Considerations for the menu system on your website
Designing website navigation is part of defining a user experience strategy. This is concerned with finding the most effective combination of design and userbility to give your customers the best possible experience.
The primary navigation of a website normally comes in the form of a menu. The menu may all appear on one page, or it may be a summary followed by sub menus on the individual pages. A successful menu will allow the user to traverse the menu from the top to the target node as fast as possible.
For a given number of choices, should they all be presented on one screen or should they be divided among several screens?
It becomes a decision between breadth and depth. A broad menu, on one screen, requires the user to scan a large list of items, which increases both search time and response time. It also affects design, as the menu will either cover a greater area, or have smaller items.
However a deep menu system, shown across a number of pages, requires a greater number of choices. As the user scans and responds to each item, it will be faster than a broader model, but the target item may be difficult to locate if the menu titles are ambiguous.
Hick’s law describes the time it takes for a person to make a decision as a result of the possible choices he or she has. It is often referred to in menu design but
is not necessarily an accurate mechanism due to the linear style of menu reading. In a menu, a user has to go through each option in order and make a decision before moving on. Hick’s law suggests that at each stage, the user eliminates half of the choices available, which is non-linear, although partly true in a deep model.
Common errors in the menu design include:
1. Category names within the menu do not represent items within the category.
2. The user gets the impression there are additional items in the category.
3. The category names are ambiguous or overlap
Another thing to consider is the amount of times a particular menu item is accessed. Some will have a far higher user interaction rate than others, e.g. in a file menu within an application, copy and paste will almost certainly be used more often than exit, yet exit might be seen to be more important, as it is a definite requirement.
As such, important and regularly used items should be placed within easy reach.
In summary, good user experience requires simple and consistent site navigation so users have clear pathways to the content that interests them most.
In 1985, Landauer & Nachbar give a depth vs. breadth summary:
“For lists of linearly organized arrays such as numbers, alphabetized lists, letters of the alphabet, and months of the year, one should increase breadth to the maximum practical level.
When there is no inherent linear ordering of alternatives, users may scan items sequentially. When this is the case, user response time may approximate a linear function and the optimal number of alternatives will fall between 3 and 12 depending on various user characteristics and system parameters. However, if multiple levels of the hierarchical menu can be displayed in an organized manner in one frame, response time can be reduced with much broader menus. The overriding principle is to provide organization, whether linear or hierarchical, to the user as a vehicle for visually locating target items.
It may very well be that the depth vs. breadth trade-off issue is really misplaced and that the transcending issue is that of effectively revealing menu organization to users, while reducing the number of frames and responses required to locate target items.”