Audience-Based Website Navigation: It Can Backfire on You

Filed under: Website Design

When planning, reworking, or improving a website, it makes sense to help visitors focus on what’s most important and relevant to them, and to hide content that isn’t pertinent to them.

That’s obvious.

Erm… right?



Actually, we were really surprised to learn that recent research from the ultra-respected Nielsen Norman Group says the answer is oftentimes NO, and that actually…

… giving users the choice in navigation has the potential to cause more confusion and more work for your website visitors!


This finding had us scratching our heads.

An incredible user experience is a critical component of all the websites we plan, design, build, and improve here at our Colorado web agency, and guiding different groups of website visitors to different parts of websites has been a tactic we’ve recommended in the past when it was obvious different sub-audiences would be interested in different areas of content, especially within larger websites.

See other beautiful websites we’ve designed.

Based on previous research and usability best practices, we’d believed audience-based navigation could be a powerful strategy in certain instances.

What is audience-based navigation?

It’s when a website offers different navigation choices (usually with names of the audience sub-groups) so audience sub-groups can head directly to different features and content when they click on their group name.

How could this not make sense and help visitors get to where they want to go as quickly as possible?

Turns out we (and many other web strategy agencies) were making an assumption.

When implementing audience-based navigation, the assumption is that the audience intuitively knows which group they belong to.

In theory, audience-based navigation makes things easier for the audience, and encourages website information to be organized and tailored to each audience sub-group to provide all visitors with quick answers and quick access to the information they really want.

However, what we’ve recently learned is that in reality

Audience-based navigation has the potential to become a minefield for your website visitors

This KeyBank example below shows you just how frustrating it can be for an audience member to navigate your site when it’s structured using audience-based navigation.

KeyBank Navigation Bar

  • Where do I belong? In the Key Bank example above, it’s easily confusing to figure out where to find services for your small business among the categories: Personal, Private, Business and Corporate.
  • Will I get the correct information? For example, users click on “Faculty”– will they find out about a university’s professors, or will they discover what every faculty member needs to know?
  • So I have to figure out who I am AND what type of content I want, too? Forcing users to self-identify and use up so much brain power during navigation can turn them off to looking further.
  • What if another group I’m not part of gets a better deal? Users might not want to be confined to one group, and this can make them feel stuck or left out of a promotion.
  • What if I don’t want to work so hard to get the correct information? When topics relate to more than one audience group, there are often different links on different parts of the site, which leads to users checking to see if the sources match, using more of said brain power.

That being said, you can let your audience choose their own navigation, just do it the right way.

Audience-based navigation solutions

  • Create clear, distinct and descriptive audience groups so it’s easy for users to identify themselves.
  • Only use it when your content is unique to a particular audience group so there won’t be any overlap.
  • Design navigation that lets users easily switch between audiences.
  • Prioritize topics and tasks over audience categories so users can quickly get the information they want.

Are you ready to end your various audiences’ confusion? Reach out to us, and let us help you help them.