Good web site navigation builds your brand

One point I often make in discussing web site design with clients is that your site’s navigation is also part of your brand. On the web “the brand is the experience and the experience is the brand.”*

Recently a potential client in discussing a web site redesign expressed how their content management vendor’s implementation of navigation with multiple levels of fly-out menus caused problems for older alumni (who can’t drive a mouse as well as they used too — this issue it not limited to older individuals, by the way). The vendor is probably no doubt proud of the technical aspects of its menus — it uses them frequently in its online portfolio examples — but this is an example where the technical solution is not the best human solution, and it leaves a bad impression with certain users.

James Kalbach writes in Designing Web Navigation that while the “cost of finding information is high, the cost of not finding information is perhaps higher.”** A site’s navigation plays a role in expressing a brand, it:

Communicates … priorities and values through categories, the order of options, and the tone of the labels. Well-structured navigation also contributes to the overall credibility…. People seem to trust a site that appears clearly organized with an easy-to-use navigational structure.

How you help or hinder your site visitor’s completion of his or her goals and whether you respect or waste a user’s time, feeds the stream of impressions about your institution. In the example above, the message is: We don’t care so much about our older alumni. If your navigation is “cool,” but unusable by persons with disabilities, you are sending a pretty definite message about your institution, and its brand, into the world.

We’re all aware that our brand extends beyond the visual aspects of it. We’re frequently much better at implementing the visual parts — the logo, the stationery package, the publications, the appearance of the website — than we are the physical and experience aspects. But our brand’s story is also informed by physical interactions and by experiences, whether we actively try to mange those aspects or not. An unhelpful employee can damage the impression of your brand for a campus visitor. A campus tour and the appearance of your physical plant can affirm or change your brand impression in the mind of a prospect or a parent. And nothing can telegraph an organization’s thinking about its consumers or audiences quicker than its web site.

In web projects there’s often pressure to get to something visual very quickly, but web design is as much, if not more, about enabling an experience as it is about including the logo and new pictures of the quad. Your site’s navigation, and the information architecture and the back-end technical systems supporting it, are the foundation of the online experience. Design decisions should always consider accessibility, responsiveness, and polite degradability (for assistive technology devices and older browsers) with the goal to leave site visitors with a delightful, as opposed to frustrating, experience. Navigation design should not be left to the IT intern or the default settings of your content management system.

* Dayal, S., Landesberg, H. and Zeisser, M., “Building Digital Brands,The McKinsey Quarterly, May 2000: 42-51.

** Kalbach, James, Designing Web Navigation (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2007) 22.

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