Trying to Navigate Website Navigation

Aug 4 2011 by Jason Mark | 24 Comments

Let’s start off with a simple task. Most web users can find the primary navigation on the image below, but take a few moments to see if you can find the secondary navigation.

If you had a problem definitively identifying it, you aren’t alone. Even information architecture (IA) experts like Lou Rosenfeld, Steve Krug, Jesse James Garrett, and Jakob Nielsen don’t agree as to what "secondary navigation" is.

When working with website stakeholders, it’s important to have a clear and consistent shared vocabulary for discussing website navigation and IA. It avoids confusion and mistakes.

In addition, having clearly labeled navigation types to choose from can help people organize the information more easily.

For us professionals, having standardized nomenclature allow us to discuss and explore the subject more easily.

In this article, we’ll look at the current status of website navigation terminology.

What Do Experts Agree On?

Let’s start with what everyone agrees on. The experts all agree that most sites have some sort of main navigation. This navigation is usually (but not always) consistent across all web pages of the site, so it’s always there when your site’s visitors need to access it.

It’s usually situated where most of your users go to find most of the information they need, and is often presented as a horizontal bar at the top of the layout or as a vertical list of links on the left- or right-hand side of the layout.

Steve Krug (author of the groundbreaking usability book, Don’t Make Me Think!) and Jesse James Garrett (who many of you might know as the person who coined the term, "Ajax") call this global navigation, but most others call this primary navigation.

Both terms make sense to me, and while I’ve always felt that "primary navigation" is the most logical name to refer to this type of navigation menu, I must concede that "global navigation" may be more descriptive and versatile.

Secondary and Tertiary Navigation

In the book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld defined secondary navigation as navigation that’s "subservient to the primary navigation."

This always made a lot of sense to me, and our company has adopted the primary/secondary/tertiary navigation naming convention. It’s worked very well for us and is something that most of our clients understand very quickly and easily.

Secondary (and tertiary) navigation are often thought of as "subservient" to primary navigation. This can be visually represented using a flyout navigation or using a left-hand secondary navigation.

Not everyone agrees that secondary and tertiary are inherently "subservient" navigation, so I’d be curious to hear if there’s an industry-wide agreement on this.

What About Everything Else?

While the primary/secondary/tertiary navigation scheme works great for most of the navigation items on your website, it simply doesn’t work for all of them.

The least controversial of the other common navigation is the footer navigation. Regardless of whether it’s a mirror of the primary navigation, a whole new navigation, or just some links to auxiliary pages like the site’s Terms of Service (ToS) page, most people agree to call this the footer or the footer navigation.

The other place where all experts seem to agree on is that navigation items should be clearly labeled based on what their purpose is. Garrett calls additional navigation items courtesy navigation, Krug calls them utilities. Other people call them secondary navigation items but that term tends to fall apart conceptually on larger sites, so I would advise against that.

There’s also that navigation menu often found at the top-right of many sites. You know, the one with link items like "Login," "Help", "Search," "Contact Us", etc.?

For this navigation menu, I’ve always used meta navigation to refer to them. But in talking to other usability experts, that term changes depending on what region you’re in.

Meta navigation on Microsoft’s website.

Regardless of what you call these additional navigation items, it’s important to be flexible and recognize when "standards" don’t apply. Louis Rosenfeld, who’s been traveling the world advising people on usability for 15 years now, gives a great example of the importance of flexibility: he says that "in a faceted system (think the Epicurious recipe database’s navigation), there is no ‘primary’ — they’re all equally weighted."

In fact, most web apps, or websites that deal with managing large subsets of data like The New York Times, Amazon.com, or Google, might find that even the primary navigation is hard to pin down.

Sets of navigation highlighted on a Google search results page.

Instead, sites like these are controlled by a collection of panels or blocks which are customized to a user’s experience. In these cases, the user is less likely to browse through the site versus actively looking for the web pages they need, relying on featured content presented to them based on their site activity and site search for navigating the site.

What Standards Do You Use?

With all this different nomenclature flying around the Web, we’d like to hear back from readers. Do you call it "primary" or "global" navigation? What does "meta navigation" mean to you? How many of the sites you work on have a clearly defined primary navigation? Do you think we could be more effective as designers and developers if we standardized our navigation nomenclature a little more?

Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments.

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About the Author

Jason Mark is an educator, business owner, and author. His Massachusetts-based firm, Gravity Switch, continues to be the leader in web, iPhone and iPad development in New England, and Jason keeps their carbon footprint down by bicycling to work year round. Follow him on Twitter @jasonnmark.

24 Comments

David

August 4th, 2011

Interesting. I use primary and secondary usually. I haven’t heard of meta navigation before, but then I’m still fairly new at this.

Henry Louis

August 4th, 2011

Thanks for sharing the terminologies of website navigation. Irrespective of the navigation being used on the website, I would want to recommend everyone to have breadcrumbs in their website. This really help the end users.

Shubham Yadav

August 4th, 2011

Very Informative Post…

ngassmann

August 4th, 2011

How about instead of worrying about what we call these different navigation sections, we worry more about getting it out there that usability experts agree that there is a strongly suggested limit to a number of main or primary or global navigation links on any given site.

7+/-2

Tom Durkin

August 4th, 2011

Great info thanks! I tent to design websites with a horizontal menu at the top, but this is possibly not always the best option.

I think usability/navigation is one of the most important aspects in good web design.

Robin Jennings

August 5th, 2011

I had a meeting last week with a new client to discuss a 30 page website and I was calling the navigation-Main menu, sub-menu etc. That explanation didn’t go down well at all- I had to show them on my website what I meant.

Primary/secondary/tertiary navigation would have been perfect.

Thanks for the tip.

sadsdf

August 5th, 2011

Haven’t heard of meta navigation, thanks for sharing! Learned something new today.

Alpesh

August 5th, 2011

true.. navigation should be easily accessible on each page so that visitor might pay attention to other unvisited area.

Marco Cervellin

August 5th, 2011

Website navigation is also strictly related to user experience, so concept of primary, secondary, etc navigation may vary according to the user’s task and his perception of what content is most important than other less important.

Andrew

August 5th, 2011

Thanks for the Article Jason. I’ve always wondered what to refer to those ‘Utility’ links in the top right. Meta Navigation works great for me. Except perhaps maybe for clients it may be a bit too much jargon. Something like ‘User Navigation’ might be a bit more clear.

Nuno

August 5th, 2011

Nice post!!! Normaly i call it main to the primary navigation!!!

Florian

August 6th, 2011

I think James Kalbach did a great job in his book “designing web navigation” where he categorizes navigation in “structural, associative and utility” navigation. The “primary” navigation would truly fall into the category of structural navigation, which he additionally separates into global and local…

Stomme poes

August 6th, 2011

I’ve called the “meta navigation” “client navigation” most of the time, since on many many sites it’s specific to clients/customers, visitors: logging in, your account, logging back out, shopping cart items, personal profile, messages/mail, even help and contact us are more client/account specific.

Adrian Roselli

August 6th, 2011

When we refer to navigation it’s typically for clients, not other industry types. 16 years of professional experience tells me that clients understand terms like “primary navigation,” “secondary navigation” and “footer navigation.” This is partly because clients understand the concepts of primary and secondary and understand what a footer is. Calling something “meta navigation” would either confuse a client or dredge up thoughts of SEO spammers (for their insistence on the use of meta tags). Instead we name navigation blocks beyond primary/secondary/footer as appropriate to the client’s business expectations. So we might have “member navigation,” “brand navigation,” “video navigation,” “product navigation,” and so on depending on what the client expects from the navigation. Just like I don’t need an architect to refer to windows in my bedroom as “casement” when he can just say “bedroom windows,” especially if I’ve seen or been involved in the plan.

kate

August 7th, 2011

Oh i just only know about navigation, not about the rest types of Navigation.I just focus on other things of Website, never got serious to navigation. But now i will try all these types and tell to the friends.
Very helpful for us. Thanks

Michael Tuck

August 7th, 2011

Excellent breakdown. This is useful to help clients understand the differences in navigation and how each structure and substructure works (I’m thinking of one right now…).

Surendhar V

August 8th, 2011

I tried to change the navigation of my site much, but still no good, but never heard of meta navigation

Mark Narusson

August 8th, 2011

Nice post Jason and thanks for sharing. I read the Steve Krug book which is great and I recommend anyone interested in web design should check it out. Keep up the good work.

Angelee

August 9th, 2011

Some creatively twist their sites’ nav while some stick with the standards. I’m not a pro but this post gives good knowledge about basic and functional navigation.

aeon

August 10th, 2011

Very Nice Information you have given , i hope in future also u also give this information.

Thanks

Sandy

Jean

August 12th, 2011

Grade A stuff. I’m uqnusetinobaly in your debt.

Yannick

August 25th, 2011

Thanks! That’s an interesting look on website terminology.

If anything, I think it highlights that as technology and user experience approaches develop, we can’t really compartmentalise website navigation beyond the fundamentals.

We can frame information architecture into primary, secondary and tertiary information hierarchies – in most cases – but I’m not convinced this can be directly translated into the composition of a website’s navigation.

Meta and footer navigation are such fluid terms. We can’t capitalise on these in terms of a user experience by putting them into ‘boxes’. First, we need to figure out know how best to use them, which may be a bespoke solution for each and every website.

I think this is so apparent in the holistic layout conversation. It’s the same way that experts still can’t agree on the best execution of top level navigation, consistently forcing navigation composition into prescribed uniformity.

Some say ‘Must be left-hand nav… must be… that’s what our testing shows’, but we know that there is a richer conversation to be had to establish the best solution for the job.

Most importantly, what is the value to the end-user and how meaningful are these terminologies to ‘jo blow’.

I love how this post contrasts with Is it time to rethink website navigation (http://sixrevisions.com/user-interface/is-it-time-to-rethink-website-navigation/) – both from this website, both with so much merit, yet such different perspectives.

jone

September 14th, 2011

Some say ‘Must be left-hand nav… must be… that’s what our testing shows’, but we know that there is a richer conversation to be had to establish the best solution for the job.

Most importantly, what is the value to the end-user and how meaningful are these terminologies to ‘jo blow’.

jone

September 14th, 2011

Some say ‘Must be left-hand nav… must be… that’s what our testing shows’, but we know that there is a richer conversation to be had to establish the best solution for the job.

Most importantly, what is the value to the end-user and how meaningful are these terminologies to ‘jo blow’.

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