Website Navigation Drop-Downs: What is Your Potential Customer’s Tolerance for Organization?

No doubt, categorizing information is a left-brained activity that should help website visitors find their way around your site. Enter the drop down menu. I’ve heard countless opponents and proponents of this method over the past 8 years, as it has gone in and out of favor with the big websites, like IBM for example (note they are using very detailed drop-downs). Even the leader of web design software and many other business-class software tools, Adobe, has them front and center. Apple, on the other hand, clearly a pioneer in UI, leaves them out entirely. In case you thought that was just a B2C convention, take a look a Oracle.

As a general principal, I think that overall simpler design = overall easier user experience. But what if you are an IBM, in terms of having a hand in many different categories and sub-categories of businesses? There is of course and advantage to showing the whole gamut in a concise and organized way.

For most businesses, even the ones emulating the big guys, something in the middle is the answer. But before you go developing 3-tiered menus like IBM keep the following in mind:

  1. How you organize and name your products and services internally may not be how your potential customers will understand them. Take the time to look at any web analytics or research to find out the terms potential customers are actually using to find your website or the websites of businesses in your industry.
  2. If an important term is in your dropdown menu, it’s hidden until the visitor rolls over or clicks that navigation. If it is in a sub-menu of that navigation, it is even less likely to be seen. Unless you have a really good reason for it (like you’re breadth of products and services is almost in violation of anti-trust regulations) steer clear of sub-menus in your main navigation. After all, the more choices you give a visitor, the less likely they will make the choice you want them to.
  3. Don’t assume everyone uses websites like you do. You already have a vested interest in carefully navigating through your own webiste. Your potential customer probably doesn’t. Presumably you have competition and they have other choices. Eye-mapping studies show that the majority of visitors scan websites on arrival to find the piece of information they were looking for (you can thank Google and Yahoo). Be sure that your most critical concepts aren’t hidden in a menu or sub menu, but are instantly visible and above the fold.

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