Yesterday, I stumbled across a large ad agency website that promised to be interesting. As soon as I clicked on the link in Google, my senses were assaulted by a splash page, followed by a Flash intro, all before I could enter the site. Yes, it took two clicks before I was even at the homepage...that is appalling! Why on earth is anyone in this day and age still creating websites with splash pages and Flash intros, let alone both on the same site! That borders on visitor abuse.

This particular agency claimed to have won lots of awards, create ground-breaking campaigns, along with all kinds of other lofty promises, and yet they couldn't even get their own usability issues under control! Wow, talk about missing the point. If I was a potential client, I would have been out the door as soon as I saw the splash page.

Ditch the lofty ideas and focus on the users.

Big ideas are great when executed with usability in mind, but when the they become a hindrance to users, it's time to go back to basics. Why? Because unhappy users don't convert. You won't sell product, you won't get contracts, and you won't achieve your other conversion metrics if you make people want to run away.

Navigation is the Foundation of Usability

The first and foremost element of good usability is navigation. Almost all other usability issues are built on, or in some way related to navigation. This article will focus on some key tips you can use to improve your site's navigation.

Navigation 101: 3 Clicks or Bust

When someone visits your site for the first time, it's often their first point of contact with your company, so the relationship with them is quite fragile. On average, people are willing to give you 3 clicks to find what they are looking for, and if they can't reach their target destination within those 3 little clicks, you've lost them. It's extremely important to structure your navigation so that any page of your site can be reached within 3 clicks of any other page, because users don't always enter at the homepage, especially when they come from a search engine.

This point is really what sparked this post. The ad agency mentioned above wasted two of these valuable clicks before a user was ever at the homepage. Take a look at your site: When you have a new visitor, can they get to their target destination in 3 clicks or less? If not, you need to overhaul your navigation. Users tend to get lost without clear navigational paths, so make it easy for them. Take time at the beginning of site development to create a good site map, and sketch out navigational paths.

Redundancy is a good thing.

Provide multiple paths to the same destination. Take x product (or service) and make sure that users can get there through the primary navigation, the contextual links in the text of the site, and through any other paths that make sense, for example through site search results. The key is to think like a user.

Get outside feedback.

When developing a site, especially navigation, it often is necessary to get some people to visit your site who are completely unfamiliar with your site and products/services, and get their feedback. You might be surprised. Often outside feedback can you step back and see some weaknesses you weren't aware of.

Make sure it's easy to read.

Keep in mind that eye-tracking studies have shown the users' eye tend to gravitate toward the top and left sides of the screen, starting with the top left corner, so those are prime locations for navigation. Users should never have to scroll to find navigation buttons/links.

There a many more things that can improve and fine-tune navigation, but these are some easy tips, that if implemented, will improve the user experience at your site.

May 8, 2008

Scott is the CEO and founder of Red Sand Marketing, a San Diego SEO and web design firm. A dynamic mix of marketer, designer, and developer, he thrives on all aspects of internet marketing and web development. Having been involved in search engine optimization and web design since 1996, he and his team consistently achieve top search engine rankings for clients in competitive markets, and have won multiple web design awards along the way.


While I agree 100% with you. You would be amazed at how many potential clients are wow'ed and caught up on the bells and whistles but have no concept of usability.

I have had to turn down projects... and have lost tenders because I don't want the flash into. Less hassle for me today, but if people continue to litter the internet with sites like this we all lose.

Thanks for the great article, Scott. I also agree with you: usability should be the #1 priority in web design.

The difficulty lies in trying to balance what people need with what they want. The majority of people LOVE the "bells and whistles". Unfortunately, the prettier something gets, the less practical it becomes.

One of our favourite sayings around these here parts is: "A little goes a long way".

@Robert, @Steph: I know exactly what you both are talking about. :) What the client wants isn't always what's good for them, and part of our job as hired experts is to help communicate that, and help clients understand what IS best. Some firms/consultants take shortcuts, and are ok with simply implementing client instructions that they know are ultimately bad for the client. I think you guys are of the same opinion that I am - that we can't do that ethically. So it becomes extremely important to help clients understand what the best options are. Oh, it's definitely a challenge sometimes. :)

I would say there's nothing wrong with bells and whistles, as they can greatly enhance a user's experience when implemented correctly; it's just important that we listen to our old friend Frank Lloyd Wright:

"Form follows function — that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union."

So, the lesson we learn from that is: Function (usability) first, then Form (design, bells and whistles, etc). Both are important, they just need to work together, with the priority being on usability.

Hi Scott,

Your article makes valid points. I especially like the paragraph,

"Keep in mind that eye-tracking studies have shown the users' eye tend to gravitate toward the top and left sides of the screen, starting with the top left corner, so those are prime locations for navigation. Users should never have to scroll to find navigation buttons/links."

Now stand back and look at this page, where the article appears. It violates that rule!


@Colin: Thanks. I'm glad you found the article helpful. :) Every single website in existence has room for improvement, although I don't think this site violates that guideline at all. Notice I was talking specifically about navigation, not article placement: "those are prime locations for navigation. Users should never have to scroll to find navigation buttons/links". The main navigation for the site is along the top of the page, so it's perfectly within the guideline I mentioned. When I said a user shouldn't have to scroll to find the main navigation, that doesn't mean you can't place navigation elements in other places in the page. In fact it's good to add other navigation in various places throughout your pages (where it makes sense and as long as it doesn't clutter). Hope that helps clear things up.

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Search Engine Guide > Scott Allen > Site Navigation and Usability: Easy Tips for Happy Users