When you jump into a rental car, you don’t want to play “Where’s Wally” to find the brake when travelling at high speed.
There are certain things you expect – and I’m not just talking about that chemical cleaner smell unique to the motor industry or the fact that the radio can never get a decent station. You expect the steering wheel to be in front of you, the pedals on the floor and the control dials behind the steering wheel. You might even expect to sit on the left or the right to drive.
If you jump into a car and find the gear-stick between your legs, no steering wheel and the brake handle on the wrong side – surprise! You’ve actually rented a helicopter, not a car. Get out before you kill someone.
Web users have similar expectation for where things should be. Instead of the steering wheel, they need navigation links. Instead of the brake, they need a Back to Home button. Like car designers, web designers need to be aware of what users are expecting of the web.
Two American researchers have produced some interesting research on where users expect to find key navigation elements. Using a 5×5 grid, they asked over 140 participants to indicate where they would most expect to find the following elements:
- Back to Home link
- Internal Site links
- Site Search Engine
- About us link
Over 80% of the participants in this study had used the web for over 4 years and 50% used it for 2-6 hours per week. These users are no newbies and know what to expect out on the web. So what did they think?
Back to Home Links
The majority of users expected to find the Back to Home link in the top left corner, as shown below. Now if you think about it, most web pages have a clickable logo in that position which links to the Home Page. This 44% figure was the actually highest value of the entire test. This indicates that uses are very confident that there will be a link to the home page in that position. The 15% who indicated the middle of the bottom of the page are probably used to seeing the text-only links which many website have in that position.
If you have a site logo in the top left position and it isn’t clickable and there’s no other Home link there, how about making it so and keeping the users happy?
Participants were given the option of indicating twice where they thought internal links would be available. 60% did indicate twice and they very strongly expect to see links along the left edge of web pages. Top left and bottom centre also show up as likely places for Internal Links. There is certainly a strong expectation for links to appear on the left hand side.
The right hand side of a page is also a perfectly valid place to have internal links, just bear in mind that users are expecting to find them on the left first.
Site Search Engines
The expected position of a search engine is less coherent. The top right area was the most popular, however the entire top edge is a likely candidate and, again, the area near the expected Internal Links was popular. This is perfectly sensible as searching is a more specific type of navigation.
Best to check your search engine works too. It’s embarrassing when Google can find a document on a website, when the website’s own search engine can’t. In my experience, this happens a lot.
Advertising is very much ‘front and centre’, taking the most prominent position at the top of pages. From print media, the centre top of a page is expected to contain important information, such as titles, chapter headings, etc. On the web, users expect to see advertising here, which greatly devalues the position for important information, particularly when banner blindness is taken into account.
The right hand edge of the page was also a popular place to expect advertising. Many website employ a three column layout, containing (left to right) Navigation, Content, and Advertising or supplementary links. The users know this. So if you’re going to put important information in these spaces where users expect adverts - Make sure they don’t look like advertising.
About Us Link
The centre bottom of the page is a common choice, particularly as this is where the text-only for many site appear. However, there are no strong user preferences, with all expected areas containing links gathering some support. Bear in mind that there were no existing visual clues in this test for users to go on. If the question was “All the navigation links are on the left hand side, where would you look for the About Us link?”, the result would probably be more coherent.
Composite Web Page
By combining the most popular and distinctive choices into a composite page (the colours above do not indicate any particular preference), we can get an idea of the web page that a user is most expecting to see. This strongly matches common layout used by many, many websites out there. Am I surprised that this is the case? No.
Does this mean that at all websites should be designed to follow this standard layout? No.
It just means that if you know a user is expecting to see a link in a certain location, there should be good reasons for not putting it there. “Because it looks funky elsewhere” is probably not a good enough reason.
The composite below shows a strong user preference for links on the left-hand side of the page, but they don’t have to be there. This simply indicates the expected position of those links – and probably indicates the first place a user will look for them.
Users will almost immediately catch on to a website with a right oriented navigation structure and have no problem navigating the site – as long as the site is consistent in having navigation links place there. Tabbed based page layout is becoming more popular and may change users’ expectations for link positions.
Original research article.