Why Content Navigation Links Matter More Than Menus

by on 09/29/11 at 7:40 am

Before you spend hours debating with your colleagues and clients on how your menus should look, there’s something you should know. Users spend more time with content navigation links than they do with menus. In fact, some users don’t even look at menus. What users look at is page content. And that’s where they often go to navigate.

Why Content Navigation Links Matter More Than MenusOne of the reasons users use content navigation links more than menus is because they’re more engaging and can take users on a journey of content they’re interested in. As users view page content, they can click on any link they find interesting. This takes them to another page of content with links they can click that leads to another page of content with more links and so forth. Before users know it, they will have consumed multiple pages of content through the clicking of content navigation links. That’s true engagement.

Menus don’t have this same effect. They’re a boring list of links on the sides of the page that users only use when they’re already familiar with the site and know exactly what they want. Menus are handy and your site should have one, but they can’t engage users on a level that content navigation links can. This is because menus don’t come with content. They’re ambiguous labels that have little meaning to users who visit your site for the first time. First-time visitors aren’t looking at your menus to navigate. They’re looking at your content to navigate, which is why you should focus more of your energy on designing your landing pages than your menus. The landing page is where the user’s journey begins. It’s the starting page for an area of your site that includes attractive headlines, images and text to entice users to click-through to learn more.

Most designers obsess over the details of their menus because they assume that most users will use the menus to navigate. However, the truth is that most users will use content navigation links to navigate. While it’s important to have a usable menu, an engaging landing page matters more. If you aren’t seeing many page views on your site, you should worry less about your menus and focus more on improving your landing pages and content navigation links. That’s where users spend most of their time. And if you design that well, that’s where you’ll get a lot of your conversions.


Why Content Navigation Links Matter More Than Menus Why Content Navigation Links Matter More Than Menus

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

12 Responses to “Why Content Navigation Links Matter More Than Menus”

  1. Amit

    Sep 29th, 2011

    Interesting article and a reasonable conclusion…do you have any specific research or user-testing data that backs this?

  2. Cliff Tyllick

    Sep 29th, 2011

    Interesting. When I hear “in-page navigation,” I think of links that take a person to content farther down the same page, not to another page. I’m trying to think of an unambiguous term. Perhaps “content-based navigation”? Or just “links in content”?

    That said, this observation rings true with me. Much is being said lately about improving landing pages by making them more engaging, rather than devoting more time to defining one site-wide information architecture.

    In many cases — perhaps most — both need attention, but I’ll bet the take-home I get from this post is on target. And that’s to be sure that navigation menus are functional, but don’t worry about them beyond that — at least not until after you’ve invested significant effort in making your pages themselves perform flawlessly.

    • anthony

      Sep 29th, 2011

      I call those ‘jump’ links. You certainly got the take-home message of this post. Well-done.

  3. ngassmann

    Sep 30th, 2011

    I think it’d be good for you to clearly define what you mean by “in page links” and how it is different from what you call “jump” links and links found inside copy. I think it’d be easy for anyone to call all three “in page” navigation.

    I think by saying that the top navigation wouldn’t be used is a little bit of a stretch. The main nav on Apple’s site is the only consistent navigation on the site. You can get to all of their products from that top nav. Sacrificing real estate on every page is ridiculously unrealistic for graphical navigation. On a landing page? Sure. On a promotional page? Ok.

    However, what I think you’re dancing around is the idea of dropping a big dropdown for a simplified main nav with no dropdown and offering some sort of graphical representation of the subpages on that “landing page” overview.

    That makes sense and is a decent argument, IMO. Then again, comparing the ability to catch attention between a bucket of dropdown links and a stack of beautifully designed “mini banner ads” is like comparing a Kia to a Ferrari.

    • Poka-yoke

      Oct 4th, 2011

      Good comment Nick! In fact big dropdown menus can engage user in specific way and show him (or her) additional content or navigation.

      God showcase you can find on Superdit: http://tiny.cc/drop-menus

      Of course, we can’t fully compare menus to content navigation, but we also can’t ignore the importance of this element in user journey. When user is lost, menu can help find himself. And we must remember that :)

  4. Lee Roberts

    Oct 2nd, 2011

    I’m a little surprised that this is news to anyone who spends more than a minute a week online.

    Good bloggers, and by that I mean informed, skilled writers who blog, have used hotlinks as attribution and evidence for, oh, for-freaking-ever, easily better than 10 years. Hotlinks take the reader deeper into a given article or topic. Menus are for unpacking the writers’ interests, a secondary or tertiary order of importance.

    When I’m reading an article online and the editor/writer has not bothered to put links in obvious places, my esteem for him or her plummets. It’s as if the writer utterly fails to understand the tool he’s using, like typing on an unplugged IBM Selectric.

    My high school students must know and use both MLA attribution and hotlinking, depending on audience and media.

  5. Carrie

    Oct 3rd, 2011

    Thanks for this. We’ve been having this discussion within our team for the last couple of months. I’ve experienced this in my user testing – people just don’t look at the local (on-page) menus once they decide where to go.

    I call this strategy “contextual linking” because the links are in context, which is much better than ambiguous words on the side of the page.

    • anthony

      Oct 4th, 2011

      Carrie, thanks for sharing your user testing experience with us.

  6. Francis Rowland

    Oct 10th, 2011

    Hello Anthony,

    This is a useful observation or rule-of-thumb to share.

    These “in-page links” are all about linking from one piece of (hopefully useful) content to another, where as menus are about linking to pages or sections of a site.

    The important difference, I suppose, is context, and that helps to manage the user’s expectation about where this link is about to take them.

    In my work, I’m beginning to try to help people design content for their users, and that might include this kind of “in-page linking”. To that content, we can obviously apply an architecture, and then an overall navigation design. Also very important, as a couple of your commentators point out.

  7. Mark Pawson

    Oct 12th, 2011

    Does this idea also apply to web applications? I am thinking No because the websites deal with content and in the web apps I am involved with its all about function.

  8. Rich

    Oct 13th, 2011

    Would be interesting to hear more background information around the eye-tracking research that informed this. In my experience users who have set tasks in mind (of their own creation) when visiting a site almost solely rely on a global navigation, however if users are given a vaguer task or are asked to find content of interest then they will concentrate more on content navigation.

    Very interesting article, thanks.

  9. Lisa Trager

    Nov 8th, 2011

    It’s all about developing a sound content strategy. UX design is more than designing boxes on the page and navigational elements – it’s about doing the research and figuring out the keywords, interests, and links that will drive users deeper into the site and respond to the call to action.

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