Orientation and Wayfinding: A Quick Overview

What are orientation and wayfinding, and what do they have to do with your website?

Orientation refers to how site visitors figure out where they are, and wayfinding is how they choose to move through the site. In Information Architecture (IA), these concepts are related because as a visitor navigates through your site, you always want them to know where they are. You never want them to feel lost or confused.

All content management systems have a set of wayfinding features. But these features are useless — or worse, harmful — if site administrators don't use them and thoughtfully maintain them. We primarily work with Drupal and are familiar with how Drupal as a system informs and impacts wayfinding, but it's important to realize that these concepts are technology-agnostic. Modeling proper wayfinding is a structural and organizational task. It requires research, deep thinking, and empathy to create pathways through your website that feel effortless, no matter what technology you are using.

Orientation: You are, where?

Because of search engines like Google, any page on your website is a potential landing page. Whether they are using a mobile device, an assistive device, have an unreliable internet connection, or a combination of factors, a site visitor needs to know where they are and where they can go once they land on your site. How will they know what's related around the page they are on? And how can we expand and clarify the opportunities available to the site visitor without overwhelming them?

Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.

Jakob Nielsen, usability expert and co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group

A consistent site structure helps visitors create a mental model of where they are starting and determine where they want to go. To help with this, we recommend that sites:

  • Rely on page layouts that use best practices, consider content hierarchy and placement, and use design patterns to help guide visitors on their journey through your content.
  • Use proximity navigation to help give visitors a sense of place and orient themselves. Proximity navigation includes the page you're on and conveys which pages are closest to it. It can take the form of vertical navigation links on the side of the page, breadcrumbs along the top, or another set of links that leads to a page's parent and sibling pages.

Think about ways to identify the visitor's starting point as they begin their journey through the content. Don't be afraid to iterate on what you have if it isn't working. Consider if you need to go back to basics and simplify the navigation, make the navigation's presence on pages more prominent, or surface deeper relationships between pieces of content.

Wayfinding: You can't build a house without the foundation

You can't build a site without navigation. Your site's navigation is the foundation that provides a sensible and clear wayfinding experience. Thinking about where things live on your website and how to get to them is just as — if not more — important than the design. Your content must be findable and usable for people to get to it.

Like a well-organized house, there should be a place for everything, and everything should be in its place. Everything should have a shelf or a bin. Pages shouldn't be floating without a tether or strewn across the floor.

Planning your navigation

Start by asking some questions, then analyze your content based on those answers.

  1. What audiences visit your site?
  2. What are the top tasks of each audience?
  3. What are some of their needs and motivations?

After taking a fresh look at what your site visitors need, compare your findings with existing content and discover if anything needs a new home in your navigation.

 Some navigation planning dos:

  • Do: Build your navigation for what site visitors need
  • Do: Build the structure based on their goals and tasks  
  • Do: Create navigation that uses the words and experiences of your audience
  • Do: Keep navigation consistent regardless of path
  • Do: Pave the cow paths, which means to use the paths that site visitors have already shown they will follow instead of forcing them onto different paved paths. This is how Boston's streets were formed.

Some navigation planning don'ts:

  • Don't: Start your navigation structure by basing it on your internal organization chart
  • Don't: Crowd your navigation with too many sections or an overwhelming number of segments

You can future-proof your navigation for content changes and growth. Allow it to be flexible for the future, not just for immediate needs. Understanding the navigation can help you identify the content types you may need to create in the future. Dream about the content you may need; if that content doesn't have a good place to live in your current navigation, start planning for it. 

Lastly, houses need maintenance, and so does your website's navigation. Weed your content for ROT (redundant, outdated, and trivial) content to keep your navigation clean and relevant. If navigation isn't working, fix it. Test it. Fix it again.

Filters, category labels, and taxonomy, oh my!

Filters, sorts, labels, and the categories and taxonomies that power them, are often overlooked but vital to the wayfinding experience. Think of a grocery store and how you find your way around - what would happen if those aisle numbers and categories didn't exist?

Whereas the IA structure is a map of how our content is organized, a taxonomy is a map of concepts we use to describe our content and of how all those concepts relate to one another. A taxonomy is often very different than the IA structure or the navigation and is usually broader than and more technical than the two.

Nielsen Norman Group

Taxonomy vocabularies and terms are used to categorize and sort a big pile of content so your site visitors can find the content they need. Labels, headings, symbols, and icons serve as the connective tissue of your content and supplement the holistic wayfinding journey. Filters, which are often powered by taxonomies, surface ways content is structured, and reinforce a site visitor's understanding of how content is organized. Don't ignore any of these pieces.

Categorizing content

Thinking about major categories or topics can be a helpful way to start organizing content. Try to divide all your content into 'buckets.' Ask yourself, what would you label each bucket? Now, is there any content that doesn't fit? You can use the LATCH approach: location, alphabet, time, category, and hierarchy. But other ways to organize categories might serve your content better. Here are some examples from Elle Geraghty:

  1. Subject types e.g. Dogs, Home, Insurance, Dresses
  2. User groups e.g. Teacher, Media, Industry
  3. User mindset e.g. Beginner, Expert
  4. Ergonomic e.g. Highly trafficked content
  5. Strategic value e.g. Indigenous focus, New product launch
  6. Desired behaviors e.g. Recycle more, Complete form on time
  7. Time e.g. Most recent, Next week, Wednesdays
  8. Geography e.g. Closest to you, Postcode, Country
  9. Alphabetical e.g. ABC
  10. Template type e.g. Form, Video
  11. Process e.g. Start, Beginning, End
  12. Hybrid e.g. A hybrid of the above

Sometimes organization happens organically, but user research can help you uncover your content's main taxonomy vocabularies. 

  • How do your users search, and what words do they use?
  • Discover patterns with analytics, keyword research, and internal search keywords.
  • Use heatmap tracking to find out where your users are going. 

Open and closed taxonomies

Closed taxonomies are locked down and only rarely get new terms. Editors cannot add terms without going through a formal approval process. We recommend taxonomies be open so that terms can be edited and added, but with a couple of caveats.

  • Open taxonomies need a single person in charge, so it's not a free for all.
  • Open taxonomies should be seeded with representative or researched terms to help authors understand what is suitable.

Taxonomies can grow organically and need to be kept up with over time. Duplicate and similar terms can confuse visitors and dilute wayfinding, so schedule time to weed them out.


You don't want your visitors to get lost. Wayfinding and orientation are important to consider when planning your site's navigation, taxonomy, labels, and filters so that people coming to your site can quickly understand where they are and how to get to the content they are looking for.

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