Thursday, December 13, 2007

Analyzing the Future - Part 3 - Navigation

A look at at links and navigational structures used on newly redesigned college/university home pages. Topical organizations (About, Admissions, Academics, etc.) are most popular in the most prominent navigational areas, while audience-oriented links are most common in secondary navigational areas. The usual crud (Contact, Directory, Site Map) is most common in tertiary navigation areas.

Navigation (which links, what they're called, where they're placed, how they're grouped and organized) is probably the single most fascinating topic for me in reviewing Web sites.

There are a lot of potential approaches, but interestingly enough there are actually a number of standout trends in the 18 sites I reviewed.


Gawddamn methodology again. What is this, some ivory tower university? Oh, yeah.

I've done other examinations of home page navigation (here and here), and I will revisit those. But for this analysis, I wanted a slightly different approach.

Home pages are complex entities, serving many purposes. As a result, most have more than a single navigational area (by navigational area, I mean a clearly defined area with a cluster of links and no other content).

For the purposes of this analysis, I've broken these navigational areas into:
  • Primary navigation (usually the largest and most prominent navigational area)
  • Secondary navigation (usually not as prominent, but still easily identifiable, often providing a contrasting navigational scheme to the primary; e.g., audience vs. topical)
  • Tertiary navigation (the fine print links typically clustered at the top and/or bottom of the page)
Here's a good example:


Primary and Secondary Navigation

Virtually every home page examined had navigational areas that could be interpreted as primary, secondary and tertiary, though there could easily be disagreements as to which was primary and which secondary. I made my best guess.

Far and away the most common navigational setup among these sites was to split the primary and secondary navigations between topical and audience-oriented organizations. Most common was to use the primary navigation for topical links and the secondary navigation for audience-oriented links, but a significant minority reversed this approach.

Primary Secondary
Topic 12 5
Audience 4 10

The most common topical links in the primary and secondary nav areas were:

Link # of Sites
About (university)
Academics 13
Athletics 12
Admissions 12
Campus Life/Student Life 11
Research 9

Interestingly, "Programs" and "Colleges & Departments" (and equivalent terms), which I expected to be prominent, were not common at all. Programs appeared in the primary or secondary navigation only 4 times, and Colleges & Departments only twice.

The most common audience-oriented links in the primary and secondary nav areas were:

Link # of Sites
Alumni 16
Current Students 14
Faculty/Staff 13
Prospective/Future Students 10
Parents 8

Tertiary Navigation

Tertiary navigation areas consist mostly of small links across the top or bottom of the page. The most common links in these areas were:

Link # of Sites
Contact Us
Employment/Jobs 9
Directory/A-Z Index 7
Maps 7
Site Map 7
Giving 6
Portal 6

Number of Links

The average number of links in each of the three navigational areas was between 5 and 6, though there was a higher variation in the tertiary links because they were scattered around the page. The primary nav tended to have more links than the secondary nav, which was more concentrated at 5 or 6 links long.


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