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Is "Pervasive Nav" Dead?

Should Typical Tab/Menu Navigation Be Abandoned in Favor of Trigger Words?
January 9, 2005

Henrik Olsen, on his site reports on a recent spool (Spool?)
that pervasive navigation—conventional top tab bars and/or multi-level menus on the top or left of every page—is a proven failure whose time must come to an end if we are to improve website search success rates. I think the whole premise misses the point, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

In a provocative article, on Navigation Blindness, you can read that many pundits blame poor web design on the weaknesses of "pervasive navigation. Pervasive navigation refers to nav links that are on almost all pages. They might be two-level tabs like Amazon, or Windows-like dropdown/flyout menus, or semi-static, two-level menus on the left like many sites use.

I believe this issue is perhaps the biggest one in content-centric web design.

The recent sentiment stems from the many undisputed problems of current pervasive nav (which though pervasive, is rarely thorough). We are told that the solution is to cater to those crazy, "goal-driven" visitors (is there some other kind?) with trigger words or some other punditry flavor-of-the-month.

Here's my counter argument:

  1. I don't deny that many users skip the pervasive nav. Much structured nav is a hodgepodge, so why shouldn't they?
  2. The slow (but not invisible) emergence of standards is partly a deterrent. If all web sites used a fully RAM based collapsible outline
    control from the early days, the whole mess would not exist. (Modem speeds prevented this, but just wait.) I recently updated another of my sites, to such a design, based on the popular techwriter's tool, RoboHelp.
  3. The inconsistent use of RAM (not putting the full nav) in memory makes a painful game of using persistent nav.
  4. The fact that body content changes with any click might be the real demon here. This "animation" draws the eye away from what might have been a great nav system. Users then get transfixed and seduced by prose hyperlinks and
    right-side feature callouts.
  5. The home page of is offered up as proof that "trigger words" are the solution and pervasive nav is dead. I say that nothing could be further from the truth: it is proof that readers need exactly what they've needed for 1500 years: a good table of contents, in as close to a single glance as possible. The "expansion" of the level-two headings right onto the page represents nothing more than readers' desperate need for examples(!), clarifying the otherwise meaninglessness of the level-one headings to the uninitiated. (For concepts, examples are king.)

This nonsense about pervasive nav being dead...

  • totally misses the issue,
  • perpetuates a habit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, something the technologies love to do,
  • and ignores the lessons of traditional information tools.

What will be the next miraculous revelation/revolution? The epipany that web sites need intelligently-crafted indexes... along with the obligatory chant, "Search Must Die"? Duh.


What should you do on your site? Deploy a good

  1. table of contents,
  2. index,
  3. full-text search,
  4. breadcrumbs, (yes they most certainly are useful)
  5. revision history.

These are the five fundamental "orders" of information and they should be on all sites. Other orders include "popularity" (what's hot), importance, and special orders for your own type of data. For an intranet, the "revision history" is a running log of content changes in date order, like my home page and it should predominate the body of the page.

The fact that there is so much poor design out there and that half of the current generation is struggling to fathom the depth of information is no reason to adopt the sort of anecdotal browsing that is implied as a direction. And the Analog site is far from anecdotal. It is the essence of a RAM-based table of contents... nothing more than a good Site Map as a home page.



"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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