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Web Design, Usability

Tips for Streamlining Your Site’s Navigation (Part II)

website wireframeIn Part I of this post, we observed how newly launched college and university websites are abandoning complex navigation schemas and adopting a tighter focus on priority audiences, often singling out prospective students. We offered advice to help you make the case for a similar focus on your institution’s site.

Now let’s go a step further, looking at how you develop a simpler approach to menu structures and other navigation tools, and how you can justify this focus once your new, user-friendly site goes live.

Use Information Architecture Tactics and Tools

Information architecture organizes and labels website content. It yields directory structures, menus, taxonomies, and other features that help users navigate and search.

Here are a few tactics and tools that can help you architect a better site:

  • Content inventories: By listing out all the content on your site (and any content that’s missing), you’ll develop a detailed grasp of everything you need to organize. Most inventory formats go page by page, identifying audiences, goals, content owners, and current/future URLs.
  • User personas: Drawn from research and experience, personas provide pictures of typical website visitor groups, identifying demographics, needs and goals, technology preferences, and the like.
  • Card sorts: Recruit actual site visitors to sort your most important content topics (no more than 50) into categories that can inform directory/URL structures, menus, or more. You can use similar techniques with your web team to develop more expansive structures.
  • Visual sitemaps: Show proposed menu structures using tools like Microsoft Visio or Lucidchart, starting from the home page and continuing down through as many levels as practical.
  • Wireframes: Take sitemaps a step further by sketching key pages (usually the home page, sample second-level pages, and various specialized page types) to show relationships between menus and other kinds of content.

Establish Clear Hierarchies

Link-heavy college and university websites tend to feature competing menus, challenging site visitors to figure out which one matters most. Better navigation schemas clearly establish main, secondary, and even tertiary menus.

Placement, size, and function all help identify main menus. A site’s main menu may be the only set of links that trigger dropdowns or mega menus (controversial in some usability quarters, but useful for complex sites).

On mobile displays, multiple menus may merge behind a “hamburger” icon. Even here, foreground main menu items by placing them first or applying distinctive type styles.

Define and design all your site-wide navigation elements—menus and other features that carry across most or all of your site’s pages—with care. A link that appears on every page needs to serve a clear need and draw significant traffic.

Look Beyond Menus

Menus can’t list everything, and they don’t have to. Other ways of showcasing content can keep your site dynamic, enhance usability, and drive considerable traffic.

Home page “hero” images, featured links, news or event headlines, and other elements can highlight people and programs, often more effectively than a link tucked into a sub-sub menu. They offer flexibility to showcase topics that otherwise might never get a spot on the home page.

A robust site search also helps get content in front of audiences. Whatever search tool you integrate into your site, results should use quality metadata or manual tuning to elevate the most relevant pages.

Conduct Usability Tests

Once you develop new navigation schemas for your site, ask real site visitors to help you test them. You can conduct usability studies using fully rendered drafts, wireframes, or even paper sketches—just identify key questions or tasks and turn your subjects loose. (Deploy usability tests on your current site if you want to build a case for change.)

Commit to Assessment and Improvement

Streamlining navigation is perhaps the biggest challenge of a college/university website redesign—everybody wants their link on the home page, and eliminating or moving any single link can test political capital and sheer will.

Ideally, you’ll have strategy (i.e., audience focus) and data (analytics) on your side, but pledging to evaluate results and make ongoing improvements also can help assuage concerns. Track feedback, establish an assessment schedule, report out what you find, and correct course as needed.

Proactive communication is key to any major website change. Emphasize the need for cleaner navigation as you introduce your redesign project, noting how audience behavior, available digital channels, and higher education marketing conventions have changed since your current site launched. Being clear about what you aim to do—and, more importantly, why—can set you on the path to a more usable, manageable, and effective site.

For more, read Part I of this blog post.

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Marcel Ayers

Director of Web Development

Marcel is a California native who has called Camarillo home for the past 19 years. A lover of both coffee and tech, he founded an online coffee bean and home roasting supply business in 2003 and then an IT and web development company in 2004. Today, as Director of Web Development at OmniUpdate, Marcel oversees the process of bringing customer sites into the OU Campus system. In his free time, you’ll find him taking advantage of the California outdoors from mountain biking and skiing, to surfing and hiking.

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