Should Nav be on the Left or on the Right?

by Jared Spool

On the often interesting Interaction Design Association discussion list, David Hatch from Macromedia asked if people liked their navigation panels on the left side better than on right side.

He shared some examples of right-side navigation — Macromedia and Sun — and of left-side navigation — Adobe, Microsoft, and IBM.

In his post, David stated that “industry standards” seem to prefer left-side nav, but his “inner child” likes right-side nav better. He wanted to know what the list membership liked better. Much discussion ensued.

Here is my response, for what it’s worth…

In my opinion, you shouldn’t care what I (or potentially most others on this list) like for navigation. I don’t even think you should care what your users like.

You should only care about which one best accomplishes the objectives of your users and the objectives of your organization.

That being said, having tested a ton of users on bundles of sites, we’ve learned over the years that navigation placement doesn’t matter one whit. Put the navigation practically anywhere on the page and users will find it when they need it.

And, as I discussed here, we’re recommending that our clients spend very little resources on the design of global navigation. It’s rarely used productively (almost always because the site is too frustrating in other ways) and ignored on well working sites.

Local navigation works only when the local links are actually things users will want to go to next. (Either because your previous navigation screwed up and they ended up on the wrong page in the first place or because it’s a logical follow-on to where they are now.) Understanding why users need local navigation and ensuring the link names are communicating the real value of navigating will have more impact on the success of your design than the position or style of the links. We recommend clients focus their resources on ensuring the links give off good scent more than on styling.