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6 App Navigation Design Mistakes to Avoid

women surpricingly looking at mobile phone

In 2017, the number of apps downloaded reached 197 billion. Considering that the population of the entire world is only a fraction of that, stop for a second and consider the magnitude of this number.

While it’s obvious that mobile users love apps, it’s also obvious that they have plenty of choices. This translates to competition for you. What makes the difference between an app that becomes a regular fixture and one that gets uninstalled before it really even gets a chance?

Many times, it’s navigation.

So, what exactly are the navigation mistakes that you need to avoid at all cost with your app design? Here are the top 6.

1. Getting Users Lost

There’s a lot of back and forth about what type of app navigation menu results in a better user experience (UX). We’re not interested in debating this here though because the menu has to be easily found or your user is lost before they get started.

Crammed

On the other hand, too few options leaves too much to chance. If in an effort to streamline, you’ve gathered every destination under two or three generic choices, you’ve made it so the user must do the guesswork. This automatically means a bigger learning curve for an app that should be intuitive. This results in what’s called a poor information scent. In other words, the user can’t effectively smell what’s behind those generic navigation options.

Your app may have lots of options. That’s great. But don’t try to cram all of them into your homepage navigation.

When a user has too many options to choose from, they may end up feeling confused and overwhelmed. And they may overlook the information they’re after or miss the key information you’re wanting to communicate.

Users should be able to quickly scan their options in order to make a quick decision. The more options, the longer it takes for them to decide in accordance with Hick’s Law.

A good rule of thumb is to limit the options between five and seven. Those will be the most important options to choose from.

Too Minimalist

There’s a universal language to app icons. We all know that a little house will lead you to the home page and that tapping a shopping cart will bring up a summary of your order. When you break away from these gold standards of navigation, it leaves users confused.

Since users like a clean, uncluttered appearance in their apps, it might seem logical to minimize the navigation menu or hide it behind another tap. Unfortunately, this does nothing to enhance the user experience.

Hidden navigation only frustrates users and will have them checking out another app that’s more intuitive to use. While having too many navigation options can be a mistake, so can too few.

If you try to group too many options under each category in an effort to reduce the number of icons for a minimalist design, users will have to guess where to go first. This potentially forces them to take a number of steps to find what they were looking for. It may also make them begin to guess the navigation, creating a poor user experience.

Not Visible Enough

People shouldn’t need to work to find their way around your app. If it takes them more than 2-3 clicks to find what they’re looking for, it’s time to streamline the process.

When designing for mobile, it may feel necessary to hide the menu for a cleaner look with such a limited space. But hidden menus, for both mobile and desktop, have the potential to cause users to get lost, force them into multiple taps or clicks, and prevent them from finding what they need.

You want your users to be able to access as much of your app’s content with as few steps, taps, or swipes as possible. When navigation is hidden or not visible enough, it makes content more difficult to discover and less likely for users to use the navigation.

The Nielsen Norman Group found that people were less likely to use hidden menus, such as Hamburger Menus, at the beginning of a task than later on during the task. You will create a much kinder UX when you design in a way that helps your users get started quickly.

Loss of Balance

https://dribbble.com/shots/852180-Hamburger-Buttons
https://dribbble.com/shots/852180-Hamburger-Buttons

We’ve all been interacting with apps and websites long enough to feel comfortable looking for key navigation elements in specific places.

There’s a balance between too many and too few options for a navigation window and sometimes it’s a challenge to find it.

A menu that contains too many options is just plain overwhelming. Imagine users tapping on the menu and having their entire screen filled with menu choices. They may have thought they knew where they wanted to go, but now they’re not so sure. Too many options have forced them to question their next move. You can read more about it in our article, Hamburger Menu Abuse.

On the other hand, too few options leaves too much to chance. If, in an effort to streamline, you’ve gathered every destination under two or three generic choices, you’ve made it so the user must do the guesswork.

This results in what’s called a poor information scent. In other words, the user can’t effectively smell what’s behind those generic navigation options. This means a bigger learning curve for an app that should be intuitive.

2. Breaking Away from the Standard Navigation

Apps and websites are a part of our day-to-day lives. And people have become very familiar with how they expect them to function.

Users have standard conventions in their minds of what they expect navigation to look like. For example, users are familiar with horizontal navigation at the top, vertical navigation at the left, or a back button at the top left.

When you deviate from standard navigation conventions, you’re causing your users to have to work harder and think more about what they’re looking at and looking for. Good UX means making it easier for your users to find the content, not learn how to use the app.

Using Unfamiliar Icons

There’s a universal language to app icons. We all know that a little house will lead you to the home page and that tapping a shopping cart will bring up a summary of your order. When you break away from these gold standards of navigation, it leaves users confused.

Resist the urge to get creative or cutesy with icons to keep navigation simple and intuitive for your users. In other words, don’t reinvent the wheel, as tempting as it may be.

Icons act as a guide letting users intuitively know where to go. And when it comes down to it, navigation is about usability. Users have a mental model of what they expect. If you offer them a house icon, they will most likely be expecting to be taken to a homepage so don’t send them to a login page.

Give your users what they expect to make them comfortable with clicking through. Don’t make them second guess themselves. A frustrated user is one who’ll not be coming back.

Unlabeled Icons

When trying to keep navigation clean and simple and sticking to standard icons, you may think labels aren’t needed. And, for the expert user of your application, that may hold true.

But what about the new user who is not familiar with your app? And even some of the most recognizable icons, like a star or heart, may have various meanings. On one app the heart may be a symbol for making something a “favorite” and on another app it could equal a “like.”

Pairing an icon with a label reduces the amount of time a user has to think about and recognize the command. Reduce the cognitive load for your users because the more you make them think, the more likely they are to find another app that is more intuitive for them to use.

3. Making The Path Too Long

People shouldn’t need to work to find their way around your app. If it takes them more than two to three clicks to find what they’re looking for, it’s time to streamline the process.

For example, users of a bank app should be able to connect with their account balance or history in one tap, rather than a series of unnecessary steps. Essentially it’s the story of “Too long; Didn’t read.” Users will bail out of a task if they feel like it’s taking too long to complete.

No Visible Indicators

Navigating your app shouldn’t feel complicated and it shouldn’t cause users to feel lost. No one likes to feel lost!

Ever noticed “you are here” dots on maps in a building? They help you orient yourself when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings. Do that for your users in your app to help them feel secure in the tasks they’re completing.

Users should know where they are while working their way around the app. Keep the navigation less complicated by providing users with visual clues — You Are Here — as to where they are within the app. This can be done with something as simple as highlighting the icon selected, visual design changes, headings, or contextual cues.

Missing Feedback for Slow Response

How many times have you been in the middle of a task on an app and it suddenly appears to freeze … or is it really frozen? Should you click again? Should you go back and start over, maybe refresh?

Think about how frustrating that is for you and apply that to your users. Be proactive if the app isn’t meeting expected response times by providing feedback. Let your users know the status with progress indicators.

Progress indicators offer reassurance that something is happening, it gives them something visual to look at rather than a frozen screen, and can provide an estimate of wait time in many cases.

Lack of Progress Signals

Progress indicators aren’t just about feedback during a slow response. Progress signals, or feedback, let your users know what’s going on, that the action they took is in progress, or the current state of the app.

Good feedback reassures the user and prevents them from playing a guessing game. It also lets them know where they’re at (and that their actions were executed properly), how much farther they may have to go, and how long it may take to get there.

Think of the progress signals in much the same way you look to Google maps when you head out on the road to a new destination. You get feedback that you’re heading in the right direction, know your location, the turns to take, and your estimated time of arrival.

4. Getting Too Creative With the Layout

We’ve all been interacting with apps and websites long enough to feel comfortable looking for key navigation elements in specific places. Humans crave consistency. It’s perfectly OK to be creative with layout, but within reason.

 Inconsistent Interface

When we have a perceived notion about how an app or website should function, we expect to be able to easily and intuitively follow through with tasks or find what we’re looking for in the location we’re expecting something to be.

For example, you’re not going to naturally look in the bottom right hand corner to back out of a screen. We’re creatures of habit and it’s important to keep this in mind when designing your app navigation.

Your users come to your app with mental models of how they believe your app should function based upon past experiences. This means it’s important to be consistent with your interface. An inconsistent interface will confuse your user and force them to think harder in order to complete any given task.

Difficult-to-Achieve Elements

When dealing with an app or website, elements or targets are anything that can either be clicked or tapped. Good UX means that users must be able to acquire a target by easily identifying it and then clicking or tapping on it.

Weak Visual Elements

One reason your user may not be able to reliably identify a target or element is because of weak signifiers. To help understand the importance of having strong visual elements, let’s start with the definition of affordance, which is what an object can do. For example, a call to action button affords itself to be clicked on.

Signifiers are visual elements that clarify the affordance, letting the user know what can be done with the element. In apps, there are numerous visible elements for the user to scan.

Users don’t have the time or the patience to be forced to randomly click around in hopes of finding the right element for the correct action they are hoping to achieve. If the user is left asking, “What do I do here?” or they fail to locate the element for the task, you have weak signifiers and are creating a negative UX.

Tiny Click Targets

Maybe the problem isn’t with a weak signifier, but tiny click targets. When touch targets are too small, users take longer to tap them. They may also inadvertently tap another target when there is not enough space around them.

Think about the location indicators on a map. How many times have you accidentally tapped an indicator and then realized it opened the wrong location? It happens! Then you’re forced to backtrack and try again. It’s frustrating. Don’t frustrate your users.

Keep your audience in mind. Touch targets that are difficult to use can also be accessibility issues. Tiny click targets are especially difficult for older users or those with motor skill disabilities. Touch targets that are too small may also be difficult for younger children to use.

5. Modals Mayhem

A modal is a secondary screen or page that opens on top of the current page. Users are forced to take action on the modal before they can continue with the task on the current page.

Modals do have some advantages. Using a modal window instead of a full page lets users maintain the context of their task. Modals require immediate attention and are great when a user must take certain steps or actions before a task can be completed, let the user know that there’s an error or potential for error, and for critical tasks.

However, there are some disadvantages to modals, such as interrupting a user’s workflow, blocking background content the user may want to reference, or causing the user to forget what they were doing. When modals are used for noncritical tasks, they create an extra step for the user, the task of dismissing the modal to go back to the current screen they were on.

While modals can be useful, it becomes more important to use them wisely.

6. Confirmation Chaos

The Principle of Proximity is based on the cognitive tendency to perceive the objects close to each other as related. As an example, Save and Delete are related actions in that they determine the outcome of an action — you’re either continuing with the save or choosing to delete. Because they are related, designers often put them close to each other. Unfortunately, putting them too close together can potentially lead the user to inadvertently make the wrong selection. This is where confirmation actions can come into play.

Confirmation actions are those that ask a user to verify an action, such as proceeding with or canceling an action. Many times, confirmation actions are used for destructive actions like deleting a contact or for consequential actions like publishing a post to social media.

Confirmation actions can be life-savers for users by helping to prevent them from actions they really don’t want to happen, like deleting a photo album or losing important data. However, it’s important to not overuse these actions and bombard your users with them for actions that could easily be reversed. Confirmation chaos — using confirmation actions unnecessarily — can actually lead to increased user errors, according to Andrew Coyle’s article Designing Confirmation.

Apps With Exceptional Navigation Design

WeTransfer

WeTransfer does a great job integrating its creative ads with a super streamlined workflow.
WeTransfer does a great job integrating its creative ads with a super streamlined workflow.

Waze App

Waze doesn't overwhelm users with too much content (only the most relevant) to safely get users to their destinations, with a fun brand personality.
Waze doesn't overwhelm users with too much content (only the most relevant) to safely get users to their destinations, with a fun brand personality.

A Critical Component For Success

There are many things to consider when designing an app. It needs to be aesthetically pleasing while still meeting the user’s needs in an efficient and intuitive way. According to research, nearly 90% of mobile phone usage is on apps. And it’s no surprise considering there are 2.96 million apps in Google Play Store (Statista) and 4.37 million in Apple Apps Store (Statista).

New apps pop up daily. In fact, more than 30,000 new iOS apps are released in the Apple App Store every month, on average. That’s just iOS Apps. An average of 100,000 Android apps are released monthly in Google Play Store (42matters). That’s a lot of apps.

To say the market is competitive is a mild understatement. To say that you must go above and beyond to stand out is a fact. This is why understanding UX is critical in the success of developing a successful app.

UX can help ensure that your app stands apart from others by providing a kinder UX that users have come to expect. Following UX best practices also prevents you from making any of the six navigation design mistakes we’ve discussed.

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Abdul SuleimanAbdul SuleimanChief Experience Officer

Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.

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