When left is right

Corporate sites are abandoning left-hand navigation without assessing whether it remains the most appropriate for their – and their users’ – needs, David Bowen says.

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Why is Bowen Craggs so keen on left-hand navigation on corporate and other big organisational sites? This may seem an obscure topic, but it uncovers a much broader one: the fundamental differences between these and other types of website.

In a recent column on the mobile web I suggested that a serious problem was the tendency for responsive design to be rolled in with the abolition of left menus, which I described as a deeply flawed trend.

The column was kindly posted on the Web Managers Linked In group, where a member responded: “As for left menus: I would be happy to see them go. They are just distracting screen clutter and we could manage without them. See Gov.uk as an example that works well.”

Now, I’m as much against screen clutter as the next man and I also agree that Gov.uk – the UK site that has pulled public services together – is easy to use. So why do I not agree with this comment?

Issues on the table

The immediate reason is that corporate sites that have abandoned left menus are, we find, much harder to use. Examples: General Electric, Barclays, Qualcomm (see below). We have worked with several companies where they (and we) have been left scratching their (our) heads as they try to recover a site’s usability.

But why is this a problem on corporate sites and not on Gov.uk? And – to take another set of sites often offered as examples to follow – how do channels such as YouTube, LinkedIn and Facebook manage without left navigation, and no one seems to complain?

I have created a small table showing four characteristics for three types of site to demonstrate why each needs to be treated in a different way.

  Corporate Social media Gov.uk
Usage Occasional Frequent Occasional
Depth Deep Shallow Deep
Purpose Multi Multi Single
Who for Site owner User User

Usage

This is straightforward but important. If you use a website enough, you will get used to its peccadilloes. Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube have navigation that is a nightmare for people not used to them. LinkedIn is particularly hideous – but because I use it a lot, I can live with it.

And if you want to see how crude YouTube is, look at Google’s webcasts of its stockholders meeting. It has to use YouTube, because it owns it. Now look at Deutsche Bank’s AGM webcast, provided by a specialist third party – its synchronised slides, search and ability to choose speakers leave YouTube in the dark ages.

Gov.uk and most corporate sites are, by contrast, only used occasionally by most people – so they must be highly intuitive. Gov.uk uses simple search and drilldown mechanisms that work well if you know what you are looking for. Corporate sites can also work well – but one of the issues they have to grapple with is their depth.

Depth

Social media channels are not deep – or rather they do not have structures that allow for the concept. The depth of Gov.uk is hard to judge – its breadcrumb trail goes only three layers down, but there is much content it does not feature.

Corporate sites, however, have to be deep to make sense of a complex mass of information. A few manage to keep to three layers, but you tend to find them using PDF for material that would work better on web pages. Four or five layers is more typical – and we have yet to find one of these that works well without using left menus. Dropdown panels are the current fashion but they are slow, hopeless for people with shaky hands and struggle to take people below three levels. They are great for back up; not as the primary navigation tool.

But depth does not really distinguish corporate sites from Gov.uk. The other two characteristics do.

Purpose

Corporate sites are multi-purpose, Gov.uk is not. If I want a driving licence, I find my way to the page, do what I want, and I leave. The government site lists other useful links – to change my address on a licence, for example – but has no reason to offer more. It serves many different type of person but each is likely to visit with a single task in mind.

Corporate sites must, by contrast, serve multiple needs. Take new graduates. In the careers section they will want to find out about specific jobs, training schemes, locations, pay, what other employees think and so on. But they will also want to find out about the company (About us), probably how responsible it is (Sustainability) and of course its products and services.

Most of the time they will be digging around deep within the site, so they need to move horizontally without effort. Companies can try to second guess them by putting in lots of related links – but they can never cover all options. With a left menu, it’s easy.

Who

‘Who are the sites for?’ is a linked issue. Corporate managers will insist that they care only about their customers/stakeholders. But if they are good managers, they will care about them only to the extent they benefit the company.

Of course, the same is true of social media companies, but for them volume is so important that they really do have to keep as many people as possible happy. Corporates, by contrast, want the people who come to their site to get what they need but also to ‘sell’ them something else – perhaps a product, more likely a feeling that the company is professional, responsible, a good investment or whatever.

So, when visitors are deep inside a site, they should be able to get easily to pages that display what the company wants to display. Related links have a big role here (so don’t abandon the right navigation either), but the left menu is an unbeatable set of signposts, all saying ‘click me’. Look at Intel.com – a site that relies entirely on dropdown menus and related links – and compare it with Novartis.com, which has ultra-conventional left menus. In Intel, you have to work to move around; in Novartis, it’s all there in view, a click away. Which is doing the site owner more good?

This aspect cannot be measured by usability tests – so an important side point is that web managers should not be guided solely by usability.

One-stop judgement

If you want to look at just one site to make up your mind, I recommend you click around Qualcomm.com. It mixes old left navigation pages (for example, Solutions> Government> Next generation wireless) with new ones without left menus (for example,Technologies> 3G and 4G wireless).

The old pages make life so much easier. Why abandon them?

First published 19 November, 2013
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