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Is it acceptable to change the appearance of global site navigation elements based on where you are in the site? Let me give you an example. (This example is completely made up, but accurately represents the amount/depth of content -- and pretend your "market" here is people who typically are interested in one animal and are not frequently looking at other animals.)

In this example, someone is looking for squirrels. They click mammals, then click squirrels in the dropdown, and are then taken to a squirrel-related page which has two levels of navigation to it.

Please note that due to the sheer volume of content, it is not feasible to collapse this to fewer levels of navigation.

Is this jarring? Have others seen this elsewhere used well? My goal with this to focus the navigation on the content the user needs at that time. (I have asked a couple other similar questions on here recently but figured it would be best to show a potential fix to get any thoughts/reactions.)

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ESPN does something similar to this with the various sports. Instead of sub navigation being right next to squirrels, they put it to the right. –  Ben Nov 9 '12 at 22:10
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4 Answers

I think breadcrumbs, while showing less information and navigation, would show more useful information. For instance the Squirrels page would look like

Animals > Mammals > Rodents > Squirrels

Habitat   Diet   Lifespan   Predators

The previous menus ("Mammals Reptiles Fish") would be gone, I'm assuming it's not very useful at this point and I think it's clear that it can be revisited by simply clicking on the "Animals" breadcrumb. The breadcrumbs reinforce the structure of the organization and indicate the current location within the structure.

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I could live with this and I am a notorious stickler for things being in the same place. In your examples they are, just with different emphasis, which I feel to be entirely natural as it fully reflects the context of the page.

Side note: Do ensure that the main navigation also indicates where I am (Mammals). Assuming you would, just didn't see it in the last mock up.

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Think in terms of clicks and page loading times, try to reduce them, if I got to your page and wanted to know about Squirrels habitat in south america that would make me do 3 clicks and wait 3 page loading times, perhaps a search input is what your site is missing because of the depth of the content.

Or maybe stick with something classic as a multilevel navigational menu theres plenty out there like http://www.dynamicdrive.com/dynamicindex1/ddsmoothmenu.htm , most of the users already know how to use them I think there's no need to transform the main navigation menu, instead use the breadcrumb as obelia sugested to let the user know where he stands at all times, and the ability to click it and go back to lower levels, hope it helps regards.

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This would probably work albeit with a bit of a jolt when the customer first sees the top nav has changed. If the first page was the home page, people get used to the fact that the sub page may have a different nav.

Personally however, I'm not sure about adding breadcrumbing as yet another supportive navigation. I would like to see a design with those options before deciding as there is a danger of overclutter in my opinion.

I know what you have shown us is basically a wireframe but I would ensure the primary nav (Mammals, Reptiles, Fish) is highly visible as what you are showing is not recognised as standard practice.

Of course the normal pattern is to have a left hand sub-navigation but I guess there are reasons you haven't chosen that option.

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The final level of nav (shows as North America, etc.), may be potentially left-hand. Basically I am trying to minimize the visual weight of the navigation so that the creative team has as large of a canvas as possible to work with for the main page content. My working theory is that keeping the most relevant nav as the "big" nav keeps it useful in a compact space. –  Michael Histen Nov 11 '12 at 16:32
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