How to deal with the fact that people tend to
ignore navigation tools
Most web development projects put a lot of effort into
the design of navigation tools. But fact is that people tend to ignore
these tools. They are fixated on getting what they came for and simply
click on links or hit the back button to get there.
The navigation tools that have become standard on the web seem to
be designed with the ambition to give users the option to go anywhere
from everywhere. Menus with links to all the main sections are discretely
placed to the left or at the top throughout the site and fold out and
drop down to reveal where you are and where you can go.
In this way, every page on a website becomes a major traffic junction,
where road signs point you in all directions. But people have specific
destinations in mind. Above all, they need clear signage along the way
to their destinations.
Users click on links or hit the back button
Two of the world's most well-respected usability experts Jakob Nielsen
and Mark Hurst agree on at least one area: Users tend to ignore navigation
and don't care where they are in a site structure. They are highly goal-driven
and follow a very simple click-link-or-hit-back-button strategy when
Jakob Nielsen: "For almost seven years, my studies
have shown the same user behavior: users look straight at the content
and ignore the navigation areas when they scan a new page."
"…users are extremely goal-driven and look only for the one
thing they have in mind…"
"…if a page does not appear relevant to the user's current
goals, then the user will ruthlessly click the Back button…"
(from the article Is
navigation useful? published in 2000)
Mark Hurst: "In my seven years of working on the
Web's user experience, a lot has changed online - but one thing that
hasn't changed much is the way that most users use the average website."
"…on any given Web page, users have a particular goal in mind,
and this goal drives their use. Either they click on a link that they
think will take them toward the goal, or (seeing no appropriate forward
clicks) they click the Back button to take another path." (from the
article The Page
Paradigm published in 2003)
According to our two experts, this goal-directed click-link-or-hit-back-button
strategy is a fundamental phenomenon on the web. They have both experienced
it as a constant usage pattern throughout their years of studying users,
and it doesn't seem to be a behaviour that is likely to change. Users
have apparently settled on a low-level approach to website navigation.
Users ignore navigation areas
When users come to a site, they have something specific in mind. They
come for a reason. This reason might be exact, such as buying a Canon
IXUS 40, or vague, such as finding a gift for a family member. But there
is always a reason, and people are typically so fixated on accomplishing
their goals, that they ignore everything that doesn't appear to be relevant
to their current task.
There doesn't seem to be any research confirming that users systematically
ignore navigation areas, but the behaviour is very similar to the phenomenon
of "banner blindness." Studies
by the research team Benway and Lane has shown that when users search
for information on a website, they generally ignore anything that looks
like a banner ad. In fact, they found that people tend to ignore any
elements that are visually separated from everything else. Their findings
suggest that separating navigation areas from the rest of a page may
result in navigation blindness.
Two other studies support Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst's observations.
A study by Software
Usability Research Laboratory (SURL) has shown that usage of breadcrumb
trails in site navigation is very low, while an
eye-tracking study by the usability agency UIE has shown that users
will typically only shift their attention away from the centre area
of a web page after failing to find ways to proceed in the centre.
is quite fascinating how people can focus at a task at hand and totally
exclude everything else in their surroundings. A study carried out
by Daniel Simons at Harvard University illustrates this phenomenon
very well. A number of volunteers watched a 30-second video starring
three basketball players wearing black T-shirts and three wearing white
ones. The viewers were told to count the number of passes made by one
of the teams. Halfway through the film, a man dressed as a gorilla
jumped into the middle of the picture, beat his chest at the camera,
and walked away. Afterwards the viewers where asked whether they had
seen anything unusual. Astonishingly, only a very few put their hand
up. The rest had been so fixated on counting the passes that they completely
missed the hairy interloper.
The implications of goal-directed navigation
Both Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst question the value of the navigation
schemes that have become standard on the web. Top menus, left menus
and breadcrumbs that are placed throughout the website are at best ignored
- at worst distracting. Others, such as Kristoffer Bohman, conclude
that pervasive navigation should die since it's rarely needed, hard
to interpret and take up valuable space.
According to Jakob Nielsen there is no need to link to all sections
from each and every page on a site. We should limit pervasive navigation
to five or six basic features and let people go back to the front page,
if they want to start from the top. Instead, we should focus on getting
users to what they want and provide useful links to related content.
In Mark Hurst's opinion designers put too much effort into content
organisation and design of navigation systems. Organising a site into
sections and subsections does not by itself create a good user experience.
What matters is whether users can quickly and easily advance to the
next step in the pursuit for their goal. He suggests a three step strategy
to design for the click-link-or-hit-back-button behaviour:
- Identify users' goals on each page
- De-emphasize or remove any page elements (or areas of a site) that
don't help to accomplish the goal
- Emphasize (or insert) those links, forms, or other elements that
either take users closer to their goal, or finally accomplish it.
Mark Hurst also strikes a blow against consistency. In his opinion,
it's silly to add navigation elements to a page just because it's consistent
with the rest of the site. Consistency should not be the ruling principle.
He encourages designers to instead focus on the users' goals and the
flow they go through to get there.
Facilitating the click-link-or-hit-back-button behaviour
So how can we facilitate click-link-or-hit-back-button navigation?
According to Jared Spool from UIE, trigger words are what make users
able to continue towards their target. Trigger words are the words and
phrases that make people click on links. They contain the essential
elements that provide the motivation to proceed to the next page.
Jared Spool has formulated what he calls the Move-Forward-Until-Found
"...a web page can do only one of two things: either it contains
the content the user wants or it contains the links to get them to
the content they want. If a page doesn't follow this rule, then the
users stop clicking..." (from the article The Right Trigger Words)
In a study where the participants were first interviewed about what
they hoped to find on a number of large websites, UIE found that when
the participants were successful in finding their target content, the
words that they used in the interview appeared 72% of the time on the
site's front page. When they were unsuccessful, their words appeared
only 6% of the time. The study suggests that if the right trigger words
are present on the front page, users are far more likely to find what
they are looking for.
Jared Spool uses a redesign of the website for the company Analog
Devices as an example of a site which has tested well with users because
of its focus on trigger words. The site was redesigned from a typical
high tech industrial website with a few product category links on the
front page to a site with a front page containing a huge number of trigger
words. Instead of having to guess what major category a particular product
falls under, the customers can quickly pick the closest product from
a list and go directly to the content they desire.
The front page of Analog Devices' website after
According to Jared Spool links have to give off enough "scent" to
help users move forward towards their goal. And that scent comes from
the trigger words. When new content is added to a site, it's the designers'
most important task to ensure that the links to that content contain
the right trigger words.
Facilitating explorative navigation
If people are so highly goal-driven and ignore everything that doesn't
relate to their current task, how can we possibly let them know about
additional benefits that might be of interest to them? In a study UIE
have found that users can be seduced away form their original quest
only after they have accomplished some or their entire goal. They call
this "the seducible moment."
"The seducible moment can happen only when users have completed at
least part of their original quest. It's difficult to lure users away
until they've reached this (self-defined) point; before that, they
will simply ignore distractions." (from the article The
Right Trigger Words)
As Jakob Nielsen and Mark Hurst, UIE have experienced that users come
to a site on a mission and will not stray ofF the path of their original
quest before this mission is fulfilled. But once they have found the
information they are most interested in, they seem more willing to shift
The seducible moment is the point at which designers are most likely
to be able to encourage users to explore additional content. To lure
users of their track, designers must identify these seducible moments,
discover what information would interest users at this point, and find
the optimal placement of the lure.
Since users are not willing to be seduced before they have accomplished
what they came for, persuasive navigation should be placed at locations
where we can expect that users have come to the end of their current
mission. A good placement is often towards the end of a page. If users
have come this far, they have shown such an interest in the content
that it's likely they have fulfilled their mission and will allow their
attention to be diverted.
Amazon.com has always been a good example of how to encourage costumers
to explore additional offers. After you have had the chance to evaluate
a book, the site invites you to check out other titles by the author,
books on the same subject, books that other customers have bought, and
recommendations based on your previous actions on the site.
It seems to be an inescapable fact that users are highly goal-driven
and tend to ignore navigation tools. Instead, they focus on the centre
area, and hit the back button if they can't find anything that will
take them further.
The findings suggest that navigation should be a prominent part of
a website. Instead of being discrete appendices separated from the rest
of the site, navigation should be integrated into the site and make
sure that users stay in the flow.
Some might say that it's not as bad as it seems. People will eventually
find the one link that takes them further after having examined a web
page more thoroughly. But why should we place this burden on people
if we can design navigation schemes based on how people actually navigate.
Text: Henrik Olsen