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When users visit our website, whether they arrive at the home page or a deeper page, they usually skim the main content first, in the top center of the page. After all, a certain piece of content is really what they’re after.

However, they are also starting to build a mental model of our site. This model includes:

  • The layout of items on the page (header, sidebars, comments, etc.), and

  • The shape and scope of the site itself (breadcrumb, main navigation, utility links, footer, etc.)

Finding the right content the first time

If the content satisfied them, they may leave (which is great – we answered their question instantly – well done!).

Or they may decide that this site is pretty good and see what else we have that they want, in which case they’ll need a way to see where they are, what’s available, and how to get there.

A clearly visible main navigation, showing the top-level sections of our site and where the user currently is, is what our visitor is looking for and expecting.


Providing a safety net                 

If the initial page did not satisfy our visitor, they’re likely to ask themselves two very quick questions:

  • Am I at the right site?
    When we search the web, we get all kinds of hits, but many of them are a waste of time. As a result, we’ve gotten very good at separating the wheat from the chaff.
    When we visit that first page of a site, we’re instantly looking around to see if this is the kind of site that has what we want, or if we should just click Back now and cut our losses. Seeing a clear navigation tree and specific terms helps our visitor make this decision.

    • If this is the right site for them, we provide them ways to get to the right content, even though the first page they saw wasn’t the correct one.

    • If this isn’t the right site for them, a clear navigation tree will make it clear to them that they should leave now (painlessly) instead of wasting their time hunting around our site looking for content it doesn’t have. It’s the polite thing to do.

  • Where in this site should I go?
    If they decide to delve further into our site, we need to give them an idea of what we cover, what we don’t, and where to go next.
    If they’re looking for content related to the page they stumbled upon, a “related pages” box on the page can help.
    But it’s also helpful for them to be able to see the overall structure of the site, and where they are in it, so they can orient themselves and make an informed choice about where to click next.


Next: Why search is not enough


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