The Pitfalls of Audience Based Navigation

header_dangerIt’s seems like such a great idea – arrange your website navigation around the primary audiences that use it. The only problem is that this approach is often more confusing than helpful.

Understanding the audience is such a critical component to website strategy, that it becomes very tempting to design the site around the insights gathering during the audience research phase of the development process.

Audience-based navigation is when the site offers different features to different segments of the target audience and allows visitors to see the features for their segment by clicking on the name of their group. Labels for all the targeted segments are usually provided in the global navigation and/or shown on the homepage.

But my experience is that it is not a good idea, for the people you want to reach or for the people who have to maintain the site. Audience navigation creates unneeded barriers to users doing what they want to do. It makes the site harder to maintain as the tendency is to actually create micro sites for each audience that offer duplicate content.

The latest research confirms what I have witnessed during numerous client projects. Through their extensive usability research, Nielsen Norman Group has identified five problems with audience-based navigation.

Users don’t know which group to choose.

Sometimes users identify with more than one audience group. Other times, they don’t identify with any of the options. In some cases, people don’t understand the labels. The reality is that people don’t always fall neatly into a single category, nor are they able to quickly self-identify.

Users question whether the category will have information about that group or for that group.

Based on the label alone, you can’t tell, and neither can users.

Audience labels take  people out of their task mindset.

Web users are task oriented. In audience-based navigation, people must ask themselves who the site thinks they are and what type of content that type of person wants. This takes them away from what they came to the site for in the first place.

Users feel anxious that the information they see might be incomplete or incorrect.

When users feel stuck in one group, they wonder what other groups get that they don’t. Do other audiences get better information?

Websites with audience-based navigation often have overlapping content.

Often, topics relate to more than one audience group. So designers end up either creating two pages, one for each audience (a technique that replicates content), or they use the same page with multiple links to it from different sections. Most of the time, this results in users questioning if the information is different in different areas of the site.

[Related: What You Should Demand from a Website Development Effort]