Right Navigation vs. Left Navigation

There has been a very long-standing debate as to whether navigation is as effective on the left side of a browser pane versus the right side. There have been various studies that have found conflicting conclusions. One study that was originally done by Razorfish in Germany found that right navigation can be more efficient than left navigation (See study here). One of the core arguments in that study is that because the site navigation is located near the browser vertical scroll bar, there is less distance to move the mouse from a right navigation bar to move said scroll bar.Poynter Eye Tracking Studies also found that there were more fixations on right navigation, however, they were unsure whether that was due to the novelty factor since most web sites use left navigation.

My opinion is that placing the secondary or primary nav in the right navigation area is about the last place I would put it other than below the fold on the bottom of the page and out of sight. There are a number of reasons not to use this placement:

  1. Many user visits start at search engines where, frequently, ads fill the right column.
  2. Users are accustomed to finding related information on the right hand side of pages.
  3. The right hand side of the page is typically the last area users look toward during a visit.
  4. The right navigation can get cut off by the right edge of browsers (especially with tablet and mobile devices).
  5. The advent of the scrollable mouse makes gains in efficiency of the right hand browser scrollbar moot.
  6. Back Button placement.

Let’s address these issues one by one.

One of the strongest arguments for not having right hand navigation is that many users start their visits from search engines. On many search engines the right hand column is filled with ads. In other words, many users have conditioned themselves not to look towards the right column. Likewise, in point 2 above, many sites use the right column for related material from other sections of the site. In a similar way to point 1, this conditions users not to look to the right column for things that are immediately relevant to what they are trying to find.

The third point is summed up by the following heat map summary image from the Poynter study:

Users go a lot of places before looking at the right side much. In fact, in a recent usability study of some web conferencing application, I observed that one participant did not locate the right nav until 30 minutes into a 60 minute session, even though there were 2 other participants in the test with him talking to him the entire time.

Perhaps the most important point, however, is the perfect conditions under which many of these studies are performed. Browser widths are set prior to usability tests to be optimal width. This automatically eliminates the possibility that the menu will be cut off the right side of the screen. In reality, there are inexperienced users who leave their windows set smaller than most or don’t even realize they are set too narrowly. In these cases, we basically ensure that the user won’t see right hand navigation because it will be cut off the right-hand side. That will never happen with left-hand navigation. Even more importantly,mobile web and tablet usage is increasing dramatically. The devices have smaller screens, many of which ensure the navigation being cut off the right hand side. Certainly this issue can be overcome with proper coding, but how many web sites do you know that are coded perfectly to size correctly with browser width? And if it’s crunch time to deliver a site, do you think developers and product managers (who are likely to have large monitors) are paying attention to these types of issues?

To cap it off, the browser back button is probably the most used button on any piece of software in the world. It is to the opposite side of the right nav meaning greater distance to use it in a right nav situation, and decreased usability.It is important, as is the fact that having a scrollable mouse makes the efficiency gain in right nav placement being close to the scrollbar moot in many cases.Just think how annoying something as simple as Internet Explorer’s placement of the refresh button on the opposite side of the browser from the back button. Notice how Chome and Firefox don’t take that approach.

Overall, in designing I think we have to go with the lowest common denominator: User Success! Potentially having the right hand navigation cut off of the right hand side of the screen is not an acceptable option to ensure user success; nor is not locating the navigation in the few seconds of visiting the site because it is the last place one looks on a page. Thus, left navigation, in my view, is the far more viable navigation option than a right side navigation.

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About Scott

Scott Barnard is the founder of The Usability Review and RememberStuff.com. After earning 2 degrees from MIT, he transplanted to the San Francisco Bay Area where he had a front row seat to the dot com boom and bust and the subsequent growth in importance of web, mobile and desktop application designs to the everyday activities of businesses and consumers alike. Get in touch with Scott if you'd like to hire him to consult on web, mobile app, or desktop application design at sbarnard@theusabilityreview.com.
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