A simple guide to better navigation design: Header vs Sidebar?

The Sidebar vs Header debate is one that every designer faces at some point. There is no clear consensus on which is better, and it often comes down to personal preference. However, recent research shows that the choice of navigation can have a significant impact on user interaction.

In this article, we explore the findings of this study and provide guidance on how to choose the right navigation for your interface. User experience is paramount when it comes to interface design. Users should be able to find what they need quickly and easily, without feeling frustrated or confused.

But how can you ensure that your navigation meets these needs?

A recent study (a comparison of three-level menu navigation structures for web design) compared various menu layouts based on criteria such as navigation time, user hesitation, cursor movement, and user preference.

The findings of this study can help you choose the right navigation for your interface.

Which navigation is easier to scan?

People scan web pages in an F pattern based on eye-tracking research. This pattern is characterized by many fixations concentrated at the top and the left side of the page. In other words: Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area.

So we can suppose that top and left navigation seem to be positioned well in that regard. In that case, left-side navigation dramatically improves speed.

Saving space

"I have a need for space" — in our reality that's not just a phrase. If you look at a common laptop or stationary computer screen and compare the portion that is taken by the different navigation components, you will definitely notice that left navigation often will take 3 or even 4 times more space than the top one.

On top of that let's add some reserved space for search or other elements like notifications or profile info. Pretty crazy right? Not a pleasure to realize that the left sidebar can easily take up to 25% of page space.

Would this affect your process of interaction with the product? Would this frustrate you? I think you know the answer.

Scale

As the product grows it has the need for scalability. What does that mean to designers? That we need to predict the future.

Back to navigation options, depending on the device and font sizes (because these metrics can change) generally, you would be able to show at least double the number of navigation links in the side nav above the fold.

The side navigation bar works better when your information architecture has many top-level items that cannot be logically grouped into several blocks. In the future that will allow you to add more items as your product grows.

Extra point goes to side nav.

Side navigation = Customizable navigation

There are many reasons why the side navigation is the best choice for users who want to configure their own navigation. For one, it is much more scalable than other options. Customized and variable menus are also very common, as seen in Slack, Outlook, Drive, and Confluence.

Another advantage of side navigation is that it allows for hierarchical menus, which can be very helpful in organizing information.

Consistency with desktop

There are a few key differences between top navigation and sidebar navigation in desktop applications. For one, the sidebar is much more widely used in both macOS and Windows applications. This is likely because it feels more natural or native to users.

Additionally, the sidebar usually provides more space for links and other information than top navigation. Based on these factors, if you are working on a desktop application, you may want to consider using a left sidebar for navigation.

Hover activated submenus

The drawer-style submenu in the left navigation can be difficult to use with a cursor, especially when moving diagonally.

Additionally, side navigation can often block other vertical panes on the screen, regardless of how many items are in the submenu.

Mega Menus

Hover-activated mega menus are a popular choice for website navigation, especially on e-commerce sites. They offer a great way to organize a lot of information or reveal lower-level pages with just a glance.

This type of layout also provides more space for product display and ads, which can be critical for e-commerce success.

Failed transition to primary side navigation

Designing new navigational systems is always a tricky business. Users are creatures of habit, and even small changes to longstanding navigation schemes can cause confusion and frustration.

The case of the Jira Cloud transition from top navigation to a side menu is a perfect example of this; the switch elicited a huge backlash from users, with over 95% of early testers preferring the old top navigation scheme to the new side menu. Jira learned from this mistake and has since reverted back to the original navigation scheme.

Responsive design

There are pros and cons to both versions of navigation - it just depends on what you're looking for. If you want all of your navigational links visible on tablet portrait views, then top navigation is the way to go.

However, if you want a consistent navigation view across all screen sizes, then the side menu is the better option.


When it comes to choosing a navigation system for your product, it’s never an easy task. However, by looking at your product from a different perspective and learning about it, you will be able to make the right choice.

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