’s rarely used productively (almost always because the site is too frustrating in other ways) and ignored on well working sites.

Local navigation works only when the local links are actually things users will want to go to next. (Either because your previous navigation screwed up and they ended up on the wrong page in the first place or because it’s a logical follow-on to where they are now.) Understanding why users need local navigation and ensuring the link names are communicating the real value of navigating will have more impact on the success of your design than the position or style of the links. We recommend clients focus their resources on ensuring the links give off good scent more than on styling.

16 Responses to “Should Nav be on the Left or on the Right?”

  1. J D Moore - Marketing Comet Says:

    I worked in UI design for the web for almost 10 years and have spent a lot of time in the usability lab of a major financial company. What we found was:

    -Navigation matters, including global navigation – customers nearly ALWAYS used it and relied upon it to accomplish tasks.

    -Customers get frustrated when they have to “find things” on a web page

    -People get trained by conventions like clicking on a comapny logo in the upper right hand of a page bringing you to a home page. Differing from what customers expect is very frustrating for them.

    As to right or left side, convention trains people. If you want people to be comfortable using your site – give them what they’re used to. You are just dead wrong to state that you can put global navigation anywhere and it doesn’t matter. What would happen if we suddenly reveresed the gas and brake pedals in a new car?

    Local navigation is important, and should be well designed. However, particularly on large sites, sometimes I want to navigate to first-tier sections. I may be looking at a cookbook on Amazon.com and decide I need a new roasting pan. There just might not be a local link. If it takes me too long to find the cookware on Amazon – I’ll go elsewhere.

  2. Rob Cottingham » Healing the left-right navigation bar rift Says:

    [...] Over on UIE Brain Sparks, Jared Spool weighs in on the civil war over whether web navigation bars should be on the left or right side of the page: having tested a ton of users on bundles of sites, we’ve learned over the years that navigation placement doesn’t matter one whit. Put the navigation practically anywhere on the page and users will find it when they need it. [...]

  3. Jared Spool Says:

    -Navigation matters, including global navigation – customers nearly ALWAYS used it and relied upon it to accomplish tasks.

    J D,

    With all due respect, how do you know that users nearly always used the global navigation because they preferred to use it? What if they used it because your design forced them to?

    In other words, if you had a radically different design that either (a) always had the information they needed on the current page (because you had the forsight to know what they would need) or (b) had local navigation links to the next content they would need, would they still gravitate to the global nav? In our studies, the answer is no.

    I may be looking at a cookbook on Amazon.com and decide I need a new roasting pan. There just might not be a local link.

    So, what we’re telling our clients is, instead of worrying about designing the ultimate global nav, use those resources to make sure there’s the right local links. You’ll end up with a design that works much better for users.

  4. Jim Says:

    Hey Jared,

    doesn’t this all depend on the situation?

    I’m the guy who did this study for the Audi website:
    http://jodi.tamu.edu/Articles/v04/i01/Kalbach/

    Basically, this was a formality to convince the client that the sky was not falling. We as designers knew it was the best design to have the navigation on the right: it’s more innovative (an Audi brand value), none of the competitors have the navigation on the right, Fitt’s law, etc etc.

    Global nav v. no global nav, right v. left side, etc. MAY matter depending on the situation. You can’t make an asituational blanket statement about these things. Designers just need to get their heads out of guidelines and do what’s best for the situation. Oh yeah, testing with users helps too.

    Cheers,
    Jim

  5. Joe Clark Says:

    I see this as another example of assuming all your users are nondisabled (i.e., all your users are just like you – a typical fanboy error).

    Screen-reader and -magnifier users have actual preferences. It does “matter one whit” to them. The problem is they require two different methods.

  6. Daniel Szuc Says:

    There are also cases where users IGNORE navigation completely directing all attention to login to get access their relationship with the company.

    Be interesting to explore and discuss stats from banks, ebays, yahoo to see how much attention we have before login (and what people are using to find information) and post login (when the company has your attention) e.g. login and show me how much i owe, what are my latest transactions etc.

  7. Dave Says:

    Hi Jared, The URL in the post above is wrong for IxDA … you have it slightly messed up. It is http://ixda.org

    – dave

  8. Jared Spool Says:

    Hi Dave,

    All fixed.

  9. Jared Spool Says:

    Jim,

    You asked,

    doesn’t this all depend on the situation?

    Absolutely! However, some situations are likely to be more frequent than others. And, in our experience, we’ve found that the need for global navigation is quite rare, when the site is designed well.

    When the site is designed poorly, users will gravitate to global nav frequently. This sets up a addressing-the-symptoms feedback loop: “Oh my, users are asking for better global navigation. We better give it to them.”

    When someone is asking for global nav, it’s best to spend the time to find out why. There’s a good chance there’s a better way to design it.

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    I see this as another example of assuming all your users are nondisabled (i.e., all your users are just like you – a typical fanboy error).

    Joe,

    Once again, you are absolutely right. We haven’t taken the disabled into account at all in our research. (It’s not that we think they are an unimportant segment, it’s just that we have our hands full trying to understand the problems for the subset of users that are non-disabled.)

    Screen-reader and -magnifier users have actual preferences. It does “matter one whit” to them. The problem is they require two different methods.

    Well, what I know about screen readers you could fit onto a very small, well, um, screen. Isn’t it true that in a world of CSS/Standards-goodness, screen-readers and -magnifiers could look into the HTML and pull out the navigation from the other content of the page, assuming it was indicated with some sort of magic tags to do so. How come there hasn’t been a movement to make the magic tags work? Then the readers wouldn’t care about the physical rendering on the page, right?

  11. Andy Kirkwood Says:

    I find it useful to refer to the usability.govt what is usability when considering the issue of left vs right navigation.

    Ease of learning: if well-designed, i.e. ‘looks’ like navigation, communicates its function, no difference; left 1, right 1Efficiency of use: depends on how the user browses and the task they are trying to complete, assuming scrolling using the scrollbar on the right of the browser window, it takes less time to move the mouse from bottom-right to top-right; left 0, right 1Memorability: once learnt, likely to be equal; left 1, right 1Error frequency: n/aSubjective satisfaction: left matches conventions (or at least it did prior to the blog revolution), right may cause a slight mental ‘twinge’; left 1, right .5

    Tally: left 3 right 3.5.

    And now the deciding round.

    What is the user’s mental model (their instinctive understanding) of the relationship between the navigation and the content based on the location of the navigation on the page?

    My belief is that left hand navigation, at an instinctual level, is commonly understood as a formal hierarchy, locating the content within a greater information structure (similar to a topic path/breadcrumb nav).
    Right-hand navigation is likely to suggest links that are related to the current content, e.g. of a similar granularity, topic or in the case of blogs, another entry (i.e. related by author). This understanding of right hand navigation is likely to be based on the layout conventions of print and newspapers where sidebars tend to be positioned to the right of articles.

    If the placement of the navigation corresponds with the relationship between navigation and content, then the fight could be decided in favour of either the left or right.
    So context appears to be the winner on the night.

    (Enabling repetitive links to be by-passed by users with assistive technologies is not included in this discussion, as both left and right navigation can equally be made accessible.)

  12. Expressions » Blog Archive » Wordpress Themes Says:

    [...] The better way of choosing a theme is not to look at the presentation, but rather the structure. There are only a few possibilities. One column, two column, three column and maybe even four column. After choosing the number of columns you choose the location of your navigation bar and the content, left vs right. Then finally you choose whether you want fixed width or fluid full browser width. Once you choose the structure from the possibilities above, just look at themes that come closest to what you want as a starting point and then start hacking the theme. Contrary to what you might believe, you do need to customize your theme somewhat. [...]

  13. Expressions » Blog Archive » WordPress Themes Says:

    [...] The better way of choosing a theme is not to look at the presentation, but rather the structure. There are only a few possibilities. One column, two column, three column and maybe even four column. After choosing the number of columns you choose the location of your navigation bar and the content, left vs right. Then finally you choose whether you want fixed width or fluid full browser width. [...]

  14. links for 2006-04-23 at disambiguity Says:

    [...] Should Nav be on the Left or on the Right? UIE Brain Sparks Jared says: having tested a ton of users on bundles of sites, we’ve learned over the years that navigation placement doesn’t matter one whit. Put the navigation practically anywhere on the page and users will find it when they need it. (tags: navigation usability RHS-navigation research) [...]

  15. cpo Says:

    Check out 2 “right sided navigation” sites I’ve encountered on the web (among the hundreds or thousands):
    http://www.boost.org/
    http://www.multcolib.org/

    They “seem” to work, IMHO. Content focusing seems better, but again that’s only MHO. Right-sided navigation is probably a calculated risk web designers make.

  16. Designing faceted search: Getting the basics right (part 1) « Information Interaction Says:

    [...] has been written about the merits of left vs. right hand placement for navigation menus, which we won’t repeat here. However, two caveats apply. Firstly, for faceted navigation (as [...]

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