Right Side Main Navigation Gone


I’m currently researching the next part in my main navigation series, which is Part 2, vertical menus. After reading this, if you wish you can head over to the 1st Part, Main Navigation and Horizontal Menus and read up on that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed a trend that I thought you should know about. Right side main navigation seems to be pretty much gone for almost all of the major web sites us usability folks typically examine.

For example, in the old days (like way back in 2002), Adobe used right side navigation as is shown in the screen shot below.

Adobe in 2002 used right vertical navigation
Adobe in 2002 used right vertical navigation

Technically, I would consider this right side navigation not really “main” navigation in the sense that there are global navigation elements (Store, Products, Support, Corporate) at the top of the page, which should be classified as “main navigation.” However, the point is the navigation from a consumer standpoint is available on the right side, using the additional usability element of icons to help attract the eye.

Today Adobe is pretty much the lone standout for using right side navigation, as seen in this screen shot from September 2009. Again, this technically is not “main navigation” because the right side navigation changes depending on which product you’re on.

Adobe in 2009 uses right vertical navigation
Adobe in 2009 uses right vertical navigation

The vast majority of large web sites are using either horizontal or L shaped main navigation. Now I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not scanned every single large volume web site out there to quantify my analysis, but I’ve looked at the top 20 and among those right side vertical main navigation does not exist. Also, there are plenty of examples of sub-navigation (or reverse inverted L shaped navigation) being used in blogs and other web sites. However, main navigation (aka Global Navigation) on the right side is missing, presumed gone.

As a matter of fact, if you are aware of a large site that uses right side main navigation I’d appreciate it if you would let me know, just shoot me a Comment below, I would appreciate it!

So why are we not seeing right side navigation used commonly? My belief is because of a couple of reasons:

  • First, right side main navigation is counter to the western tradition of reading top to bottom, and left to right.
  • Second, if the overwhelming majority of web sites use a single main navigation style, it is the “standard” and thus doing something different causes undesirable extra cognitive load on users.

Does that mean right side main navigation cannot work? Nope. I think as long as consistent use of main navigation is practiced it probably doesn’t matter too much which one you pick.

So, that’s my brief update, look for the next part of my main navigation series about vertical navigation and please send a comment if you are aware of a major site that uses right side main navigation.

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  1. About your comment “First, right side main navigation is counter to the western tradition of reading top to bottom, and left to right.” This implies that the user would want to see the navigation first. These days, people search and locate the exact content they need in a lot of cases (at least public facing websites), making the need for prominent navigation less important. Ultimately, it’s content/tasks that a user is looking for, so having the content on the left and the nav on the right might work in a lot of cases. But of course, this needs to be tested and depends on what type of website it is, the type of content, the overall design, etc.

  2. David,

    That’s a point, true. However, there are three basic facts to website usage that are time-tested to be proven true:

    1. People scan, they don’t read, at least not until they find the specific content they are hunting for.
    2. Information scent in this context needs to be consolidated (thus the need for some form of navigation system).
    3. The greater the complexity of the content, the greater the need to parse it into unique pages or sections (thus causing secondary navigation).

    Without good navigation, websites do not perform well, and this is proven time and again when designers fail to make navigation clean, obvious, and user-friendly. Usability studies of task-flow error almost always can point to flawed navigation as being a major reason for major task flow issues.

    Navigation is still very important. Although you can argue that right-side navigation is not as common nor as needed today as in the past (what with hamburger, mega-menus, and related newer forms of navigation systems). And in that regard I agree with you. Thanks for your comment!

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