Wow. A one-word title. Which is a spoiler alert of sorts as to where I’m heading today.

And of course I have to tell a story to get started. Kinda like an athlete stretching before the big game. Accepting the fact that the ‘big game’ is a croquet match amongst friends in the backyard.

So most every Sunday when I was growing up, my family would go to dinner after attending church. More often than not, we went to the Kitchen Inn, owned and operated by Boots and Dora Forness, right there on Main Street. Dora ran the kitchen and Boots tended to the front-end, warmly greeting every patron, each dressed in their Sunday best. He was quite a character, having retired from vaudeville as piano player. Even had a couple of his record albums for sale at the checkout counter.

Oh. Menus. That’s the topic. The Kitchen Inn had an amazingly simple menu – just two inside pages in a folding old-time plastic sleeve – mimeographed quite some time before because the fare rarely changed. And there wasn’t much on those pages. No need. Dora cooked a fine prime rib and some amazing fricassee chicken and biscuits. I guess there may have been other things available, but I didn’t really care.

Paralyzed by choices

Contrast that to the first time I went to some big city restaurant much later in life – likely one with a day of the week in its name – and saw their menu. Took two people just to bring the dumb thing to the table and over an hour to peruse the contents. If you weren’t hungry when you got there Timmy, you would be by page 73. Seven pages of just hamburgers and all the toppings. I was like “I give up. Can I just get a cheeseburger please?” They asked me what kinda cheese I wanted so I just got up and left.

But on to the menu that likely matters most to you these days. The one at the top of your website. As I prepared to write this piece, I found that there is more research on this topic than a mind like mine can comprehend ahead of a three-day weekend. Some valid, some apparently not. So what I’m gonna do it try and sort it out and keep it simple and hopefully frame it all in the experiences we’ve shared while trying to find the end of the internet.

Simple navigation

I don’t think I can stress strongly enough how important clear, easy to use navigation is for your visitors. It is arguably the most important element to consider as you design your site. And being as I believe in simplicity, you probably already know where this is going. As few top-level items as you can manage, and nothing beyond a simple dropdown if possible.

I personally shudder at the very thought of cascading menus, where seemingly, with each movement of the mouse another tier flies out. And all the times I’ve gotten to the item I wanted, three levels out, only to have my finger slip, forcing me to start all over again. It’s aggravating and not user-friendly at all Timmy. And that’s on a desktop computer. What happens in mobile can sometimes just be unspeakable.

I fully understand that sometimes having lots and lots of menu items is important for SEO. Or that your site might be complex and need dozens of menu items. In those cases, just what are your options?

Simplicity is delicious

We’ve found that using the mega menu feature that both WordPress and Joomla offer works pretty well. With a little CSS and some code added to make things behave responsively, they can be a good choice. Properly designed, they’re fairly easy to use and won’t intimidate your visitors – or worse – drive them plumb off.

And if you’re willing to push the envelope just a bit, you might want to use just four or five top-level menu items that allow users to click through to secondary pages, each offering additional information and menu options relevant only to that page and its children. I used to think that this wasn’t a great option, but nowadays, everyone pretty much realizes they can get back to the homepage by merely clicking your logo. It’s not the speedbump I once thought it to be.

Beyond the main menu

So what about a sidebar menu? It’s not commonplace these days, but I’ll never rule it out as an option. We built a site not too long ago where it worked perfectly for one particular section of the website. It already had a dropdown for the parent page and several others, and as you’ve likely surmised, I was loathe to have anything flying out from there. We had plenty of space available on the page, so I just designed a quiet little sidebar menu that fit right in. I must say it looked pretty darn spiffy and worked well in mobile to boot.

All that being said, remember that no matter the depth or breadth of our websites (and whatever menu schemes we employ) that first and foremost, our navigation needs to intuitive, clean and devoid of mystery. Our visitors shouldn’t have to put a lot of thought into how to get there from here Timmy. Or what lies beneath a menu. We want to lead them on the journey and make their trip across our site as simple and pleasant as possible.

For my money, Boots and Dora got it right…

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