3 Common Website Navigation Menu Issues That Affect Usability


Effective website navigation should be like a well-designed map—it provides a “you are here” anchor and gives you a sense of where you could go and how best to get there. Website navigation helps visitors quickly understand what information the site contains and what they can do on the site. It displays the underlying structure and helps visitors decide if the site can help them accomplish the task they set out to accomplish. For something that provides so much utility, it’s surprising how often it’s not used effectively. I’ve highlighted three common issues below:

Common Issues

1. Hiding the menu on desktop design through the use of a hamburger menu icon. Hamburger menus are often used on mobile designs where space constraints make it impossible to display the website’s entire menu structure by default. As long as the three horizontal lines are accompanied by the word “Menu,” this is a convention that is commonly understood among people who regularly use mobile devices. On a desktop design, however, space is not at a premium and there is no reason to hide the menu. Users rely on the navigation to help them understand whether they can accomplish the task they want to accomplish or find the information they want to find on the site. Hiding the menu is an unnecessary annoyance, requiring an extra click and can be confusing to some users who expect desktop designs to have visible menus. Is it truly more work? That’s not the question. The issue is it seems like more work to the user.

2. Unnecessary or duplicate menu items. Navigation can often be used as a junk drawer—when people don’t know where to place content, they shove it into the menu and hope no one notices the mess. Over time, a thoughtfully-designed navigation can turn into a Frankenstein of items that appear similar, but are illogically separated. “Things that don’t fit anywhere else” is not a good category label. More importantly, users will often skip over labels that are vague or confusing. In usability studies, I’ve seen participants exhaust every other option in effort to avoid clicking on the label that, to them, seemed like a “junk drawer” that was irrelevant to their task.

3. Confusing categories and menu labels. What makes a menu label confusing? When a user doesn’t know what information they can expect to find on the linked page. Users first rely on items that are familiar and have helped them solve a task before (About Us, Contact Us, etc.) and next rely on “information scent.” Information scent is a term coined by researchers at Xerox PARC, and refers to the process users employ to find clues that will lead them down the path of successfully completing their task. If a user doesn’t think a label or call-to-action has a strong information scent, they’ll ignore it, look for something else that does, or leave the site assuming that it can’t help them. Menu labels that often fail information scent are jargon and marketing-speak—words and terms users tend to shy away from, anyway. You understand what they mean, but users don’t. Instead, be as literal and specific as you can.


Testing the Effectiveness of Your Navigation Menu

There are several ways to test the information architecture of your website, which can be conducted remotely, using online tools, or in-person:

1. Card sorting. Card sorting is a way to understand how users would group information on your website. You can provide pre-defined categories (closed card sort) or allow users to create their own categories (open card sort). Ask users to group digital or printed “cards” into categories that make the most sense to them. While these can be done remotely, adding a moderator can help you understand why participants grouped the cards the way they did.

2. Tree testing. Tree testing asks participants to perform pre-defined task scenarios using the structure of the website—minus the visual design. Based on the paths participants take and where they ultimately land, you get an understanding of how people look for information on your website based on the task they are trying to accomplish. Performing tree testing after card sorting is useful to see how the results of the card sort hold up when users are performing realistic tasks.

3. Usability testing. You can also perform usability studies on your website (or an in-progress prototype) to understand how users seek out information or what paths they take to perform certain tasks. Unlike card sorting and tree testing, usability studies incorporate the added factor of visual design, so you’ll be able to uncover roadblocks related to how the information is visually presented. However, while usability studies provide richer data, they are more time consuming and expensive to conduct.

If your team can’t agree on information categories and menu labels, these usability techniques are great ways to arrive at a consensus—let the user decide.


Have questions about your website’s information architecture or navigation menu? The results of our “observe, measure, improve” process pinpoint information architecture issues and give recommendations on how to fix them. Have questions? Send us a note.