When users arrive at a website, they take a quick glance at the navigation and content (we call this the 10-second test) , and make a mental map of how everything is organized on the site. This is what they use the next time they come to your website and need to find their way around it.
Information architects know that if they keep their navigation simple (4-7 main sections, not too many subnavs) that it will be easier for users to instantly grasp how content is organized, and to form that mental map.
Part of the problem product designers grapple with is how to simplify very complex collections of data, products and navigation into an intuitive application or website.
Making something “intuitive” means making it as straightforward as possible. When it’s easier for the user to find their way around, they’ll like using the application. They’ll want to keep using it.
The problem is that users go to many websites and use many applications every day. They’re not very good at remembering how any single site works unless it’s something they use frequently. (Think about how hard it is to remember your password for a website you rarely visit.)
The mental map a user makes of your site is how they remember what to do each time they arrive on the website.
The way a user deals with all this data bouncing around in their heads is by making a mental map of the website.
Essentially, they memorize the high-level organization of a site. Then the next time they come to that site, they remember (hopefully) that simple map and can more easily find their way around again.
But mental maps can be tricky, as everyone carries around with them assumptions about how websites will work, or how different kinds of content should be organized. If your design goes against those assumptions it causes added confusion and makes it particularly hard for users to map your website.
One of the first things a user does when they arrive on a new site is to check out the top-level navigation for clues about what the main categories are and where they might want to go first. This quick look around helps form that mental map.
Think about the typical components of a website:
- Home or landing page
- Main content sections
- Contact and About Us pages
- If eCommerce, there’s a cart and checkout flow
With those fundamentals already in their minds, the user more easily understands your particular website. This makes it easy for them to create a mental map of your site.
Then, as they click around looking for their way to the goal, they won’t feel lost because at each step of the way they understand where they are in the map.