Comparing left- and right-justified site navigation menus

A comparison between left- and right-justified site navigation menus - James Kalbach and Tim Bosenick have published the results of recent usability testing on the location of navigation menus.

The punchline is that there was no significant difference in task time between the two conditions. They conclude that we should rethink our devotion to left hand menus. I disagree - when there's no significance performance difference, then user expectations, de facto standards, and project goals should guide these decisions. I think that still leaves left-hand menus with the upper hand. (thanks Column Two)

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I prefer right hand menus

Depending on your browsing style right handed menus can be more convenient. I know several people that use the mouse much more than necessary. It's quicker to use a menu near the scroll bar rather than moving the mouse from the left side of the page back to the right side of the page to use the scroll bar to move down the page. Depending on mouse speed and threshold etc the mouse movement doesn't make a huge speed differance, but as a matter of convenience that's what I prefer.

Please re-read the study, Jess

Jess: you disagree with the findings of the study, but cite some of our conclusions in your logic. We tried not to generalize our findings too far beyond the Audi project, but do question the notion that the navigation MUST be on the left and that usability NECESSARILY DECREASES when placed elsewhere on the page (as indicated in the literature). Here are some pertinent quotes from the study showing what we (and you?) believe:

"A key motivation for this design decision was that a right-hand navigation better reflects core values of the Audi brand: innovation, progressiveness, and individuality. The design goals (creating a usable but unconventional layout) were therefore tied closely with the business goals (reinforcing brand values and distinguishing the site from competitors' sites)."

"Like Kellener et al. (2001), this research suggests that users are ambidextrous with regard to the position of the main navigation on the page. Users seemed comfortable using either the right- or the left-hand navigation. This questions the notion that a standard left-justified navigation necessarily increases usability significantly."

"It is possible to make effective use of a right-justified navigation menu provided the visual layout clearly conveys the intended interaction with the menu." [emphasis on POSSIBLE]

It is not a contest here. A left-hand navigation doesn't have an "upper hand" in anything; neither does a right-hand navigation. Let the situation determine the best solution, not predetermined guidelines. And of course be sure to test with real users on your solution.

- Jim

Tablet PC

I work on a web application that is designed to support Tablet PCs - one of the first things we discovered was that having the navigation controls on the right-hand side allowed much easier access to right-handed users as their hands did not obscure the central information panels.

Validity of results/methodological issue

One thing that stood out when I read the paper was the difference between the design of the left and right navigation columns.

In the left navigation column, the text was right-justified, while in the right navigation column it was left-justified. Reading right-justified (ie ragged left-edged) text may well not be as efficient as reading left-justified (straight left-edged) text for readers of English and other languages that read from left to right. As a result, I have concerns about the methodology of the study and therefore about the validity of the result it reports.

I'd like to see the study repeated where the only variable being tested is the positioning of the navigation column to the left or right of screen.

Other Methodological Issues

Quote from the article: "All had experience using the Internet, but to varying degrees: 18 participants had been using the Internet less than one year, 36 for between one and three years, and 10 more than three years. Only three were left-handed, which had no significant effect on the test results."

Not only that I wonder how significance of the effect(s) of left- vs. right-handedness were assessed I bet that pre-exposure to the omnipresent left-sided navigation prompts or preloads mental navigation 'macros'.

The fact that despite of this no effects were discerned to me implicitly indicates that right-side navigation is superior.

So what I would like to see is a study with internet-naive subjects. My hypothesis clearly is that then the left side would loose.


P.S.: On a side note - I doubt that heavily relying on Nielsen in a scientific context is a good idea - IMHO, his recent extrapolation of computer usage do not show much of a vision and his marketing reminds of the front pages of women's weeklies (Checklist of 111 specific recommendations).