The Case Against Vertical Navigation

Just a few comments on this article I found while checking backlinks for my friend’s Web Design Guys site. (Btw, I’m really glad he got this mention on such a well-thought-out and helpful article. This guy (my friend) has some of the best design skills I’ve seen around. And he’s self-taught).

Anyway, the author of the article makes a case against using vertical navigation in website design. The main reasons he gives are:

1. It Discourages Information Architecture
2. It Wastes Prime Screen Real Estate
3. It Doesn’t Conform to Real-Life Reading
4. Fly-Outs Aren’t as Usable as Drop-Downs
5. It’s Not as Successful, According to Studies
6. The Few Benefits are Negligible

He does say that there are some exceptions, but still thinks in all those cases a horizontal navigation menu could do just as well. I agree with a lot of what he says in the article, but the thing that most sparked my interest in writing this quick post is his first point and, particularly, the supporting example. I’m too lazy to download and re-upload the screenshot and don’t think they would appreciate me hotlinking the image, so you can check it out for yourself, but he talks about a website he designed many years ago for an industrial plastics company. The site is of course “old-fashioned” – very simple, not flashy, with zero “Web 2.0” influence. Kind of what you expect from most early 2000’s sites for this type of business. And, as is the case with a lot of old-fashioned websites, the design features a left-hand vertical navigation.

Now in this case I think a vertical-navigation, particularly one on the left-hand side of the page works and is maybe even preferable to a horizontal navigation. It might not be trendy or win any web design awards, but what industrial plastics website should? My guess is that visitors to this type of site are probably going to be very unconcerned about being wowed with the latest javascript effects or mood-setting photo, but will be looking for specific information about a very specific topic as fast as they can get to it. The author’s 2001 website has specific links to one level-deep pages that are specifically listed on the homepage’s left-side vertical navigation. And, as he points out in his article, some studies show that our attention is usually drawn to the left-hand side of a page. (He also contradicts this later with another study and without any explanation, but I haven’t checked out the other studies so I’m commenting mostly from my own observation here than anything else). Anyway I think that, ironically, that type of what is bound to be very dry, and not-fun website that most of us will never have to visit is one of those cases where a vertical, left-side menu might work best.

Another one of the author’s main points against vertical navigation is that drop-downs are better than slide-outs, but I’m surprised he fails to address various vertical accordion menus made possible by javascript (there’s a lot of popular jQuery and MooTools scripts out there).

Thanks to the author for that article which looks like it took a good bit of effort and time to put together.