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Back at the end of the 20th century, websites used to be, if not simpler, at least sparser. The website for the 1996 film Space Jam, that weird 90s relic where Bugs Bunny and Michael Jordan plays basketball together, features static images and the minimum amount of contents. At first glance, the website looks to be easier to use compared to today’s websites but a deeper look reveals that the website’s contents can only be accessed by jumping through multiple links, which is a bit cumbersome.

Web navigation in 2018

By contrast, modern web development practices strive to lessen the number of clicks as possible, usually by displaying a large number of contents upfront or by implementing a search box for users to be able to find what they’re looking for. Excessive scrolling is becoming more of a norm for users, especially now that mobile has enabled quick gesture navigation. Right now, one of the emerging trends in web navigation is referred as infinite scrolling, in which contents are continually loaded at the bottom of the page, giving an appearance of a single, infinite page.

The problem with the above trend is that it can lead to users being literally lost in the page, forcing users to scroll back up to the top of the page to try and find the navigation bar to lead them to other sections of the website. For desktop users with full size keyboards, going to the top of the page simply require them to press the Home button. For those with small keyboards and mobile devices, things could be more complicated if not for the existence of fixed navigation bars.

The subtle benefits of having a fixed navigation bar

A fixed navigation bar is the type of navigation bar that stays tethered to one side of the page in a website even after users scroll further down the page. It is most commonly placed at the top, like the one from Buzzfeed’s website, where the navigation bar will always stay at the top even after you scroll down the list of contents or even once you clicked to one of Buzzfeed’s many contents. Since Buzzfeed’s homepage uses the infinite scrolling method, the fixed navigation bar helps keep things grounded.

Another way of using this method is by keeping the navigation bar on the side, like how it’s done in Techcrunch’s website. Just like Buzzfeed, Techcrunch uses the infinite scrolling method as well, but instead of loading more contents automatically, Techcrunch uses a button prompt, which in this case is the ‘Load More’ button you can see at the bottom of the page. In extreme cases, you could always use both, like what YouTube does in their desktop interface.

A fixed navigation bar seems like a simple, trivial choice, but depending on how your website is setup, it can bring many advantages, such as:

  • It enables quicker and always available, navigation tools

Think of navigation bar as a map. Sure, if it’s a place you’re familiar with, you might think to yourself that you won’t need help with navigation but if you somehow find yourself lost, having a map on hand would be indispensable, not that this would ever be a problem now that the majority of modern civilization have one loaded on their phone. Still, the analogy still applies.

  • It enables your logo and/or brand name to always be visible to the user

If users are enjoying your contents so much that they’re willing to jump down the rabbit hole of your website to look for more contents, it helps to subtly remind them of who’s behind all of those contents. A fixed navigation bar helps keep your logo or company’s name fully visible at all time, which in a world where new small, online businesses pop up every minute is definitely not a bad thing to have.

  • It provides a subtle feeling of consistency to your website

A 2012 usability study showed that when users are presented with two different interfaces, one with a fixed navigation bar and one without, 34 users who has a preference picked the former over the latter. The catch is, none were able to identify the difference between the two. This by the way is what functional design is supposed to be. It helps and assists the users without ever calling attention to itself, sort of like how Alfred is to Batman.

I don’t know if their reasoning would be the same as mine but I like the idea of fixed navigation bar in that it provides an element of consistency to websites. Personally, I don’t think that familiarity breeds contempt, it merely unveils them. What I do consider to be true is that familiarity breeds security and with it, comfort.

The burden of having a fixed navigation bar

You would think that given the above benefits, the fixed navigation bar would be a mainstay on every website you’d come across. The truth is, there’s one glaring downside from having a fixed a navigation bar; it takes up precious real estate on user’s screen. This isn’t a problem with desktop monitors and laptops but in the 5-6 inch screens of mobile devices, this issue can be especially pronounced.

Web designers and developers navigates around this by making the navigation bar as small as possible or by eliminating it entirely on mobile devices, which kind of ruins the whole idea of having it in the first place. Buzzfeed chose the latter while Techcrunch went with the former. In Techcrunch’s mobile website, the fixed navigation bar simply consists of the publication’s logo while hiding the rest of the options within a drop down menu.

The above method is actually used by a number of different publications as well. The Gizmodo Media Group, operator of numerous blogs such as gaming blog Kotaku and automotive blog Jalopnik uses the same method for their mobile website. The Sydney Morning Herald also goes in the same direction. The intrusion is, all things considered, relatively small on the user’s experience but it’s still noticeable.

Once everything is said and done, the choice is entirely up to you. For businesses whose websites aren’t especially loaded with contents and doesn’t require excessive scrolling, a fixed navigation bar would be little more than a waste of space. It’s only when you’re dealing with a large amount of content that it should be taken in consideration. Given that content is still going to be the focus for the foreseeable future, I don’t think this trend is going to go away anytime soon.