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Seven Reasons to Avoid JavaScript Dynamic Navigation

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Iain Row
December 12, 2007

Iain Row

Iain runs Prominent Media, a web development company based in Milton Keynes, UK. His work on context-sensitive navigation led to the development of SiteNav, an XML-based website navigation system that puts professional navigation capabilities in the hands of any computer-literate person.

This means that multi-level, contect sensitive navigation, breadcrumbs and sitemaps can be added to any website, and edited by anybody, without the need for expensive CMS software.

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I’ve been a web developer for over seven years, and in that time I’ve been fortunate enough to see several bad ideas go out of fashion, including splash screens and unnecessary framesets. However, one really bad idea that seems to be hanging around is the use of JavaScript for dynamic navigation menus. This is bad for several reasons – seven of the most obvious of which are listed below:

When navigation is not permanently displayed, it makes moving through a site difficult.

One of the keys to making a site easy to use is giving visitors a clear indication of where in the site they are now, have been, and should go to next. Good navigation will provide all of these things, but it’s impossible to accomplish using menus which only appear when the mouse is over them.

It can be hidden by embedded elements, making navigation to some pages impossible.

Most dynamically-displaying navigation goes over the top of content which is already visible. However some content, like embedded video and Flash animations, will not be hidden by the navigation bar, but stay on top, with the result that parts of the navigation will be impossible to reach.

It's not guaranteed to work in all browsers.

Some browsers have stricter implementations of JavaScript than others, which means that while your code may work perfectly well in IE, you’d better be prepared for some serious testing to ensure that it works equally well in FireFox, Mozilla, Safari, Opera and other minority browsers. If your navigation is broken then so is your site.

It requires fine motor control and hand-eye co-ordination.

In common with most dynamic menu systems, like Windows’ own Start menu, getting around it requires practice and some skill with a mouse. If you have ever done a usability study with elderly users you will find that not everyone finds this easy. Windows does get one thing right; you can use it fairly easily using just the arrow keys - not often the case with JavaScript navigation.

No major site uses it.

Google, Amazon, YouTube, BBC, MSN, Yahoo!, MySpace, eBay, Wikipedia, Craigslist, IMDB; you name them, they don’t use it.

There are better ways to accomplish the same thing.

One good thing about JavaScript is that a single script file can contain the navigation for the entire site. When you update that file, the whole site’s navigation updates. However, this is also the case with any server-side scripting technology, outputting standard HTML, with none of the drawbacks listed here.

JavaScript can be easily turned off – then your site is broken!

Since JavaScript powers many of the things that are most unwelcome on the web, such as pop-ups and windows that refuse to close, some people turn it off (it’s easy to do by accessing the ‘Security’ tab in Internet Options). In that case, most dynamic navigation stops working, and in some cases the navigation bar disappears altogether. Statistics from W3Schools show that 10% of the visitors to your site will have JavaScript disabled. Since there’s no really good reason to use JavaScript for navigation, why even run the risk that your site will be unusable by 10% of your visitors?

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