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Designing a website

Step 2 - Designing your site

Global and local navigation

Most sites face complex navigation issues that have to be solved in layers. The overall organization of the site poses different problems than the functionality of an individual site area. So all but the smallest and simplest of sites will grapple with issues of global and local navigation.


3 types of navigation:

  • Global navigation shows users where they are within the site and how to get somewhere else. It should remain consistent throughout the site.

  • Local navigation picks up where global navigation leaves off, giving users tools to move around—or accomplish tasks within—a specific site section.

  • Network navigation displays links to other sites within a larger network.


Global Navigation also called sitewide or persistent navigation, global navigation helps users navigate the site to find the areas of interest to them. So global navigation tends to concern itself with hierarchies of information or broad categories. Global navigation usually appears in the same way and at the same place on every page, listing the same items. Though it should offer some visual clue about which section the user's in.


Local navigation: Once the user arrives at their "destination" within the site, local navigation takes over. It usually tackles the functionality issues in a specific application, the classification issues within a particular topic, or the page-turning functions within an article.

Global, local, and network navigation are all used within his page on Webmonkey.

(1) The network navigation bar (sometimes called a "branding bar") leads to Webmonkey's corporate parent, Terra-Lycos.

(2) The global navigation bar leads back to the Webmonkey front door and offers a pull-down menu of site features (not pictured). Global navigation is also offered through

(3) breadcrumbs, which show you where you are on the site.

(4) Local navigation—to other pages in the article—is accomplished through links down the left hand side.

Network navigation: More political than practical, network navigation brings in a layer of navigation that's often irrelevant to the user but important to the business. Sites that are part of a network—or are owned by a corporate parent that controls other sites—are often required to link to the other sites.

Balancing layers of navigation

It can be hard to decide how much navigation should go on any individual page: Too much and you run the risk of obscuring your subject matter by literally squeezing it off the page. Too little and users may lose track of where they are.


The balance between global and local navigation is struck differently on different sites. On directories, for example, there's very little local navigation. The rigid global navigation often extends into local areas. Games and art exhibits are at the other end of the spectrum, with almost no global navigation—except a button to return to the front door.


Why pull-down menus are not for navigation

Because they neatly conceal a lot of information in a small space, and because they're widely understood, pull-down menus are a popular choice for navigation systems. Unfortunately, they don't work very well.


"I've learned that you should never use pull-down menus for anything other than filling in forms," says Peter Merholz, a partner with Adaptive Path. "They should not be used as navigation elements."

"Pull-down menus are a highly effective way of burying information that you want your users to see."

—Peter Merholz

The problem is that pull-down menus conceal information. And unless the user can reliably predict what's being concealed—as in a list of countries or months of the year—they won't know what's in the menu, and they won't bother to look.


"People won't have a clue about it," Merholz says. "They'll just ignore it. Pull-downs are a highly effective way of burying information that you want your user to see."


Martha Brockenbrough, former managing editor of MSN.com, couldn't agree more. MSN tried using pull-down menus, but found them ineffective. At the time, the site attracted around six million users per day to its front door. "But only 200 discovered the goodies that were lying, neglected at the bottom of the pull-down menus," Brockenbrough said.


"No one will find your content in a drop-down menu," Brockenbrough says emphatically. "No one can see what's in them. Don't use them. I guarantee you they will not work. They're not your friend."


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