Search as navigation

With the trend of minimalist and clutter-free design, sometimes it is assumed that users prefer to search above all else. But often that’s not the case. Typically, people use search if they know exactly what they’re looking for, or if they cannot find something through browsing.

Search should only be the primary navigation for a website if the site’s main function is to be a search engine. For example, Google, Bing, and job search boards can all use this approach. But in the context of an information-heavy site like a university, browsing is essential for increasing discoverability of content.


Role-based navigation

But role-based navigation like this poses the same problems it does on other university sites. Users don’t necessarily self-identify, and they often don’t understand which audience category contains the content that they want. For example, many parents view the page for prospective students well before they view the page for parents. Evaluate whether topic-based organization might be more efficient for your users. And if you are using audience-based organization, be sure that each audience is specific and distinct, and include the information that is most relevant to that audience.

Katie Sherwin in:

Navigation is meaningful

Kalbach presents one of the most convincing arguments in favor of web navigation. The problem with removing navigation is that “people wouldn’t have a sense of beginning or end in their search for information, and orientation would be difficult” (p.6). Without the hierarchy of a table of contents, users would lack a sense of the whole, the beginning to end structure of the content. Kalbach then says, “Navigation provides a narrative for people to follow on the Web. It tells a story–the story of your site. In this respect, there is something both familiar and comforting about web navigation. The widespread, seemingly natural use of navigation to access content on the Web reflects its strength as a narrative device” (p.10). In other words, your navigation, which presents a hierarchy of information to the reader, gives users clues about the meaning of the content by mere fact of its organization.

Tom Johnson quoting from James Kalbach’s book ‘Designing Web Navigation’

Building blocks of navigation

Navigation system components:

  • Global
  • Local
  • Understanding the difference between children and siblings
  • Avoiding purpose-less pages
  • Prioritized local navigation
  • Faceted search
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Utility
  • Related links
  • Social filters
  • Quick links
  • Site map
  • Process/navigation
  • Pagination
  • Tag clouds
  • Spatial navigation

Navigation patterns and behavior

  • Tabs
  • Vertical links
  • Filmstrip
  • Accordion
  • Standard hyperlinking
  • Landing pages
  • Sub-navigation bars
  • Drop-down menus
  • Fly-out menus
  • Cascading menus
  • Mega menus

From NN Group training syllabus


Use links meaningfully:

  • Deliver users to their desired objective.
  • Give them links that communicate scent in a meaningful way (e.g. with meaningful trigger words)
  • Make the real estate reflect the user’s desires.

‘A more accurate name for the search box would be B.Y.O.L.: Bring Your Own Link. What do people type into this box: trigger words! … The key thing to understand is that people don’t want to search. There’s a myth that some people prefer to search. It’s the design of the site that forces them to search. The failure rate for search is 70%.’

Essence of a talk given by Jared Spool on ‘An event apart’, Boston MA, 2011
From Jeremy Keith’s notes

8 principles of Information Architecture

  1. Treat content as objects
  2. Manage the paradox of choice (Less is more)
  3. Disclose progressively
  4. Provide examples
  5. Provide multiple front doors
  6. Allow for growth
  7. Think in facets (Provide multiple classification schemes)
  8. Navigate by function; move away from thinking ‘Top navigation’, ‘Left hand nav’, ‘utilities’ etc and think of different navigation types that support interaction with the site, eg Topical navigation, Service navigation, Magazine navighation, Dynamic navigation … (examples mentioned in talk, don’t necessarily agree with these types but like the general idea of describing navigation by its purpose (see quote below).

“Navigation is a tool and we must think about it in terms of the purpose that it serves … (such as) exploring related topics, digging deeper into a current topic, escaping from the current topic, filtering a collection. (…) Don’t describe navigation in terms of where it lives on the page but what it does.”

Dan Brown Eight principles of Information Architecture

10 things that are more important than menu navigation

Slideshow notes ‘10 saker som ar vigtigare an navigation pa din sajt‘ (

  1. Short ways (eg repetive bread crumbs, relevant links, popular links)
  2. Tags (to allow for horizontal categorisation and/or crowd-sourced semantics)
  3. Timing (currently rather underestimated, even in Google search results)
  4. Linked keywords (as in Wikipedia)
  5. Social media (What is relevant to your friends might be relevant to you)
    Meaningful categories
  6. Improved landing pages (eg meaningful URLs)
  7. Outsourced navigation (eg serach results on google provide mini navigation)
    Improved site serach
  8. SEO

Transitional volatility in Web Navigation

According to Danielson, people navigate in a cycle of habituation, prediction, and re-orientation:

  1. Habituation: While interacting with a web site, people become accustomed to its navigation mechanisms and overall systems. But it’s not just the currently viewed page that contributes to habituation: people may have memory of all pages they’ve experienced. For each navigation act, they bring prior knowledge and expectations.
  2. Prediction: From patterns of navigation within a web site and cues that provide ‘scent’ to information, such as link labels and link position, people predict the attributes of destination pages. They anticipate what comes nect while navigating.
  3. Re-orientation: Once a new page is reached, people familiarize themselves with it. Re-orientation occurs. The navigation on the new page now becomes incorporated into the navigator’s model of the site, and the cycle begins again.

From David R. Danielson ‘Transitional volatility in Web Navigation‘, cited in Kalbach (2007, p.34)