Web navigation should look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror. What does that mean?
Your customers and potential customers get online to do a very specific thing. Excellent navigation stays focused like a hawk on the user’s next step: it looks to what’s ahead.
Imagine how annoying it would be to go to downtown Salt Lake City, looking for a Thai restaurant, and the first thing you see is a sign for Restaurants. Fine, you follow that. Next, you see a sign for Asian Restaurants. Seems promising, so you go down that road. Then you see a sign for Thai Restaurants. Hooray! You’re almost there. Then you turn the corner and there’s a big sign that says: Restaurants. Huh? It feels like you've gone backwards, or in a big circle. Welcome to many a website!
There are two main reasons why this kind of navigational backsliding occurs. First, it’s because many developers (not wanting to miss any opportunities) tend to design for every possible contingency. As a result, web pages are often full of lots of “what if” types of links. “What if” the user wants to go back to the home page? “What if” the user wants books (but chose CDs)? “What if” the customer would rather look at product X (they chose product Z)? All of these “what if” navigation scenarios are great in theory, but in reality, the result is confusion and delay.
Another big problem with this approach is that words change meaning when the context is different. If you’ve clicked six times to get to the Product J main page, you typically expect that all the stuff on the page will be within the context of Product J. So, when you see a link for “Services,” you naturally think these are services for Product J. But if you saw the link for Services on the website’s main page, you’d probably expect it to take you to all the available services the company offers. Thus, the word "Services" has different meanings for you, depending on the level you are at on the website.
The second main reason that navigation tends to send a user backward instead of forward is that designing a real forward-facing nav is simply harder to do because it requires many more links. Also, the deeper you go into site, the less stable links become. So, web developers like to minimize the risk of broken links by sending users back up the architecture to higher-level, more stable links more often (which is simply counterproductive from a usability perspective). This may save some programming time and cost, but it sure wastes the time and patience of your customer.
Amazon is a great example of how to do it right. The deeper you wade into the site, the more specific the navigation is. Nearly all their links are forward-facing, focusing on the specific task at hand for that specific customer. The "Shop All Departments" selection is one of the few links that actually takes you back out toward the main page.
Ultimately, you need to trust that your customer knows where they want to go, and that they have reached a certain page because that’s the destination they sought. Stripping pages of as many backward-facing links as possible will make for a much simpler, more effective web experience and a much happier user.
At eLegal.org, we know how to focus on moving your customer forward.