It is often tempting to create something from our own perspective rather than the users’, and the main menu is the most common way to make that mistake. A main menu should be a list of what the user can do, not what the site can do.
During the planning of a website, someone is always responsible for the Information Architecture (which is not the same as Interaction Design). That person will be very involved in designing the structure of the pages and content, i.e. — where you go when you click stuff on the site.
The main menu is always the first thing to look at when planning a site, and in my opinion it sets the tone for all interactive planning.
A main menu can be controversial: What matters for the business? What matters for the user? What will sell the most? Where should the “sign up” button go? What about our partners? Where is my favorite random thing? And so on.
Forget all that.
There is one rule you need to think about first: The only thing the user cares about, is what the user cares about.
Not vague categories. Not the legal details of your products. Not business departments. And definitely not the main database tables (ugh).
Imagine these are two possibilities for the website of a TV channel:
Menu 1: Programs, Staff, Site Map
Menu 2: Watch Episodes, Contact Us, Search
See the difference?
The first version is just labels. It’s what the site contains, regardless of whether the user can use it or not.
“What do I click to watch a video?”
“If I click ‘staff’ is that a list of their staff, or the area for employees only?”
“What the hell is a site map?”
The second version is all actions/goals; i.e. — what the user can achieve, starting here. It is a row of the highest profile buttons on the site, why would we abandon call-to-action strategies now?
A user enters the site with a goal like “I need the manager’s phone number.” They are never thinking: “I need to find the appropriate category of information to suit my needs.”
Unfortunately, when executives & product people get together to plan a website, they know too much, so they start categorizing things by internal priorities rather than user goals.
Banks, for example, often have confusing, complex information architecture because they organize the whole business based on individual products — which might only differ because of tax, interest, or technical details — rather than goals. When they should say “Start Saving” they give you a list of account types to choose from instead.
Every user understands how saving money works. Very few have the patience to learn the details about each account type so they can make the right choice. In the end, they will choose nothing and go somewhere else.
…and that is why a menu should be what the user can do, not what the site can do.
Have a great week!
If you liked this ProTip, try: ProTip #13: Show Them What to Click.