Think about your menus so your users don’t have to.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The most important part of web design—or any design, really—is organization. By extension, that means that menus are pretty important.

Menus provide some of the most visible and obvious organization on your site. They’re one of the first things users look for when they’re trying to find their way to the information they want. Naturally, you’ll want to put a lot of time and effort into crafting the right menu.

Here are a few things you’ll want to think about:

First, will you use a vertical menu or a horizontal menu? In the past few years, horizontal menus have become the standard, especially for sites on which content—articles, blog posts, etc.—is the focus. By moving the menu to sit across the top of the page, content shifts left, closer to the viewer’s first eye movements on the page. A vertical navigation bar on the left side of the page attracts attention instantly, thereby giving less focus to the page’s content. A right-hand sidebar is certainly a more content-friendly alternative if you really want to go for a vertical menu, and there are benefits to sticking with that vertical orientation.

Vertical menus give you more room to work with. You can put more links in a vertical menu than you can in a horizontal menu, which is limited by the width of the browser. A vertical menu, on the other hand, can just keep growing downward.

Actually, this ties into the second thing you need to think about: which and how many links you want in your menu. The ever-growing vertical menu isn’t necessarily a great benefit; I would argue that you’re better off limiting the number of links in your menu. If you give viewers too many choices, you’ll lose them. No one wants to spend two minutes reading through navigation options.

The third thing to keep in mind is the wording you’ll use for your links. Users have generally come to expect specific words for the navigation links: things like “about us,” “services,” “products,” “contact us.” Don’t bother getting creative with the navigation links. Users don’t want to read every word on the link list; they expect to be able to scan the link list and find what they’re looking for.

Be smart about your menu placement, organization and wording. Your users may not even notice, but that’s kind of the point. Good menus are simple and obvious. They don’t require a lot of thought to locate or use. Help your users out by giving them a menu they instinctively know how to use. They’ll thank you for it.

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