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Purpose

The navigation system

  1. Provides a systematic approach - combining different structural elements - so users can find their way to information through meaningful associations – for coherence and cost-efficiency across the web domain.
  2. Helps users find information as easily and as quickly as possible, without standing in their way.
  3. Acts as a supporting system: it is there when needed, but should not overpower the actual content.

5 navigation principles and guidance

  1. Finding information vs. consuming information

Users are focused on the task at hand. For content pages, this means that they should be as short and simple as possible – only what is needed to meet user needs.

The same logic applies to navigation:

  • present the choices in a clear and unambiguous way
  • keep pages clear of unnecessary clutter to make it easier for users to find what they need
  • avoid mixing 'finding' with 'consuming' (and using). The European Commission's core website navigation pages are designed to help users find information - and bring them to the content pages, where they can consume the information

This means:

  • do not mix content with navigation
  • on navigational pages (see below for different types) the focus is on finding info, ie. selecting the right path. Offer just enough information to clarify and specify the choices. The content present on navigational pages is only there to help users make their choice
  • on content pages the focus is on consuming the content:
    • avoid links at the top of the page and in particular links within the introduction (which suggests to the user: you came to this page, but we already want you to leave because this is not interesting)
    • the links are secondary to the content - they are off to the side (e.g. “metadata” type information), below or between the content - see “related information”

In general:

  • avoid patterns that “hide” information – dropdowns, toggles to show/hide information, expandable content panes and accordions – if they get in the way of the user finding the right information quickly
  • use them only if they can help the user to focus on the choice at hand (e.g. on smaller screens). (See below for guidelines on when and how to use them)

2. Context-based navigation - meaningful navigation to support the user needs

The EC core website's task-based approach means the website has been designed from the content outwards.

To build a website that is user-focused and relevant means emphasising the content that users actually need.

The navigation system is a supporting system: it is there when it is needed, but can not overpower the actual content.

It does not mean that elements like breadcrumbs and footers are not needed, but they should not be viewed as central to the design. They should not intrude on the task the visitor came for, they are there only if the task is finished or fails and the user is actively looking for other options.

3. Task-based navigation

Advantages (both for the users and for internal editors) of task-based navigation over an audience-based approach:

  • more efficient (see details below)
  • avoids content duplication that would lead to confusion
  • saves unnecessary maintenance/translation costs

4. Progressive disclosure

Navigation needs to help discoverability and findability. It needs to respect the focus and hierarchy of users’ tasks.

A step-by-step progression to more detail is particularly useful when a lot of information has to be presented.

5. Helping users move forward

As a supporting system, the EC's core website navigation system focuses on "the next steps” and helps users to move forward. Breadcrumbs and other general navigation components are provided for occasions where users need to move higher in the architecture (see components).

Rules

The following components must be avoided in navigation:

  • clickable maps

    • if the interaction is aimed at navigating, finding information (maps are OK if they are a way to consume content)
  • carousels
    • not for navigation, for presenting options
  • accordions (on mobile)
    • avoid patterns that hide information

Background

Navigation and content design are essential parts of the information architecture of European Commission websites. They work together to provide context and understanding.

Together, they need to answer the main user questions related to information:

  • can I find the information I need?
  • can I tell when I have found the right information? (in other words: do I know when to stop looking?)
  • can I understand the information I am reading?
  • do I know what I can do next with the information I have received?

Core and standardised websites of the European Commission web presence mainly provide information and content.

The main user task on these websites is: “I am looking for information (on …)”.

Task-based navigation

“People approach a service based on the task they need to complete; not on their job description.” (See Gov.uk blog post: 'Hey, you there': the trouble with audience-based navigation, Cath Richardson, Inside GOV.UK, 18.07.14.)

Problems with audience-based approach for users:

  • users find it difficult to identify clearly with pre-defined audience groupings - causing them to hesitate or be confused
    • not all users will interpret the groupings in the same way
    • some users will feel they belong to different groups
    • there may be a difference between who I think I am, and who the site or organisation thinks I am
  • my audience profile is not the reason I am on your website - having to identify as belonging to one of your possible audiences causes ‘cognitive effort and user anxiety’ - see NNG's Audience-based navigation)
  • users’ needs change between visits - depending on their current situation and task: i.e., Today, I have a question as a private citizen, tomorrow as a business owner, …
  • users may miss or ignore relevant information if it is identified as “only for a specific audience” - they may even conclude that the information they need is not available if it is not in the audience they identify with
  • users may be confused if content is identified under an audience grouping, does this mean it is FOR or ABOUT this audience?
  • users may get the feeling that they are not getting the complete information about a certain subject
  • “forcing people to self-identify creates an additional step and takes people out of their task mindset" 


Problems with audience-based approach for editors and other internal teams:

  • trouble in defining the right groupings 

  • creating duplicate and overlapping content, if the same content is needed or useful for different groups 

  • which leads to the need to create and maintain larger volumes of content, creating increased risks and reduced efficiencies in managing the content 


DG Communication Europa Web Communication (COMM B3)'s own research on top tasks shows that there is a very strong consistency in users’ top tasks, regardless of audience grouping. This research reinforces its approach for a task-based architecture. See Process to define the 15 classes for more information.

One visit = one task

Users come to European Commission websites with a specific task in mind. 

This also means they are less likely to want to discover other, totally unrelated areas on the site. As a result, it can be said that one visit to an EC site = one task.

A consequence of this is that there is less need for lateral or transversal navigation. 

Provide no more than is needed

Navigation is most useful to users when it takes them further along the path of achieving their task. 

On a site with a very broad scope, such as the European Commission's https://ec.europa.eu/info/ site, and with content divided into a large number of categories (or classes), a permanently visible menu bar (or global menu) is not practical or useful to users, since it includes entry points to areas that are not at all related to their task.

User tasks create the context for how users navigate the site and how they consume content on the site. 

When accomplishing a task is an end goal, navigation becomes a step towards that goal.

Once users decide to take a step towards their goal, the options they chose not to take are no longer important (exception: when they make the wrong choice and want to go back).

Therefore, it is important to show the users options for their next step. Each step they take should take them closer to their goal (not confuse them with options that are not relevant). 

Rather than carry around a bulky menu bar on every page, the European Commission's core website navigation system focuses on navigation elements that gets the user where they need to go.

Moving forward

Users generally/mostly/often enter European Commission websites on an interior page, coming via (external) Search or a bookmark (not all users arrive on the homepage). Based on Europa Analytics, a total of 708,050 sessions were recorded on the European Commission's website over the course of one week in March 2019. Of these, only 49,495 (7%) started on one of the two homepages. Some 539,420 sessions started in ec.europa.eu/info. Of these, only 4,545 (less than 1%) started on the homepage.

They need a minimum of context to orient themselves (“what site am I on, is it trustworthy?, …”) but most of their attention goes to the content on the page (“will this page help me answer my question?, help me with my task”).

Users look at page content for information they need to orient themselves and for navigation cues: 

  • for every step in a user path, the next step should always be part of the main page content, where users are currently looking
  • to make that type of navigation more relevant, put links in the content that is related to them

Moving backward

Navigation links that take a user back a step, or horizontally in the same direction are moved to breadcrumbs or the occasional menu (e.g. local navigation - see components). They are accessible if they are needed, but don't take up valuable real estate on the page.

Getting out of the way

If the primary purpose of European Commission websites is to provide information and content, then the role of navigation is to lead users to the content they are looking for as easily and quickly as possible.

It is must be borne in mind that the user’s task on the website is always part of a bigger task that the user is trying to achieve - a task for which they need information to complete. When they have found that information, they need to return to the (real) task at hand.

To help users achieve their goals, they need to be led to the information they need, have it presented to them in a clear way (and as briefly as possible) and then left alone to get on with the task at hand.

Content-first navigation

The design of the EC core website's navigation system is based on a general principle of content over interface, meaning that superfluous design elements and layout features that can clutter, or worse, obscure the content are avoided wherever possible.

Consequently, the navigation system is a context-based navigation system.

“Users spend more time with content links than they do with navigation menus.

In fact, some users don’t even look at menus. What users look at is page content."

See: https://uxmovement.com/navigation/why-users-click-content-links-more-than-menus/ for more.

Context of consume content online

Users don't read professional texts for entertainment, such information is written with a particular function in mind, and should be functional.

Professionals and "experts" (the main audience for most Commission output in all mediums - digital or otherwise) have a lot to read and little time to do so.

These experts crave clarity, and welcome brevity. 

Why? Because reading information on an EC website is just a step for them in the process of getting something done. Saying something at twice the necessary length will not make it any more persuasive or effective.

Impact of languages

Many people will be reading material in a language that is not their mother tongue – which has been estimated to slow them down by up to 30% (100-200 words per minute, instead of 300 for native speakers) – and the case for brevity is compelling.

Contact and support

If you require further assistance, please contact:

Comm Europa Management

European Commission
DG Communication 
Unit B.3 
Europa Web Communication 

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The Europa Web Guide is the official rulebook for the European Commission's web presence, covering editorial, legal, technical, visual and contractual aspects.
All European Commission web sites must observe the rules and guidelines it contains.
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