October 26, 2012 DPR

Web Usability: left navigation or right?

Is a right-focused Web layout more intuitive for the masses? I guess I’m just a right-leaning lefty in search of the truth. On route to the annual “Learning and The Brain” conference, I ponder this weighty cerebral question.

Left-Brain, Right-Brain

Without hesitation, I always begin the basic structure of Web page design with the primary navigation on the right sidebar. It’s always been that way since anything else just didn’t feel right. I’ve given that fact very little thought over the past 10 years. However, the need for self-examination seemed more relevant today as I started off to Cambridge Mass on what was a chilly November afternoon. It’s usually a 3-hour trip, so I had plenty of time for introspection, especially since I was traveling to the annual “Learning and The Brain” conference. I jotted down the reasons I think right-sided navigation is more intuitive on the backside of a Google Maps printout. And, with that scrap of paper, I traveled into the psyche of the left or the right navigation.

The speakers that were scheduled for the three-day event included scholars, authors, professors, and educators in the “heady” field of psychology and psychoanalysis. Where better to analyze the dynamic that lies deep within my subconscious than experts in the field? This year’s “Meeting of the Minds” was extra special since it had the most attendees ever, with over 2000 reservations and several dozen highly respected speakers. All of whom would pontificate and cajole the very essence of the “left brain, right brain” question.

The insight I came away with at the end of my first day of lectures, is that the professional programmer (left brain) has a sequential way of looking at the parts to get a result. Programmers have to comprehend the highly complicated coding necessary to create today’s interactive Web applications. While the designer (right brain) is a more fluid thinker, whose decisions they base on visual cues. What better way to explain why websites created by programmers look vastly different from those created by designers.

Note that this is my own personal discovery and not a scientifically proven fact. By no means do I claim to be a researcher or brain surgeon.

The Answer: Print Design?

I’m not a brain surgeon, though I have been a professional graphic designer for over 20 years, so the following observation is worth including. Should Web design navigation emulate print design? Why do I choose to structure my Web pages with a right-sided navigation menu instead of the long-established left-side? In fact, there was a study performed by Kingsbury and Andre in 2004 which concluded, Navigation: Left is Best. In their analysis, they use L.L. Bean as the “TLL” (Top – Left – Left Navigation Pattern) which their shoppers prefer. I checked out their Web interface today and I don’t see a left OR right navigation model. Maybe L.L. Bean’s Web marketing department has abandoned this study since they’ve since replaced their Web interface for a newer, more intuitive interface design. Could it be that their customers respond favorably to the new design by spending more coin?

So, why should the Web be any different?

Coming from the realm of advertising design, I’ve always worked from left to right. Let’s examine one of our society’s most popular pastimes: scanning local newspapers’ “Society Pages” for a glimpse of the civilized class. I admit it, I do sometimes envy their vast fortunes and fabulous good looks. The “Le clan Cunningham Au Chateau” article is a very effective way to garner favor from them, appealing to their egos. Newspapers have used positioning, placement, and coverage for many years to appeal to their readers and advertisers. So, why should the Web be any different?

As the modern-day “investor class”, whose fortunes have lessened recently, could have benefited from better Web usability. As the remaining doom days of 2008 ended, I can’t help wondering if right-sided navigation could have kept millions of investors from losing their life savings? Could a more intuitive Web interface have kept our economy from collapsing? The day trader may have been able to react more quickly to the falling market if only E-Trade’s navigation was more intuitive.

Evolving Web Design

A not-so-subtle UI used a heavy method of coaxing his favor. The methods of persuasion used by today’s Web are far more sophisticated and far more nuanced. Like many national newspapers, we are all reluctant to change. Maybe that’s the reason the Web has grabbed a significant share of the traditional print market. Immediately after the Web became commercially viable, research and statistical organizations began measuring user response. Web Trends was one of those pioneering companies that wanted to sell this valuable data to advertisers. Now there is Google Analytics which offers the regular Web developer access to a powerful suite of tools that can measure the user’s reaction to changes you make to your interface design and accessibility.

Don’t be an Ug.

There are many differences that exist between the Web user, not to mention sex, age, origin, politics, and affluence. The way we shop (and search) for goodies on the Internet needs to be a serious consideration when preparing your Web user interface. The world is becoming more sophisticated, so changing your Web design with accessibility and usability in mind is a must!

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