4 Ways SharePoint Navigation Breaks Usability Best Practices

Whenever I speak about usability in SharePoint, I draw a large crowd. SharePoint Saturday Twin Cities a couple of weeks ago was no exception -- the room was overflowing. The session I presented was called "25 Usability Tips for SharePoint 2013/SharePoint Online Sites."

The session broke down 25 usability tips into five categories - navigation, forms etiquette, content, design and metadata. Many of the tips are common sense things that site owners can implement on their sites, or simply things to be aware of to ensure sites are more user-friendly.

A few of these tips are areas that were in my opinion designed very badly in SharePoint. They require taking steps to fix or adhere to best practices around usability. All of them center on how the default SharePoint navigation was set up.

The four ways that out-of-the-box SharePoint breaks usability best practices are:

1. Navigation Inheritance Isn't Selected by Default when Creating Sub Sites

One of the first rules of website usability states that your primary navigation should be consistent no matter where you are on a site. As long as the site owner configures the global navigation this way, the site will adhere to this rule.

The problem is that when you create a sub site, by default the Navigation Inheritance section defaults to “No” (see figure 1). If you don't change this setting when you create your sub site, you'll be left with a site that appears to be orphaned because it doesn’t contain any global navigation links (except for the home page of the sub site itself), and there is no easy way to get back or to see all the other areas of the site.


Figure 1. By default, navigation inheritance is turned off when creating new sub sites.

Site owners can alleviate this issue by enabling Navigation Inheritance when they create their sub sites. And if they forget, this can be easily fixed in the navigation settings after the site has been created.

2. Logo Link Points to Home Page of Sub Site, Not Root Site

Another prime rule of usability calls for a link back to the site's home page from every page in your site. A common web practice is to have the site logo act as that unified link that always takes users back to the home page. The problem with SharePoint is that out of the box, the site logo links back to the sub site's home page if you are on a sub site, and not the top level root site home page. You can modify this behavior by editing the master page in SharePoint Designer to always point back to your top level site's home page.

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Figure 2. Hovering over the site logo on a sub site, notice that the link points to the sub site’s home page.

3. Hidden Breadcrumbs in SharePoint 2013 (and Not Intuitive in Earlier Versions)

Breadcrumbs can help users see where they've come from, and provide a trail back to the pages they have recently visited. While not as imperative as the first two usability principles, there are still many users who like the functionality that breadcrumbs provide.

In SharePoint 2010, the breadcrumbs were only visible if you clicked on a folder icon above the ribbon (see Figure 3). While this obviously is not intuitive, at least after some time users might remember how to find the breadcrumbs. Even then, they are not formatted to look like traditional breadcrumbs and can be confusing.

2014-10-Dec-Neal-Image3.jpg Figure 3. In SharePoint 2010, the breadcrumbs are hidden under a folder icon.

In SharePoint 2013, the breadcrumbs have been disabled by default. Fortunately you can make them visible by modifying the master page. Unfortunately, they will still have the same look and feel as the breadcrumbs did in 2010.

4. Display Title Area Acts Like Pseudo-Breadcrumbs

True breadcrumbs will create a trail of the links you clicked to get where you are, or will follow a definitive hierarchical structure, so you can easily understand the hierarchy of a site and how you arrived at that point. In SharePoint, the title area (the area that’s visible underneath the global navigation when the ribbon is hidden) is sometimes used as what appears to be breadcrumbs, but they really aren’t. For example, when viewing a document library’s settings page, you’ll see a link back to the document library’s main page next to the Settings page title (see Figure 4).


Figure 4. The title area is sometimes used for what appears to be breadcrumbs, but they aren’t true breadcrumbs.

While that library link is helpful if you understand the structure of SharePoint objects, it can also prove confusing, especially if the “real” breadcrumbs are disabled and a user mistakes the title bar area for breadcrumbs.

Usability Potential, But Requires Some Effort

SharePoint sites do have the capability of being user-friendly, provided they are designed that way. The above examples illustrate that care must be taken by the site owner when setting up and configuring their sites to make sure they adhere to navigation usability standards and best practices.

Title image by Aaron Davidson (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license