John Cowen

John Cowen

User Experience • Design • Creativity

Red Route Navigation


I hate driving and will travel by train whenever possible. Last weekend however my girlfriend and I travelled up to Cumbria and the train fares were so outrageous we decided to drive.

On the map it looked straightforward enough: M5 > M6, junction 36 > Kendal. Done.

In practice things weren’t quite so easy. The route itself is simple, but there are so many possible other routes and signage for these - it gets hard to pick out the road signs that are relevant to your journey.

Because we don’t drive too much we don’t have sat-nav. But you can understand why anyone who does drive regularly most likely does.

When you see a sign relevant to your journey it’s helpful. So I wouldn’t suggest road signs should be removed. But - you have to process all the signage to decide if it’s relevant or not. If you’re not too familiar with the journey there are times when it’s difficult to decide if a sign is relevant to you or not. And on top of all this navigation processing, you’re also having to deal with traffic and the effort of keeping yourself safe.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that the road network in Britain makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to provide clear navigation systems (which is why sat-nav’s are so popular). It’s not the signage itself that is the problem, but the volume. If you could somehow only see the signage relevant to your journey - navigation would be made massively more easy. It’s the other non-relevant navigation that get’s in the way - it’s relevant to other people though, so there’s no easy solution.

The same sort of issues can occur when designing website navigation. There’s a lot of possible user journeys through a site and the challenge is to help a user identify the route relevant to them and not be confused by links taking them off course.

Motorway signage has a benefit in that it is consistent across the country. There are certain conventions drivers will become familiar with that helps in processing the messages more easily.

Website navigation can be more difficult. It is (hopefully) consistent across your website - but it’s still different, to some degree, to navigation systems found on other websites. A usability study on a site can help identify any implementation that is particularly unconventional and troublesome - but however well designed, it’s still very easy to introduce confusion to your site’s navigation. Even if it’s well intentioned.

A prime cause of this is the notion that adding a link to a page in your navigation will help users navigate your website. It might. But remember it is also be one more piece of navigation that a user has to process as part of their decision of where to go next to complete their goal on your site.

For regular site visitors (or site owners) - it is unlikely to confuse because you’re already familiar with the site and know your route. But for new visitors, it’s another piece of information that needs to be processed.

It’s far too easy to end up with a navigation menu that is stuffed with links. It’s important to identify the red routes on your website - the sections that are critical to your site’s existence. Put these in the main navigation and think about moving everything else elsewhere. These secondary links shouldn’t be hidden, and they shouldn’t be hard to find - but recognise that they are less important than the red route navigation and shouldn’t be shown to users at the same time.

A main navigation system focussed on the red routes allows users to navigate the high traffic sections of your site at high speed. For the lower traffic sections, you can ask users to slow down a bit and give them and offer a few more choices. Be clear on the hierarchy of your site content and be sure to mirror this within the navigation.

You made it to the bottom! Thanks for reading.

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