Horizontal versus Vertical primary navigation

It’s a debate which seems to come up every few years, should global or primary navigation on a website be horizontal or vertical? (Vertical being usually on the left hand side.)

Here’s my thoughts on the subject.

1) Vertical nav is on the decline
The trend over the last ten years has certainly been towards horizontal global navigation, and using left hand or sometimes right hand navigation for what’s normally termed local or secondary navigation. It’s unusual to see left hand global navigation on large retail and financial services websites and research does show that in most cases in the online world it’s best to stick with what your visitors expect. So if you’re in an industry where users are used to horizontal navigation, don’t ask them to have to re-think how they navigate your website unless you have good reason to.

2) Vertical isn’t always wrong
That’s not to say you should never do vertical global navigation – it can be right for some sites.  In my view, it can work for sites which are light on content or products and where each global section may only have 1 or 2 pages it can work well. There is one recent exception, Amazon. I have to say it works well for Amazon, however they seem to be trying to encourage a search and purchase mentality rather than a browse and learn one which is working well for them. Amazon is the most famous exanple of a big brand website moving from horizontal to vertical. I can think of lots who have moved from vertical to horizontal, but not many the other way !

3) Let your users decide
It’s worth doing A/B usability testing if you do feel the urge to move to left hand navigation. Whenever I’ve observed usability studies on the subject users have usually preferred horizontal for global navigation by a long way. Again, it depends on the site’s objectives and audience, but most users are used to seeing horizontal navigation. Eye tracking studies have shown left hand global navigation can draw the user’s eyes more often which means they don’t focus on the area of the site you want them to.

Once users have found a section of your site they want to explore, we want their attention drawn to call-to-action areas and to the primary content and local navigation that will help them accomplish their goal on the website and help us make conversions. Users read left to right, so having your local navigation and content near to the left makes sense. I always think effective global navigation should be ‘seen but not heard’, in other words, it’s there when you need it but it doesn’t impose itself constantly and distract from the main content.

Keeping global navigation on the left hand side also takes up a lot of the sites real estate permanently – do you really want to use up so much space when you could be using it for real , useful content and navigation?

4) Do you want your site to feel like a BIG BRAND?
Does the global navigation feel global? This point is more subjective I admit, and I can’t prove it with hard facts – it’s more the feeling you get when you arrive on a site. A well, organised, simplified, horizontal global navigation can give a site a feeling of breadth and make it seem ‘Big’. It can feel like the site has a comprehensive offering, that the site architecture had been considered and is important and is a well ordered website. I’m not convinced  sites with vertical global navigation have the same feeling.

5) Horizontal nav means strong homepages
The use of  horizontal navigation allows a visitors focus to be placed on the page’s content area and on the call-to-action sections. This is particualrly important on your main homepages where you want the user to be drawn to your most imoprtant calls to action or adverts, while still being able to find the primary navigation bar at the top of the page.

6) 9 out of the top 10 largest UK companies do it horizontally !
Finally, let’s have a quick look at the UK’s top 10 largest companies, (source Times Online 2009 articles;)
BP,
HSBC,
Vodafone,
Tesco,
Barclays,
Glaxo Smith Kline,
Astra Zeneca,
Standard Chartered,
National Grid,
and BT Group

Only 1 – Glaxo Smith Kline uses vertical global navigation – and even this is actually positioned right at the top of the page. The other pharmaceutical company Astra Zeneca uses horizontal for it’s global (international) home page however it does then resort to vertical nav for the UK homepage.

The rest all have horizonatal navigation – and very nice it looks too. And, more importantly, it works !

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About philty

UX professional working for major financial services player in the UK
This entry was posted in Customer experience, Usability, User experience design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Horizontal versus Vertical primary navigation

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Horizontal versus left hand for primary navigation | Philty's UX Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Interesting stuff, a good conversation-starting article.

    What I would say, though, is that the top 10 UK companies are not necessarily the top 10 UK companies online, nor are they the best at converting traffic to purchases/signups.

    Also, looking at the top 10 UK internet businesses (according to Alexa):

    Google UK (Horizontal, vertical filters)
    Facebook (Vertical)
    Google.com (as above)
    Youtube (Horizontal)
    BBC (Horizontal)
    Yahoo (Vertical)
    eBay (Vertical)
    Windows Live (neither on the homepage…!)
    Amazon (Vertical)
    Wikipedia (Vertical)

    The results are much more mixed. It’s more a case of choosing the appropriate navigation for the site in question.

    Amazon and eBay are brilliant examples of this – you mentioned Amazon in your second pint but eBay also use vertical navigation. Their sites are far too large nowadays for horizontal nav to be effective. To be fair, these sites are more search engines than retail sites, and their homepages centre around searching for your product rather than browsing categories. They sell everything – might as well cater for that fact.

    The other thing to mention is blogs – they seem to be opting for horizontal navigation with vertical filters (categories, tags etc). Again, like you say, it’s not to say it’s the right thing to do, but it seems to be the trend.

    I would totally agree with point 3, however – test, test, test. The only way you’ll know what your users prefer is by testing, and seeing what converts!

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