Why Audience-Based Navigation is Almost Never a Good Idea

Why Audience-Based Navigation is Almost Never a Good Idea

Never say never, right? And in the case of audience-based navigation, I certainly don't . . . but I almost always do.

Unless you have distinct audiences that will never have content that overlaps, it's both confusing for users and burdensome for administrators. 

Here's the case for leaving audience labels out of your navigation: 

  • On the user side, some users will be unsure of which group to choose. Many will question which group to choose and wonder if the way they identify themselves is the way your organization thinks of them. Users then lose confidence and worry that they might be missing something in another area of the site that's not served up in the section they've chosen. 
  • They also may wonder if the area they've chosen is information for that audience or about it. Users don't think about who they are--they think about what they want to do, the task at hand. Taking them out of this task-oriented mindset creates an additional burden for the user who is focused on the task they are trying to complete on the site. Forcing them to think in this way creates questions--who does this organization think I am? What do they think I want? How do they know?-- before they've even made it past the navigation. 
  • From an administration perspective, websites with audience-based navigation often have overlapping content, which creates a greater workload for users (and content maintainers). Often, topics relate to more than one audience group. The content administrator is then faced with a dilemma: create two pages with duplicate content or create one page and link to it from multiple places. Neither solution is good. The former is bad for SEO and the overall UX; the latter disrupts the information architecture and confuses users. 
  • Either way, it creates doubt in the user's mind. Is this the same information I just saw? Is it different? What's different about it? People end up jumping around on the site, testing links to see they've missed something. For most of the organizations we work with, the content is too similar to risk a poor user experience.
  • In very few instances, however, an audience-based navigation improves the user experience. Most recently, we launched a redesign of the American Camp Association website. The site uses an audience-based navigation, with one side of the site catering to camp staff and professionals and the other side for campers and families. User research told us that these two distinct audiences were looking for vastly different content, and sifting through the wrong content on the way to finding what they needed often created frustration and confusion. 
  • The audience-based navigation for ACA reduces user burden and gets them to the right content quickly and seamlessly. In this case, separating content for these audiences is justified because it actually improves the UX. 

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