Navigation Paralysis

How Meaningless Labels Lose Your Users

This is a website's navigation bar.

What it is that this company does?
What’s their attitude?
What do they sell?
These vague navigation labels have become commonplace for businesses of all type, size, and function. And if convention develops out of effectiveness, this navigation structure should be the most effective there is.

And yet, it sucks.

We’re not making this up. Here are a handful of offenders:

The fallacy of a Product-Platform-Services-Solutions-Features navigation

Companies are so deeply entrenched in their offerings that terms like features, products, platform, solutions, and services really do have different meanings. For those on the inside, approaching the brand from the customer's point of view can be a real challenge. Take a company that sells its software as a service; Dropbox is a good example. Dropbox has a platform, sells a product, and offers services such as customer service or technical support. It may be tempting to gravitate toward a site structure that describes the Dropbox offering through each of these lenses. But do customers really understand Dropbox this way? When they purchase Dropbox do they think they’ve purchased a product that depends on a platform that also has services? Or are they simply thinking: I bought Dropbox.




What the research says

The industry is full of research that warns against using broad category names for navigation labels. Non-specific labels can hinder discoverability and, ultimately, conversion. “Category names must be just right to attract the proper attention. They can’t be to too broad, too narrow, vague, ambiguous, or share meaning with each other,” according to an article published by Hoa Langer, a VP at Nielsen Norman Group. “Ambiguity causes hesitation, which can cost you clicks.”

Further, header navigation is an opportunity to immediately convey what a brand represents or sells. “Labels like ‘Products’ or ‘Services’ are generic to all businesses and do nothing to communicate with visitor,” says Kissmetrics, a behavioral analytics company. “When your navigation shows your main services or products, your site will communicate instantly.”

Beyond making an immediate impact, descriptive navigation labels also play an integral role in driving organic search performance. The words used in website navigation build keyword relevance for the products or services (or solutions or platform) that your business is selling. For example, a company that sells pet food would be better served with a navigation label of “Pet Food” vs. “Products” since the former reflects the language that people use to search for those specific goods, which matters a lot for search algorithms. Marcus Miller, a writer for the online digital marketing publication Search Engine Land, describes the rationale behind this using a clever analogy: “I walk into a supermarket and look for the signs to find what I need. Your website is no different. If a user is referred and searches for your brand name, then they will land on your home page. They then need a signpost to get them to the relevant service. And it had better be easy to find!”

The experiment

To study the paralysis that users encounter when they’re faced with vague navigation, we designed the following scenario:

You’re a small business owner with employees who live across 3 different countries. You have team-wide phone calls several times a week to check in on the status of various projects. To make these calls easier for everyone to dial into, you decide to buy a conference call software for your business. You get a few recommendations for companies who provide this, and start researching to find a good fit for your business’ needs.

Survey respondents were presented with the following navigation schema and asked 5 follow-up questions.

Website Navigation: Products, Features, Services, Solutions, Platform

  1. In which category would you expect to find information on why to choose this particular company?
  2. In which category would you expect to find information on international call rates?
  3. In which category would you expect to find information about integrations with other technologies e.g. WebEx, Skype, etc.?
  4. You're planning to grow your business. In which category would you expect to find larger enterprise option?
  5. In which category would you expect to find details on how to conduct meetings from your mobile device?


Overall, we collected responses from 217 users, 39 of whom are small/medium business owners themselves. To see detailed demographics, check out our charts below.

Defining success

To reach a meaningful conclusion about the survey results, we had to consider the threshold for success: what percentage of respondents had to select the same answer for the navigation to be deemed successful?

We determined that a 75% consensus for each question would indicate that a majority of users agreed on where to find that piece of information. In reality, this translates to 1 in 4 users failing to find the information they are seeking, which is a relatively low threshold for success. On a real website, we would hope to see at least a 90-95% success rate in testing findability through the navigation.


We encourage you to play with the filters on each question below to see for yourself how respondents answer based on different dimensions.

So, what does this mean?

According to the data, if 10 people came to the site looking for enterprise solutions, 3 are going to Solutions, 2 are going to Platforms, 2 are going to Products, 2 are going to Services, and 1 is going to Features. With only one of those being the right spot, that’s a lot of opportunity for failure.

Overall, the data indicates that there is no consensus among participants: there is no scenario where 75% or more respondents answered the same way -- for any question or filtered view.

While it is unlikely to see all 5 navigation labels that we tested (Features, Solutions, Services, Platform, Products) at one time on a website, it is not that far off from reality. Even with fewer navigation options (3 or 4 out of the 5 tested), the vagueness of the terms still introduces enough confusion to be detrimental to a user’s experience.

By choosing to use generic navigation labels, you risk:

  • missing a prime opportunity to quickly communicate your brand essence
  • confusing the user about where to find the information they’re looking for

All this to say, in the 10 seconds you have to make an impression, make it count.

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