In preparation for the move to our new office this summer, and in an ongoing effort to cultivate a fun and Google-like atmosphere at work, we recently acquired a multi-game arcade cabinet for the space. Once we had set it up, however, we quickly realized that the machine's GUI was bulky, non-intuitive, and obviously not designed to handle large amounts of content. Luckily, we had the option of either customizing or completely replacing the GUI on our machine, but it did get me thinking about navigation and structure when it comes to software, especially client websites. Even with smaller businesses sites and eCommerce stores with small inventories, ease of access to your content is key.
Of course, any SEO expert will tell you that your site is only as good as its content, but, just as important is how users are expected to be able to get to that content. If it's hidden behind the wrong navigation link names, or buried in deeply-nested sub-menus, you can expect your bounce rate to remain fairly high.
I urge you to review your website and ask the following five questions:
1. Is your site navigation and information laid out in a way that makes sense to the user?
The original GUI that came with our arcade cabinet had no obvious navigation or file menus, which were revealed only after pressing various keys. How were we expected to dig into the configuration options and sorting functions if we were flying blind?
If your site has more than a few pages of content, you're going to need a navigation solution that organizes those pages into a logical hierarchy. Put your most important information, such as “Services” or “Products”, directly on the main navigation of your site. Make sure your groupings and categories make sense-- a page about “Our Staff “ would make much more sense under “About Us” than, say, “Our Services.” Your navigation should be obvious and legible, one of the functional focal points of your design. Use rollover effects to provide contrast and animation to indicate that users can interact with that content. Consider arrows or other icons to indicate that main navigation items contain one of more sub-menus. You should also consider investing some time testing or polling to determine what terms your users actively use or look for on your site. On one web project I worked on for a major hotel chain, it was discovered right before launch that the majority of their users were not familiar with the term “Amenities,” and so a new name for a major navigation item on their site had to be determined. Even though your navigation might make sense to you, your users might use a very different vocabulary when interacting with your presence on the web.
2. Can the user navigate to the information they need in one click, or in as few clicks as possible?
When it was time to configure our game machine, we found that many of the control options lurked deep within dense, technical menus instead of right on the main level of navigation.
One thing that businesses often overlook is the placement of one or more conspicuous calls to action on the home page of their sites. Instead of forcing users to dig for a contact form or specific product information, consider placing a button that links directly to these resources, or a short form to request quotes or schedule appointments. You can add call-out boxes to your main services or highest-selling products to give users a shortcut to what they're probably already looking for. If you have a complex site with many layers and sub-layers of information, consider adding ways for users to drill down directly to that content or product if they already know what they need.
3. Are shortcuts, site search, or other measures in place so that users can sift through a large amount of content easily to find what they want?
Another issue we ran into at the office was that our list of available games was so long that it took quite some time to scroll through the entire list, much longer than necessary. A simple search function in the GUI would have solved the problem right away.
As your site gets larger, the need for a search box becomes readily apparent. Breadcrumbs or sub-menu drop-downs at the tops of secondary pages can help users easily dig down into one area of specific content, then easily climb back up to explore another route. A sitemap is another useful way to provide users with a visual representation of how an entire site is laid out, and submitting this sitemap to Google has become quite a useful tactic in the ever-evolving war to gain more search exposure. Internal page links, especially on such pages as FAQs, can be instrumental in enabling users to quickly move around the content on single, longer pages. Adding redundant site navigation to the footer of your site will also help users switch site categories without having to scroll all the way back up to the top of the page.
4. Does your site have a wide variety of content to engage users and keep them on your site longer?
With our arcade machine, some GUIs offered little more than a text list of available games, while others had colorful logos and screenshots of actual gameplay next to them to help tell us what each title was about. Without these visual aids, we might not remember that a certain game had been a childhood favorite decades ago.
Having well-written content is simply not enough. Most users will turn off and leave a site if they have to wade through page after page of text, even if that text is keyword-rich from a search engine point of view. Make sure to add appropriate graphics that correspond to the content on the page, and videos can be especially useful in expanding on a given topic or showing a product in use. You can definitely overdo it in this area, and break up the flow of text with constant graphical interruptions, but a moderate addition of visual interest will keep users on the page and engaged for longer periods of time.
5. Is your site built in a way that works and looks good on a variety of devices and/or screens?
We found that our gaming machine had the ability to accept a wide variety of monitors, from CRT boxes and sleek flat screens to television displays. Some of the GUIs, however, looked better at a certain size or horizontal/vertical alignment than others. The key was to find one that not only worked for our current situation, but that could also adapt for an inevitable future display upgrade.
As we now live in an age where visits from mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets account for 25% of all web traffic in the world, you simply can't afford to leave mobile users in the dark. Depending on who you ask, different experts will champion separate, customized mobile sites while others will endorse responsive design-- that is, building your site in such a way that it shifts and resizes the layout dynamically to better fit a wide variety of internet-enabled devices. The biggest detractors of the former method are that most businesses simply don't have the time or budgets to build separate versions of their site for every possible mobile device out there, and that depending on how one builds these mini-sites, they may end up having their own copies of the main site's content that will need to be updated separately. The latter method, on the other hand, should provide a decent fit to most of the common mobile devices currently on the market, and if it's built right, many of the ones yet to come... and it displays the same content as the main site, so you only need to do your updates once.
In short, you can never underestimate how important your navigation, content hierarchy, site design, and information layout are in terms of the overall user experience your site provides. A clean, intuitive, adaptive site will allow users get to the information they need quickly and efficiently, and is more likely to generate repeat visits and recommendations to other users.