Stop Using Secondary Navigation Bars… Maybe!

Paul Boag

There was a time when almost all sites had a secondary navigation bar showing the children and even siblings of the current page. However, today, this is much rarer and raises the question of whether we still need them in most cases.

It is funny how you find yourself drifting into specific behaviour without knowing why you do it. Secondary navigation bars are an excellent example of this. At one stage, I used to start every design by defining a block for the primary and secondary navigation.

There was a time when all of my designs would have a primary and secondary navigation bar.

Today, I rarely do. Instead, I use the body of the page for links to child pages. I then rely on people using the browser back button if they want to visit siblings.

However, a couple of conversations have made me question whether I should be rejecting the secondary navigation bar.

Unlike most of my posts, this one doesn’t pretend to have any answers. Instead, it is me exploring my thinking on the subject, in the hopes of clarifying it in my mind.

Feel free to follow along.

Is Secondary Navigation Redundant in The Age of Broadband?

The first question I find myself asking is; why did we ever have secondary navigation in the first place? As I think about it, the answer to that mainly revolves around speed.

Back in the day, you had to wait for pages to load and so to be able to skip between children was important. We had a rule that you should enable users to complete any task in three clicks.

Although somewhat simplistic (we should have focused on speed, not clicks) the principle did stand and so showing more links to other pages made sense.

However, in the age of broadband, does that principle still hold? I am not sure it does. As long as people feel they are progressing towards their goal, they are less concerned with the number of clicks it takes to get there. As Steve Krug puts it in his book Don’t Make Me Think:

It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.

Of course, we do need to think about mobile. As it happens, I am currently completely without broadband and relying solely on 4G. It makes you realise how poorly optimised many sites are for speed.

However, that shouldn’t be an issue if we optimise our sites properly. For example, my website and sites like Google still load pages almost instantly on 4G. Mobile doesn’t create a navigational issue as much as a performance one.

Okay, so the need to reduce the number of clicks is a red-herring. However, that doesn’t make a case for removing a secondary navigation bar. What maybe does is the fact that it tends to treat all content the same.

Does Secondary Navigation Treat All Content the Same?

We know from Gerry McGovern’s work on Top Task Analysis that not all information on our websites is of equal worth to users. They care about some content more than others. Yet most website navigation ignores this fact.

Breakdown of top task analysis.
Top Task Analysis shows us that not all tasks, and by extension content, is equal.

Take, for example, the average secondary navigation bar. They list the pages within a particular section. The only prioritisation going on is the order the elements are listed. website using a traditional approach to secondary navigation.
Traditional navigation bars fail to prioritise more important content.

By moving navigational options into the body of the page, you can start to create a visual hierarchy that is difficult to replicate in the secondary navigation. In short, you can draw the user’s attention to elements that matter the most.

A wireframe of with products embedded in the page.
Moving navigation into the page allows you to emphasise some products over others.

However, secondary navigation doesn’t just treat all content the same. It does that to users as well.

Does Secondary Navigation Treat All Users the Same?

Not everybody approaches tasks in the same way. Some people like to do research and understand the details before making a decision. Others are the complete opposite, wanting the key facts and to avoid getting bogged down in the details.

In my opinion, a good website should accommodate these differences in their cognitive approach. It does this by allowing the user to drill down to deeper and deeper levels of detail progressively.

The homepage should be an overview of the key messaging for the entire site and then provide navigation to more details on that messaging. Visiting a top-level section should provide more specific information on that particular subject area (e.g. About the company). Then each sub-section should explore the detailed information for those who want it (e.g. team members).

The user controls the amount of information they require by how deep they dive into the website. Any parent page should give a superficial overview of the content that lies beneath it, and each child should provide more specific information than its parent.

Illustration showing the level of detail different pages of a website should show.
The site hierarchy should support users interested in different levels of detail.

However, I suspect, secondary navigation can undermine this model in two ways. First, it encourages the user to jump directly to detailed information on lower-level pages, so maybe overwhelming some users with more information than they need.

Second, it disconnects the information on a topic from the navigation to more detail on the same subject. For example, on a fictional top level about us page, it may say that the company has 12 employees in three countries. However, to know any details, you have to use a sidebar to navigate to the team page.

Wireframe showing secondary navigation bar.
Secondary navigation forces the user to read the body copy and then find more information in a separate sidebar.

But, by removing the secondary navigation bar you can directly associate those two pieces of information together.

Wireframe showing in-page secondary navigation.
By combining content and navigation, the user has instant access to more information on what they have just read.

That brings me on to a related problem I have with secondary navigation bars. They can make it harder for users to know what information they might find on the child page.

Does Secondary Navigation Just Make Comprehension Harder?

How many times have you agonised over the labelling of navigational items, or been forced to run card sorting exercises to resolve disagreements over the best approach? One of the reasons for these deliberations is that navigational bars offer so little space to articulate yourself. It is hard to explain what a section contains in one or two words.

By removing navigation from a navigational bar and adding it to the body of the page, we have more space and so more opportunity to explain what the section contains. It also has a second benefit. It gives us more opportunity to upsell and cross-sell.

Secondary navigation on omnigroup website.
The secondary navigation on the Omnigroup website doesn’t tell us much about the different products, which is why they have had to provide more information in the body of the page.

Does Secondary Navigation Reduce Cross and Up-Selling?

Let’s imagine you have three products and users have come to your site primarily interested in one of those three. With traditional navigation bars, those users would select the product they are interested in and navigate immediately to that page.

Yes, they would probably acknowledge the other options on the navigational bar. However, with only one or two words to describe it, there is no chance to sell the benefits of the other products.

However, once again, if you move those options into the body of the page, you have more space to highlight the benefits of the other products.

Am I Missing a Trick

The further into this post I have got, the more I have convinced myself that secondary navigational bars are rarely the right approach. However, I cannot help but feel that I am making a lot of assumptions here.

This belief I have stumbled into is based on nothing more than some personal impressions and deductive logic on my part. I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject.

So where am I going wrong? What am I missing? Have you seen or done any research into this? I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop me an email and let’s talk.

Stock Photos from Gajus/Shutterstock