Faceted Overload: Simplifying the Sidebar Navigation

by on 01/19/12 at 3:08 pm

The benefit of using a faceted sidebar navigation on your website is that you aren’t vertically constrained by space. You can list as many links in the sidebar as you need. However, this known benefit also has an unknown downside. Listing too many links in your sidebar can lead to faceted overload. This is when the faceted navigation extends below the fold, and overwhelms users with links on the side of the page. This faceted overload makes information harder to find, slows users down and can clutter the page.

The reason information is harder to find with an overloaded sidebar is because part of the navigation lies below the fold. This means the entire navigation is not visible to users at once. They have to scroll down to see the rest. And most of them won’t do this unless there’s a reason to.

If the user hasn’t found what they’re looking for in the navigation above the fold, they might scroll down to look for it below the fold. However, that’s only if they have an idea of what they’re looking for. If they don’t have a target in mind, they’ll keep most of their attention on links above the fold and ignore the ones below. This can lead to users missing links they might need.

Another problem for a user who is looking for a below the fold link is that they have to spend time and effort scanning through all the links above the fold before they can get to the links below the fold. Users shouldn’t have to waste time and effort looking through the links they don’t need to get to the links they do need. Finding the link they need should happen in seconds, not minutes.

A faceted overload can also lead to slower user engagement or none at all. The more links you display to users, the longer it’ll take for them to make up their mind. They not only have to read through more stuff, but they also have to decide where to go through the process of elimination. In order to say yes to one link, they have to say no to all the other links on the page. This means they have to look and consider everything. And a full-page of links is too much to consider.

Showing the Top-Level Link First

The goods news is that there’s a way you can keep all the links in your sidebar navigation while minimizing the user’s workload. By applying faceted minimization you can display your navigation above the fold, and allow users to bypass the links they don’t need. This will make your page less cluttered, and save users time and effort.

Most faceted navigations have top-level links. A top-level link is the main title that describes all the other links under it. It’s what users should read first before they consider the other links. Faceted minimization hides the secondary links and shows only the top-level link first. Users only have to scan the main titles to find what they’re looking for. Once they find it, they click the main title and the other links show. With this approach, the user doesn’t have to look at every single link in the sidebar. And they don’t have to go digging below the fold. They can find what they’re looking for faster and easier by scanning the main titles first.

You might have one section of links in your sidebar that is often used by your users. In this case, you can keep that section displayed and unhidden as the default. If most users will use that section, you don’t want them to have to always click the top-level link to get to the other links under it.

Faceted sidebar navigations allow you to list many links along the side of your page. But you can still overdo this and overwhelm users if you list too many. When your sidebar navigation starts to get out of control, apply faceted minimization to make your navigation simpler and easier to use. Processing information and making decisions take time and energy. And users only have so much of it.


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Author and editor-in-chief of UX Movement. Loves great web experiences and fights for the user.

5 Responses to “Faceted Overload: Simplifying the Sidebar Navigation”

  1. Oli

    Jan 23rd, 2012

    Nice article – keeping primary navigation options visible above the fold is a good design choice.

  2. Tim from IntuitionHQ

    Jan 25th, 2012

    Navigation is the first thing we check when we do usability testing. It is one of the most important elements you need to find back on any page.

  3. Tim from IntuitionHQ

    Feb 19th, 2012

    Just doing research about site navigation. This article gave me some good ideas about how navigation should be organized.

  4. Vincent

    Mar 23rd, 2012

    Good article. Agreed with everything except I prefer the way that with new WordPress admin menu users only need to hover over each main item to reveal the sub-items, then if any are clicked that section stay open.

    This results in far less clicks and no need to guess what sub items are, which results in even less clicks as you can ‘see before you click’ what sub-items are there.

  5. Joel Siddall

    Nov 13th, 2013

    Interesting article. Some very good points here.

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