Frequently Asked Question: Should my site use audience-based navigation?

A doodle stands on a stage, and a group of doodles stands around it. One doodle in the crowd says, "Where would I go?" and another says, "But...who am I?" The doodle on stage points at the crowd and says "YOU get a navigation, and YOU get a navigation!"

Here at We ❤︎ Health Literacy Headquarters, one question we get over and over again is: Should my site use topic-based or audience-based navigation?

Let’s back up for a minute and review the basics. Topic-based navigation is when a site is organized into sections based on different topics or user tasks — like Audience-based navigation, perhaps unsurprisingly, uses sections that are targeted to different audiences — like

The idea behind audience-based navigation is that users will save time by going straight to content designed for them — and they won’t get bogged down in features they don’t find relevant or useful. Great idea, right?

Actually, most of the time it’s not. In practice, audience-based navigation presents a number of problems. It:

  • Forces users to label themselves. This can be a problem for users who could be part of more than one audience — or who don’t fit into any of the options you give them.
  • Is often downright confusing. Users may not be sure whether the information in a section is about the specified audience or for it. Case in point: If you’re a patient looking for a new primary care doctor, why wouldn’t you choose a section labeled “Doctors”?
  • Can make users worry that the information they’re seeing might be incomplete or incorrect — and that can get in the way of your credibility. People may wonder if another section of the site has information theirs doesn’t (think: what do doctors get to know that patients don’t?!). Anxious users may start switching between sections and end up lost.
  • Is more work to maintain. If you have content that applies to more than one audience, you’ll need to duplicate it in multiple sections — or create one page that you link to from multiple places. Either way, this means more work for you.

At the end of the day, audience-based navigation just doesn’t represent how people think. Users typically come to health websites to complete a specific task or learn about a health topic, and that’s what’s on their minds — not which audience they belong to.

So, is audience-based navigation completely off limits? Not exactly, dear readers. An audience-based nav can work if your audience groups — and the content designed for them — are truly and totally different. (Think of the students, parents, and faculty sections on a university website.)

The bottom line: Skip audience-based navigation — almost all of the time.