Opinion: Should your homepage have drop down menus?

I get a lot of questions via twitter, email and in person about comments I make in my EDU Checkup episodes. I answer all of them, some may take me longer to respond than others (sorry) but I eventually get to them all. Today as I am responding I thought I should start posting the questions and answers publicly. Of course I will keep the question askers and the institutions they work for private but I think the insight into my process/thoughts can help a lot of people out there. So for now I am going to post them here, I may transition to a few text posts on EDU Checkup like HigherEdLive did a few weeks ago. Feel free to give me feedback on the idea.

Question

We’re in the process of redesigning our website and are using a main navigation bar that does NOT drop down a submenu when rolled over.

I believe I’ve heard you comment that that was the recommended format, but I can’t remember the primary reasons.  Would you mind letting me know if that’s still the better format over using navigation that does drop down submenu items when rolled over (we have people requesting this for our site)?

Answer

For me the homepage isn’t a “directory” to get to the major sections of the site. It’s more of a gateway to start determining who the visitor is and once they choose a path then they can be given more of a directory type of navigation. The primary audience for the homepage is prospective students but any number of audiences can start there so you can’t exclude them.

Secondly having a drop down under each menu item adds a whole separate level of complexity. How many items should be under each? Should they be alpha? Should it be based on process through the school? Should it be based on traffic? What if a dean/president wants a link in there, what is your justification for adding/removing items?

For me when exploring higher education sites and all the usability studies I have done and watched with our students shows they don’t use our homepage as a directory. If they know what they are looking for the will most likely search for it in the search form instead of hunting through menus. But every institution’s audience is different so I would suggest doing some tests with real students and just watching them interact with your proposed new site or other sites with similar functionality. You may also want to split that group into one you explicitly ask and ones you don’t.

4 replies on “Opinion: Should your homepage have drop down menus?”

  1. Nick – I think posting Q&A like this is an excellent idea. This topic was particularly timely for me and I’ll be sending it along to one of my colleagues.

  2. Glad you like the idea. I have a few more queued up this week and a few drafts already started. I don’t know where these will all end up but I know I will keep doing them. I answer so many questions I know a lot of people can learn from or start a good discussion.

  3. I agree with you completely on this.

    Some people I have worked with in higher ed (not Rob & John at IUE, though, they’re hip 🙂 ), seemed to still be fixated on the idea that usability is a function of the number of clicks it takes to get to a particular area. I typically recite some Krug to them, though.

    When Randall Munroe did that “academic website” comic on XKCD a while back, I was on his side of the argument.

    Actually, one thing I had considered doing was creating multiple versions of the website that would provide different starting perspectives (ie. Current Students, Prospective Students, Faculty & Staff) and the default “perspective” would be determined by subnet-matching at the server level. (ie. computer labs would default to “current student”, office suites would default to “fac/staff” and public IPs would default to prospective students.)

    It would be trivial to do this, allow first-time visitors to select which best describes them, and then set a cookie to default to that perspective. This makes the swath of information that is available from a higher ed institution be pared down and focused much more effectively, without risking alienating an audience.

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