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Designing effective navigation systems for intranets

Thursday, April 14, 2005  

A good navigation system answers these questions:

  • What site is this?
  • What page am I on?
  • What are the major sections of this site?
  • What are my options?

Here are three navigation systems that work well in a variety of situations. All of them include persistent navigation: top navigation items that remain consistent on every page, giving the user a sense of place and familiarity.

BREADCRUMB (view sample)
Pros: Always works, at any level of the site
Cons: Requires 3 distinct navigation areas on screen.
Some tests show that users ignore breadcrumb navigation
(read Human Factors' report).

Pros: Always works, at any level of the site.
Requires only 2 navigation areas on screen.
Cons: Left navigation bar becomes more cluttered as you drill down.
Sibling and child pages could be pushed below the fold.

Pros: Keeps a clean, simple left navigation bar.
Cons: As users drill down, the parent and grandparent pages change. This could confuse some.

When designing navigation for your intranet, consider some of the more difficult scenarios. Can a user quickly navigate through a set of related items, like each benefit or perk in the employee section? What if some of the related items have child pages, and some do not? How will file downloads or external links be handled?

Usability testing for navigation design should start with card sorting, then paper prototype tests, and finally testing of a working digital prototype.

There is no perfect navigation system for a broad and deep site, as intranets usually are. But if you consider a variety of scenarios and employ several kinds of user testing, your navigation will be effective.

About the Author

I'm Chris McGrath, an intranet consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I've been working on intranets since 1997, and on plain ol' web sites for even longer. I run One Intranets, the firm that co-created ThoughtFarmer -- an enterprise collaboration platform for Windows-based intranets.