What is the role of a navigation bar on a media website? While it isn't necessarily the driver of traffic on a homepage, it still serves as a way to introduce and orient readers to the information architecture of the site. That's why designing a good navigation bar begins with having well-organized content.
In previous posts, we've talked about our own navigation bar design at eMedia Vitals
and provided examples of navigation bars at media companies
. This post discusses the purpose of the navigation bar and how taxonomy (or the tagging and classification of content) should play a role in its design.
Media companies can only create a navigational scheme after they agree on a classification scheme, said Seth Earley, CEO of Earley & Associates, Inc
., an information management consulting company.
In the past, navigation on media sites was static, like a table of contents. "The whole tree of pages, the site map, was something you could actually display and say 'here's what our site looks like," said Gary Kahn, client services partner at Early & Associates.
Now navigation is more often tied to tagging of content, so that clicking on an item in a nav bar (like the one on this site) takes you on a search of content of that label. Earley & Associates calls it "faceted navigation" — meaning whatever navigation bar you are designing is tied back to the tagging of content.
"The line between search and navigation is blurring," Earley said.
The classification-first strategy becomes even more important as media companies move into multiple delivery platforms, Kahn said. Though design-wise website navigation can't translate directly to a smartphone or tablet device, the content classification can. Earley said a good classification system can be applied to different purposes and different audiences.
"You can create a lot of navigation constructs from the same classification," Earley said.
Navigation trends: Semantic tech, personalization
As classification gets more complex, incorporating elements such as semantic technology
, so does navigation. Navigation is shifting to be more topical and intuitive, rather than designed around predefined sections (business, sports, etc.).
As more publishers incorporate semantic technology, navigation design will change. At B2B
publisher Meister Media
, which is redesigning its Web properties using Nstein
, a taxonomy-based CMS, the sites will still have a horizontal nav bar but will offer new opportunities to navigate through content. For instance, the sites will have the capability to feature "related content" boxes next to stories. "We'll have many windows into the site through these widgets," said Jim Sulecki, director, eMedia at Meister Media Worldwide.
These capabilities could eventually change the requirements for the nav bar, Sulecki noted. For example, a site could have "related video" next to content rather than keeping "video" in the nav bar on every page, like many media companies do. "Rather than selling just the concept of video, we'd sell the content itself," he said.
While Sulecki agrees the navigation bar is still important, he says it's no longer the only way to introduce visitors to other sections, as this topical navigation becomes more common. Only about 5.5 percent of homepage traffic on Meister's sites goes to the navigation bar. "The nav bar is one of six, seven, eight devices to get around the site," he said.
The next step for navigation may be personalization
. Usability expert Peter Eckert, chief creative officer of design firm projekt201
, noted that the technology already exists to tune navigation to the individual user. For instance, if a reader on a news site only looks at business content, the navigation bar could focus on business topics. “Why couldn’t navigation strategies adjust based on my needs?” Eckert asked.
The navigation bar may not be as important as a content gateway as it once was (Gawker
decided to dump it altogether). But it still lets the reader know where he is and how to stay on a certain path — like a sign on a trail or a guardrail on the highway, noted Cia Romano, CEO of Interface Guru
, which specializes in user experience. For instance, if I'm directed on Twitter to a People.com story about the Grammy Awards, when I arrive it is clear to me which section and subsection I am in:
“The role of the navigation is to orient you and support you and to move you through the content — to expose the content," said Romano. “You don’t need to use the guardrail to get to where you’re going, but you need it to make sure you’re not going to fall off.”