Your Website Should Lead Visitors Down a Path

Ron Huber

Website Navigation

Have you ever been to a website and read through a page or two only to find yourself wondering how to purchase, how to get more information, or how to see what other items might be related to what you're viewing?

If you are a marketing professional with the responsibility for your company's website, make sure you don't let your website visitors try to figure out how to navigate your pages on their own. A better approach is to use stimulus-response cues on the pages to guide them through the website and encourage them to take action.

A website should be designed to lead visitors on a path. Each page should have a suggestion on what "action to take next." For every page you should ask the strategic question, what do we want the visitor to do next?
Websites can learn a great deal from the world of retail. For decades the science of environmental psychology has transformed retail stores and other commercial venues interested in the mood and behavior of customers. From grocery store signage to mall layouts, retail environments contain various stimuli that are perceived by the customer's senses and produce a response.

In his landmark paper on Atmospherics, marketing sage Philip Kotler introduced the view that retail environments create atmospheres that affect shopping behavior. In 1974, Mehrabian and Russell developed a framework for analyzing the effects of environments on individuals, emphasizing the role of environmental factors as a major determinant of behavior. Today, most retail stores like Target, Whole Food Markets, and Victoria's Secret rely heavily on environmental psychology research, focus groups, and direct observation. Of course, the most-advanced proprietary research studies are trade secrets.

However, there is a great amount of information that is openly available. For instance, a well-documented environmental psychology technique used to lead shoppers on a path through a store is called a "closed loop layout."  Also synonymous with a racetrack layout, this is the design tactic of placing fixtures and aisles as incentives for the customer to move around the other sections of the store.

If you have ever shopped at an IKEA, you know exactly what is meant by a closed loop layout. IKEA, an international home furnishings company, is well known for its stylish furniture that consumers are often required to assemble for themselves. The chain has more than 230 stores worldwide. Newer IKEA stores are usually very large blue boxes with few windows. They are often designed around a one-way layout that leads customers along a pathway. This involves going through furniture showrooms and housewares first, then through the warehouse where one collects "flatpacks" for products seen in the showrooms, and then on to the cashier. Some shoppers liken it to being lead through a maze like a line at Disneyland. You can navigate IKEA in other ways, but the design cues do not make it easy to do so.