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How many items in a navigation bar

Someone asked me recently how many items were ‘too many’ to have in a navigation bar on a website. Of course, there is no definitive answer to this (and please don’t ever believe it if someone tells you 7+/-2: the research behind that is completely irrelevant). I don’t think I’ve seen reliable research on this, and if I did I think I’d be suspicious of it anyway as the complexity of the issue isn’t about number, but about complexity of concept.

So I spent some time thinking about what the underlying principles would be if you had to think this through for a decision (I always like thinking from basic principles out, not just relying on simple answers).

One of the main principles is Hicks Law. This describes the time it takes for a reader to make a decision when provided with a number of choices. It basically says that the more choices, the more time (obviously) but it is a logarithmic relationship, not a linear one. So that’s one part of it.

Another important part is the concept of basic-level categories. There is a level of a hierarchical classification that is called ‘basic’ that is more cognitively real than other levels. People think at the basic level. A simple example is this: Mammal – dog – dalmatian. We usually think about ‘dogs’, not mammals or dalmatians.

In practice, I’ve seen people cope with long lists when:

  • the items are at the reader’s basic level
  • the content in the list feels like it belongs together
  • the sequence of items makes sense to the reader (this may mean they are clustered sensibly, or alphabetic for known-item tasks)
  • the concepts are known to the reader

The opposite to a long list of course is a shorter one. This will usually mean breaking down the long list hierarchically, or group some of the items together (e.g Products & Services). The challenge with this is doing it in a way that still makes sense to the reader – as the level of abstraction increases, it is harder for people to determine what might be in a more abstract category.

The other challenge is that, even if you do make a really good long list that is full of great terms and works well for readers, everyone else will challenge you because there is a perception that long lists are bad (even users will say ‘oh, that’s a long list’ before they jump in and use it really easily). If I were about to do implement a long list I’d set up a mini-usability test that compares a couple of options – long lists, grouped items, more hierarchy). I developed a quick usability testing method years ago that I still use that would be good for showing whether the list works or not.

What do you think? How do you figure out how long to make your navigation lists? And how do you convince other people that a long list is OK?

7 Responses to “How many items in a navigation bar”

  1. Andrew Boyd Says:

    Hi Donna,

    how do I figure out how long a list should be? There is no simple answer to that one, as you point out above :) If I said “as long as they need to be, but no longer” then this would at once be totally true and perfectly useless.

    How do I convince other people that a long list is OK? By showing it to them in use (simulated use if possible) with other people, and getting it to use it themselves. Showing them is much better than invoking the law of “because I said” (which works with three year olds but not across multi-million dollar projects, well, for me anyhow).

    Best regards, Andrew

  2. Pat Says:

    Good points Donna, if only to help reinforce the fact that navigation is not as simple as many people think (an issue that I come across frequently).
    Andrew’s right also, gone are the days when you could simply state your expert opinion—or quote some obscure scientific law—and it would be taken on board. On the balance this is probably a good thing, but it does make us work harder when it comes to things like “how long should the nav be?”.
    I guess you can’t beat usability testing to validate your decisions, but as well all know that’s no guarantee of success if it’s not done properly. (Thanks for CBCE by the way :)

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  5. Dan Willis Says:

    I don’t want to sound like a smartass (or whatever the Australian equivalent is), but the perfect number for items in a navbar is ZERO and each item added after that is a compromise. Zero items requires zero interpretation by the user and every item after that requires increasingly more complex interpretation. I know zero items isn’t practical (or politically realistic), but I think it’s worth thinking of the challenge as “what do I absolutely need to add to this list?” rather than “how can I whittle down this list?”
    Having said that, I agree with you Donna that long lists can work just fine (and that users proving it in testing is a powerful way to sell it internally). The key to long lists is the speed with which a user can ignore everything else other than what they’re looking for. If we can make it more about ignoring than interpreting, we have a better chance for success. (For example, if you put an alphabetical list of a hundred names in front of me and my goal is to find my own name, it is an exercise in ignoring the 99 items that aren’t my name.)

  6. Donna Spencer Says:

    @Dan – that’s a great way to think about it.

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