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Is Removing Top Navigation a Web Design Trend to Avoid?

For the most part, I’d answer yes, but at the same time, it may be inevitable.

By the time a web design trend is recognized as such, it is a fait accompli, and practically all new sites begin to look the same. Take a look at the most recent web trends such as Parallax scrolling, long scrolling pages, use of icons, full bleed images, infographics and the list goes on.

And with the acceptance of every web trend comes a redefining of what constitutes a good user experience. For example, since the beginning of the commercial web, it was accepted practice that all valuable content must reside “above the fold.” But because mobile computing necessitates scrolling, we’re now designing long, scrolling sites, despite that desktop screens still mitigate the need to scroll. Because the scrolling trend stuck, a good desktop user experience is no longer confined to above the fold. In my last post, I addressed the conflicting opinions about scrolling design. Nevertheless, it’s a trend that’s here to stay.

Screen_Shot_2015-06-01_at_1.08.58_PMThe next trend on it’s way toward achieving critical mass is the removal of the ubiquitous top navigation bar from the desktop website. The presentation of a simple “menu” icon (often but not always three horizontal bars), has necessarily been the default navigation for mobile devices due to a paucity of real estate, which is not the case on the desktop. As designers, we wrestle between how to use space most effectively to present messages and imagery, and how to ensure that the user knows where to go and how to get there, with the fewest clicks. The potential liberation of the full real estate above the fold (by removing the top navigation bar), opens design possibilities, but at a cost. Is it worth it making it harder for the user to find what they want?

Usability experts, the Nielsen Norman Group provide a succinct description of the purpose of global top navigation:

“Traditionally, global navigation appears on every page of a website, and serves two functions:

  1. Allows users to switch between top-level categories easily, no matter their current location.
  2. Ensures that even users who don’t enter through the homepage can quickly get a sense of what is available on the website.”


Every web page is Now a Home page

Because of the increasing sophistication of “search,” it is possible, even likely, that people looking for your services may arrive at your website on some sub-page other than the home page. This is why we recommend that you consider every page on your site to be a homepage that includes a call-to-action and navigation that makes it easy for the user to find things and make visible other products and services you offer. For this reason alone, eliminating global top navigation limits possibilities for additional engagement.

Final Thoughts

While there are exceptions to every rule, minimizing top desktop navigation favors design over usability. Whether it is appropriate for your site, depends on your users, an understanding of their needs, and your goals. Like most trends, it has that seductive cool factor; everybody wants to look modern. But if you choose this design path, keep a close eye on your analytics to understand how your users are responding.

Remember, trends have the power to redefine good user experience when they become pervasive. The tipping point for a usability trend is when the perception of what may have once been considered a poor user experience, transforms into the expected user behavior.

Will minimized desktop navigation make the grade? Should it? What do you think?