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Crafting the Perfect Website Navigation Menu

As all marketing professionals know, brand messaging must always be clear and to the point. The same goes for the first meaningful point of contact that a website user engages with, the site’s navigation menu. In order to help craft the perfect nav system, we need to review some technical aspects of the subject of terminology. When we speak of “terms” we’re really just talking about words, but in a more technical, and hopefully more precise way. “Terms” are words with either explicit or implicit definitions. For example, what’s a “record?” If all you have is that word, without a context, what could it mean? It could refer to public records, like birth certificates, or world records such as most hotdogs eaten in 10 minutes (which is 75 by the way, ouch), or it could refer to vinyl albums, or items in a database. The fundamental meaning of the word “record,” without context or definition can be ambiguous. In order to utilize terms properly, we need definition. Usually, this definition comes with context, but it’s essential that the terms we use in positioning are unambiguous.

Avoiding Vague Terms

Assuming we use unambiguous terms, terms without a range of unrelated definitions, we also need to consider the potential vagueness of our terminology. Some words are inherently vague. The adjective “tall,” for example, is relative to whatever we happen to be comparing. Tall for a shrubbery might be ten feet, but compared to a tree that would be small. Or compared to a grande, or venti—nevermind, bad example.

As we select terms to fill in the blanks of a website menu system, we need to avoid both ambiguity and vague terms.

Terms that Cast a Wide Net

Another technical aspect of terminology is extension and intension. In order to understand extension and intension let’s recall the taxonomies of the animal kingdom we learned in high school biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. At the highest level, kingdom, all living things fall into broad categories of animal, plant, fungi, etc. But as you begin to analyze patterns in the animal kingdom we can break animals down into classes such as mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and so forth. When we get to specific species and subspecies we literally find millions and millions of distinct kinds of creatures.

Applying this to the study of terminology (rather than biology) the categories at the top of a taxonomy chart have high extension—kingdom and phylum contain many orders, families, and species. These high category terms extend themselves over a large group of particulars. As we move down a taxonomy, into species and subspecies, each level increases the intension of terms—each member of a species has so many unique characteristics that distinguish it from others, that these subcategories become quite exclusive. Extension decreases as you move down the taxonomy chart, and intension increases.

For example “people” is a term with very high extension. Whereas millennial American southern males who play professional rugby is a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-species of people and therefore has very high intension.

Let’s consider another example from school. At school you take “classes.” “Classes” is a genus term with high extension. You also took classes when you went to art school. “Art school classes” is a species of “classes” with a higher degree of intension. We might also have taken a “painting class.” “Painting class” is a subspecies of art school class. Each time we move down from a genus term to a species of that term we increase the intension of that term and decrease its extension. “Watercolor painting class” adds yet one more level of intension.

Website Menus Require the Use of High Intension Terms

Increasing the intension of terms decrees ambiguity and vagueness. Terms with high extension increases their ambiguity and vagueness. Since we always want our labeling to be clear and concrete, we need to avoid high extension terms and adopt high intension terms instead.

But this is hard to do, in part because the higher the intension of a term, the more it necessarily becomes exclusive. And our untrained marketing instincts make us think that we need to keep things as broad as possible, to capture include as much content as we can in a menu. Our these instincts lead us to choose high extension terms—ambiguous and vague terms that lack specificity and concreteness. They speak to everyone, and the user interface effect is that they speak to no one.

Rule of Sevens

Another important information design principle for an effect menu system is the “rule of sevens.”

Limiting links is crucial to avoid overwhelming users. The “Rule of Sevens” suggests seven as the ideal limit, reflecting our short-term memory’s capacity to remember up to seven items. This is similar to telephone numbers having seven digits, excluding area codes. For websites, it’s optimal to have no more than seven menu items. This applies to submenus as well.

What if more than seven links are necessary? Using a mega menu, that organizes items into groups of less than seven can create visual separation, preventing the menu from becoming too cluttered and overwhelming for users.

Breaking Out of Internal Org Chart Thinking

Lastly, it’s extremely important to help our clients to break free of their internal understanding of how their company is structured, and how departments are segmented. It’s extremely easy for this bias to become expressed in the website’s navigation—but this only lead to user confusion and disorientation. This is the exact opposite of what a website menu should do.

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