The process of developing a web project is fascinating, and involves several different aspects, some of which are more technical, while others relate to communication choices in relation to the graphics, to the location and emphasis attributed to key elements of the site and of course, to the site contents.
An important aspect of every web site is the navigation, that allows moving around within the web site, without getting lost. The “navigation” metaphor is particularly suited here. How many time did it occur to you, on the road, that a first clear indication of a direction is followed by a crossroad, with no further indications. Good navigation in a site means that it should alway be easy to understand where you are, within the site navigation tree, and where you could go next.
It helps, in this respect, to plan from the beginning of a project a navigation tree that will not only accomodate existing contents, but is also flexible so as to accomodate future contents without extensive remodeling. This can be achieved by keeping the top sections “generic”, while allowing complexity to build within the lower elements of the navigation tree.
When we plan a new website here at wdev, one of the first elements we like to define and work out with the client is the top-level navigation sections. If well planned, this is something that should not change much in the life of a web site. The number of such top sections also influences significantly the menus layout(s). If the numer of top sections is limited, in the order of 4-6, and the section names are not too long, the top sections can be accomodated in an horizontal navigation menu, generally located somewhere at the top of the page. Keeping the navigation menu as an horizontal stripe somewhere at the top, has the important advantage of leaving more free space in the page below, that could be occupied in full by the pages contents.
If the number and/or length of top-level sections is such that they cannot be kept in an horizontal element, then we have to go for a vertical menu, typically located in a side bar of the web site, either on the left or right side of the page. A vertical menu has also the definite advantage that it can grow in time by accommodating additional top level sections, without having to redesign the website layout. Conversely, the space in an horizontal menu is limited, there is only a certain number of sections we can accomodate in this 900 or so pixels we have in an average fixed-width layout.
So, the choice of top sections definitely has an influence on the web site layout, and should be given proper consideration at the start of each web project. Keep their number under control, make them generic, and then expand on subsections and below, this is the approach we try to follow.
Image credits: Paolo Camera Flickr