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Sites Without Menus: Do You Really Need a Main Nav?

Is Navigation Useful? Jakob Nielsen posed that question in an Alertbox article from 2000. He came to the conclusion that “users look straight at the content and ignore the navigation areas.” In essence, navigation is not as important as most designers make it out to be.

That was a major paradigm shift for me. I always thought that the main navigation would be one of the most important elements of a website. I couldn’t believe it, so I set off to look for minimalist websites that didn’t use navigation. Sure enough, I found plenty.

Thanks to reader Leon Paternoster who got me started down this path. After a flurry of emails and a couple of all nighters I even redesigned my own site (now with less, less, LESS!). Of course I had to purge nearly 600 posts and change platforms, but I would guess that you could go sans-menu with much less effort.

Screenshots and commentary

Click a thumbnail to view a larger screenshot and additional commentary. Links below.

Visit the sites

  • Oranges
  • Information Architects
  • dtsn
  • The Binary Bonsai
  • Absenter
  • Marius Roosendaal
  • Brett Nyquist
  • Serial Cut
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  • Inca Un Calator
  • Seed Conference
  • Ch/ma Inc.
  • 80/20
  • Five Simple Steps
  • Jamie Gregory

    1. By Jeff McKeand posted on March 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm
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      Timely post. I was just debating this with my fellow designer the other day in regards to a site we’re working on… Thanks!

    2. By Daniel posted on March 16, 2009 at 1:33 pm
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      Thanks for the link. Menus are difficult, i know that i suffered from google for not including a menu, i had to find a new way to have the links somewhere on my site without it being a menu. But you shouldn’t need a menu, you content should be easily discovered without one.

    3. By Mark Popkes posted on March 16, 2009 at 7:03 pm
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      The idea of not having a menu for your visitors might seem “progressive” or even “pushing the envelope” because, in my personal opinion, visitors like menus. Is it necessary? Depends. I view menus as a means to give your visitors a “quick out” of the page they’re currently on. Otherwise, they may have to hit their browser’s back button numerous times to get back to where they need to. Then again, perhaps a breadcrumb is in order.

      Great list. Enjoyed checking them out!

    4. By Dustin Boston posted on March 16, 2009 at 10:05 pm
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      @Mark good point about the breadcrumbs

    5. By Larry Roth posted on March 17, 2009 at 3:03 am
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      You bring up an interesting idea, and certainly erring on the side of less-is-more makes a lot of sense. But I think for many sites with diverse audiences that have diverse needs menus provide both obvious launch points as well as locational feedback (like the breadcrumb mentioned above).

      Also, there are certain types of content that benefit from sequential navigation and while the ubiquitous back/next buttons can do the trick, there is a certain grounding that is provided by the user seeing nested content within a side navigation.

      Anyway, cool idea and thanks for all the examples!

    6. By Mario Garcia posted on March 17, 2009 at 3:35 pm
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      Glad to see that I’m not the only one considering this as I just wrote about it yesterday on my site. My focus is on news sites and I put the question out there — how many of us really use the top navigation on a news site? Seems to me most of us are scanners or users with a purpose. If we’re scanners, we’re scanning photos and headlines on a site we’re familiar with, searching for something to pique our interest. If we’re users with a purpose we arrive at an article page through an RSS reader or an email alert, or just use search to find what we want. In neither scenario do we use the top navigation. Of course, it all depends on how organized the site is visually and how compelling the content is. It does beg the question though….is top navigation even necessary anymore?

    7. By Jeff Wright posted on March 17, 2009 at 3:53 pm
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      Some sites can get away with it, but most cannot. People not only need to be able to see how to get from point A to point B, but also back to point A when they’ve found point B. A lack of a nav (or an inconsistent nav) is usually a sure-fire way to cause frustration.

      Not only that, but a nav serves to tell people what’s available, so they spend their time going to the most relevant places on your site, not just the ones they can find.

    8. By Rick Faircloth posted on March 17, 2009 at 4:34 pm
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      The idea of “no-menu” sites certainly is interesting, but I noted that most of the examples provided for “no-menu” sites are basically limited to one main topic…blogs, single-item shop or info site, where most relevant info a user could be looking for will probably be on the main page.

      However, with sites that have multiple points of high-interest, it becomes more necessary to include direct links to the desired content area.

      And, another critical point is that of Search Engine Marketing. For my clients, SEM is critical and couldn’t be sacrificed. If for no other reason, a menu would have to be included if the Search Engines lowered rankings because the site lacked a main menu.

    9. By Denny posted on March 17, 2009 at 5:03 pm
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      We can’t talk about navigation without discussing intent.

      I intend to go to the bathroom, but I’m sitting at my desk. This is probably the wrong place to fulfill my intent. I need to be able to find my way to the bathroom in order to do that.

      So here’s the challenge: Two intents. One for the user and one for the website. We must make them love each other.

      User intends to buy a blue widget. Website intends to sell blue widgets. Great! Create a landing page sans navigation and funnel all traffic into a purchase process. SEO it. PPC it.

      User intends to learn about blue widgets. Website intends to sell blue widgets. Uh oh! User won’t stay because they don’t intend to buy a widget today and the landing page doesn’t connect meaningfully.

      What to do? Link to a page for the learners from the landing page? Fine, but you’ll probably reduce your conversion rate. That’s no good.

      What to do? Create another site that focuses on teaching everything about blue widgets. Navigation will come in handy here, assuming there’s a relatively large body of information and you want to present it effectively. Repeatedly ask users to visit the landing page with a Buy Now call to action.

      Maybe it requires a little more effort, but this way you’re designing with the two intents in mind and hopefully maximizing your investment.

    10. By Breton posted on March 17, 2009 at 11:00 pm
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      Nobody uses *ever* uses breadcrumb navigation. The back button is always the first resort far in preference to taking time to figure out the specific navigation of the site. These facts are easily discovered via user testing. You could even write some javascript to produce statistics on these things, without spending a cent to verify it.

      You could also just take my word for it, but these are counterintuitive enough to enough people that I would reccomend just finding out for yourself. It’s the only way you’ll be convinced.

    11. By Dave Q posted on March 18, 2009 at 2:19 am
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      Devlounge doesn’t have a “visible” menu. Interesting concept.

    12. By Nick Lo posted on March 18, 2009 at 4:35 am
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      Good call. It’s funny how easy it is to get stuck in a habit of thinking where and how to do the main navigation, rather than considering whether it’s even needed in the first place.

      I wonder though if this is more applicable to the kind of sites that you give as examples; information/blog/article based sites. Would the same logic apply to web applications like a project management system for example?

      Perhaps what we’re really seeing is the maturing of site design and of the users of websites such that their design is more appropriate to the nature of their use and content. For example I notice you’ve still got what I’d see as a main navigation menu with your “Browse the Site” but it echoes a magazine-style, table of contents rather than a desktop application menu.

      Funnily enough, a client just recently mentioned how their site’s typical left hand navigation menu was based on an older idea of needing to have as much as possible clearly navigable, but now it seems heavy, dated and in need of some serious slimming.

      Anyway, thanks for the outside-the-box nudge.

    13. By Felipe posted on March 18, 2009 at 12:53 pm
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      hey, great post — I definetely can live without menus in most cases

      now how about linking to the original websites in the screenshots? :)

    14. By Dustin Boston posted on March 18, 2009 at 4:41 pm
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      Wow, you all have some GREAT comments on this topic. I’ll address a few but seriously I could respond to every one of them. Awesome!

      @Jeff Write – Usually a navigation is just a list of categories or About, Contact, Products, etc. I don’t think that gives the user any real information on how to get back to point A. Breadcrumbs seem like they would be a better solution. Or the back button. A clearly labeled home button or logo is a definite requirement here!

      @Rick Faircloth – Good point. If your site has a few high-interest topics you need to direct users to that content. So why not just give them what they want and actually list the posts on the home page. Also include an archive link for each of those categories. Don’t make them hunt. Just give it to them!

      @Felipe – I know. I blew it with the screenshots & links to the sites. I’ll get it right next time. In this case I could have simplified by including the content you were looking for up front rather than sending you to another page. It’s a good point. In fact, I *did* provide a sort-of menu to the sites below the thumbnails but that isn’t what anyone was looking for. Everyone wanted an instant link to the site. I could have saved space and words, and made it easier for everyone if I had just included the full screenshots that linked to the site (rather than thumbnails).

    15. By Leon Paternoster posted on March 20, 2009 at 7:27 pm
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      This got me thinking about navigation in general. I think it’s possible to rid yourself of navbars in simpler sites.

      I like the BBC’s approach, which changes your navbar according to where you are in the site, and uses a clever, simple breadcrumb. Take http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/football/europe/7954390.stm to see what I mean.

    16. By Dean posted on March 23, 2009 at 10:40 pm
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      I created my graphic design + illustration site with just one goal: for people to quickly look at my work. The feedback I get is that people want to see categories, and that Flash is evil. Evil. Evil. Evil. Should I make my site identical to all the web 2.0 sites like twitter.com?

      @rivetrivet

    17. By Amit Samtani posted on March 23, 2009 at 11:21 pm
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      Interesting article. I love sites that are as simple as can be.

      How would someone implement a menu-less site for an e-commerce or online catalog site? Is it possible? If you have a link to such a site, would love to check it out.

    18. By Dustin Boston posted on March 23, 2009 at 11:28 pm
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      @Amit – I don’t know about that one. I guess you have to start with the purpose. In the case of a shopping cart, the purpose is to sell a product. If you only have a few products, maybe 10 at most, why not put them all on the front page.

      For more products you have to give them an intuitive way to navigate. Categories seem like the right approach. Search is probably the best. I am sure that is why Amazon has it featured so prominently.

    19. By Victoria Blount posted on March 24, 2009 at 8:59 am
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      Interesting article, it depends on the function of the website and also audience. If the audience isn’t web savy, then having no clear navigation wouldn’t work, as functionality is important. But i do recognise that for the right client and audience altering the usual navigation bar, which can be restrictive from a design point of view, could be very effective.

    20. By Quakeulf posted on March 25, 2009 at 9:18 am
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      Wow, you finally did this post!

      Regarding menus, I have to go with some previous posters that says this’ll only be useful if the site only has one purpose. I have a hard time imagining my website without a menu because I have both a blog and a gallery and I would like to keep those two separated due to a lot of concerns.

      If a menu is visible I will instantly think this site has more to it, and explore the menu if I am intrigued enough.

      If a menu is not visible I will instantly think this is all this site has, even though I might be wrong, because I don’t want to spend time looking for links to other sections of the site.

      The catch is that unless your site is a 100% one-page portfolio, you will have sections on your site, and you will need means to navigate there, and they will need to be easy to locate and use, and for that a menu is quite excellent.

      Imagine going to a restaurant and not getting a menu, so you have to order your food based on the look and smell of what the other customers are currently eating. Then you will be dependant on other customers arriving before you to leech from their choices, but this again creates a new problem; what about the first customer of the day, what will that person order? Something based off the smell from the kitchen?

    21. By Portland Web Design posted on March 30, 2009 at 12:56 am
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      I’m 50/50 on if a main nav is needed. For most sites, i would say yes, it is needed, unless the business is very trendy and the web site design equally so.

      Normal business should probably stick to the proven strategy… night clubs, fashion, cars, alcohol, toys… go for new designs with no main nav.

    22. By Christopher Bolton posted on March 31, 2009 at 8:11 am
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      I agree to some extent, but how many of the web sites listed above are for the average web user? If you are making a website that might be targeted at a group that doesn’t spend their life on the Internet (like most of us), I think it would be difficult (on the majority of websites) to get away with not having a main navigation element.

    23. By Andy posted on April 7, 2009 at 8:16 am
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      True, research shows that the navigation is often skipped (along with other ‘banner blindness’ elements) – and this is exactly what you want, people reading your content. But once they’ve finished reading it you want them to stay on your site. That’s why a heirarchical navigation is crucial, and why many sites these days are starting to include site maps in their footers – footers being the logical place the user ends up after reading the content.

      I’d also argue that while you have removed a traditional main navigation list from this site, the navigation is still there – it’s just peppered around the page, which arguably makes it more confusing and harder to use.

      I agree with others here that it’s all down to the type of site and the audience. I used to look after a local council website, and an obvious heirarchical navigation structure was absolutely essential. With a portfolio site with only a handful of pages, it may be less critical.

    24. By Stephan posted on April 7, 2009 at 8:36 am
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      Maybe you don’t always need a main nav, but the big point fir me is that apparently you need to focus on designing content first, navigation later..

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