Designing Web Navigation (Book review)

What? An entire book just about designing navigation on the Web? Yes, that’s right. And if you think about it for a while you’ll probably realise that there is a need for a book on that subject. Heck, considering the number of sites out there that are incredibly hard to navigate, there is room for plenty of books that explain how to create Web navigation that works.

And you’re very likely to have run into problems more than once when trying to figure out how to make a website or Web application easy and intuitive not only for yourself, but for your own or your client’s end users, to find their way around. Designing Web Navigation by James Kalbach aims to help you master the fundamentals of navigation design. While there is no guarantee that you will master the subject, reading this book will definitely give you a lot of insight into the problems that you encounter in navigation design as well as possible solutions to those problems.

The way Designing Web Navigation is structured makes it usable not only as a book you read from cover to cover, but also as a reference to keep handy for the next time a tricky navigation problem shows up. It can also give you arguments to use in discussions with clients or other team members when there is something that doesn’t feel quite right about the solution somebody is suggesting but you can’t put it into words. In fact, it may also make you look at the problem from a different angle and realise that maybe your solution isn’t the best one.

The author starts the first part of the book by explaining the foundations of Web navigation. Those foundations include why we even need navigation in the first place, how we use Web browsers to interact with websites, the most common types of navigation on the Web, and how we can label navigation to make it easy to understand.

The second part of the book is called “A Framework for Navigation Design”, and is focused on providing you with a systematic approach to designing Web navigation. It does that by describing a number of phases that you will often move through while turning a concept into a working navigation system.

In the third and final part, James Kalbach takes a closer look at navigation in special contexts, such as before and after searching, in social tagging systems, and how Web applications can be navigated.

Throughout the book there are many references to accessibility and internationalisation issues that can be caused by some types of navigation. It’s great to see that those two very important aspects of Web navigation aren’t overlooked here as they are in many other places.

Overall this is a great book that I enjoyed reading. The examples and references are current and credible. One area that has room for improvement is the layout and typography, which I think could be more usable. Line-length is a bit too long for the book to be a really comfortable read, and page numbers are smaller than the text on websites designed by ad agency art directors.

But don’t let that discourage you from picking up a copy of this book. My impression is that there is a lot of research behind this book, and I think all web designers and front-end developers can learn something from it.

Designing Web Navigation
Author: James Kalbach
ISBN-10: 0596528108
ISBN-13: 978-0596528102

Posted on March 19, 2008 in Reviews, Usability


  1. Thanks for the review. I’ll try to get my hands on one of these. :)

  2. March 19, 2008 by Kari Pätilä

    What I’d really like to see is atypical navigation done well. I think that if content can be presented in a way that everything is accessible from every page, then the elements on said page could be arranged by how they relate to each other and not by categorizing them under a horizontal or vertical navigation.

    That said, I’d also hate to see a situation where a user takes one look at the page and immediately hits the back-button while thinking that there must be some kind of error preventing him from seeing the navigation.

    Are there, in fact, other professional, usable and intuitive ways to desing navigation, apart from the traditional menus?

  3. Thanks for the review. I saw the book at a local bookstore a while ago but didn’t have the time to buy it then. Seems like a great book to read.

  4. I enjoyed this book on the whole. The many colour screenshots help a lot (navigation is such a visual topic) and as you say it’s reasonably well designed for dipping in and out of.

    The bit that disappointed me, as it was one of my main reasons for buying the book, was the section on tagging. This chapter didn’t really have much depth to it at all.

    The tiny page numbers are just ridiculous!

  5. March 20, 2008 by Kari Pätilä

    Since my first comment I have actually begun reading the book, so I’d like to point out that the issues with the relativity in navigating were explained quite well in the very beginning of the book. However, I’d still like to see some well thought out alternatives (non Flash-based) to the traditional menu bar.

  6. Thanks for the review, I was actually already planning to order this book. You pulled me over the edge :)

  7. smaller than the text on websites designed by ad agency art directors

    I have to admit this is the first time I’ve laughed out loud about typography :)

  8. Great Review. I always read your book reviews, they are very handy. Thanks for the effort.

  9. Thanks for the review! Just picked this up based on your recommendation. Just what I’ve been looking for.

  10. Thank you for the review, I have always found your reviews to be very appropriate and useful.

  11. When it comes to navigation and usability, I still use what Jakob Nielsen has to say in his alertbox and his books. No matter how old part of the research may seem, I think everything comes only back with time, for example if we consider all these mobile devices, with small screens and limited resources. That doesnt mean, Im not aware about new books though, I`m sure this one would be no doubt a good investment. Issues with usability arise often, and its nice to have a comprehensive reference on the desk.

  12. Great review. I totally agree with your conclusion that this is worth buying as we use it at our work.

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