The power of a simple menu on your website

Much has been said and written about website visitors being able to find the page they want in three or fewer clicks.

This is a nice sentiment, but, as Steve Krug aptly notes in his book about website usability, it matters whether the click is quick and easy or whether the user pauses and worries before clicking.

The simplest way to achieve one-click destinations on your website is to list every single page in your site on the homepage. As you imagine this in your mind, you can imagine this is not the ideal solution, especially if all the choices are the same size, in the same font.

As I’ve learned from watching people use websites I and other have created, elaborate drop-down menus are not the best solution either.

The main problem with these “solutions” is that choosing one item out of 50 visible choices is much more difficult that choosing one item out of two. The former is too overwhelming. The latter is simple, and the fact that it’s an extra click is balanced by the fact that the click is such an easy decision.

If you have two main categories of products you sell on your website, it’s a good idea to allow people to choose one of the two first, before they are taken deep into detailed product choices. For one thing, it eliminates about half of the choices your visitor would have to face if they were confronted with all your products at once. They still know you offer the other set of products, and are free to investigate them later.

In one of my first major redesign projects, I designed two-level dropdown menus for The Salvation Army in Central Ohio. So a person had to hover over the main topic, choose one of the items from the drop-down list, then carefully slide over to the list of choices that has now dropped down from that item.

It was too much.

Not only was it difficult to keep the mouse in the just the right spot to access the correct sub-menu, it was also too hard for a new visitor to the site to even know what they wanted to pick from such a detailed list.

As Krug says, people develop a sense of “direction” in a website and confidence that they are getting closer to their destination if they have one of two easy decisions (clicks) that seem to be taking them closer to their goal.

An added advantage? Complicated sets of drop-down menus can be tough to navigate on a smartphone, which is increasingly what website visitors are using.

We scaled back the complexity of the menus and used nice-looking menus on the subpages to help users navigate from a better starting point. And on subsequent projects, I learned the value of simplicity in menus. Use words people are used to seeing, such as “About” and “Contact.” Use six or fewer choices in the menu so visitors can quickly scan and find a choice that suits them, rather than having to spend 20 or 30 seconds trying to figure out what to click.

Not all clients agree, and we aim to please our clients.

But websites work the way people use them, whether we like it or not.

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