Navigation: Left hand menus, right hand menus, or both?

Image of Johannes GutenburgJohannes Gutenberg… is one of my hero’s I discovered when I was studying church history in a theological course.

I had to do an assignment of my own making on the reformation. I found it hard finding one thing I could focus on. Would I research Martin Luther, (I love the bit where he discovered from the Bible that the just shall live by faith not by good works), or I could have done John Knox, that fiery Scottish Preacher or the effect of the reformation on Switzerland by John Calvin.

Other students choose their favourite subjects, but I had problems choosing what I wanted to do. My lecturer said “try and do something you can relate to”.

Prior to college I had spent by that time around 9 years in engineering, in particular manufacturing. Our company at the time was making production line equipment for car manufacturers. Gutenberg was the obvious choice, he invented a specialised piece of equipment, the mechanical printing press. Little did I realise then on how much impact that would have on study of usability some 15 years later.

Going back to 1439, up till that time most things were hand written.

At the time, this meant that there was an aristocracy on who was taught to read and write. People who usually read in those times were dignitaries, nobles and religious leaders. You can imagine that information could easily be manipulated for all the wrong reasons.

With the advent of Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press, formalisation of fonts and styles, and layout started to become standardised. One of the standardisations that occurred was the way you read a document, from left to right. Undoubtable that was how people were already  reading.

The upshot of this in the West is this; for over 500 years people have been reading documents from left to right.

It was logical then for the advent of the web to ensure that you read it from left to right. Others tried it however they soon found it didn’t work.

Having a left hand navigationmenu was a logical place for menu to go on the screen. It provided context for the user. In absence of a left hand menu you could have a right hand menu. That worked as long as it was the only menu.

So what happens when you have both? Do you mean to say that some places have two navigation menus, one on the left, the other on the right? Yes, it does happen. So what is the result? Your brain gets a little confused.

Try this exercise…..

Place your index finger on your nose then move you finger to the left. What happens, both eyes follow the finger. Move it to the right and your eyes will follow it to the right.

Move your finger away from you and in most cases your eyes will follow it and you will get a cross-eyed effect.

So what does this all mean?

Your eyes will either focus on the left, the right or centre wherever you your finger is. Some people can make each eye focus in different directions, these are special people, they are the minority.

So, if you have a left hand navigation and right hand navigation what do think is going to happen? The majority of people will gravitate to left hand side of the screen; if there is no left hand screen they will navigate to either to next dominant point either the right hand screen or near the header wherever the menu is placed.

Never a left hand or a right hand menu on the same screen as confusion will remain supreme.

The only exception to this is if you use the right hand menu for special activities, where a person many have to perform a work function that completes the activity on the page, closes off the work flow of the page. Examples of this are thing such as short messages, depending on the site advertisements, quick shortcuts and status.

Anyway, you may not agree, however I hope I’ve given you something to think about.

For further information check out Jakob Nielson’s comments on horizontal attention.


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Chris Mundy