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I'm designing a menu and I have two ideas. The menu is a bootstrap stacked tabs style menu.

The first idea is to have a category that you click on and it opens a secondary menu with the links related to the category.

The second is to have all the links on the main menu bar. The problem with the second option is that the height of the menu is limited.

From a usability standpoint, is having a secondary menu recommended? Or should I try as hard as possible to fit all my links on the primary menu?

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The differences between option "all items in primary menu" and option "have primary and secondary menus" are

  • space needed (permanently) for primary menu
  • interaction complexity (number of clicks, duration until secondary menu opens, etc.)
  • information architecture

The first and second point are relatively clear, I guess. The third point is asking for groups in the set of all navigation targets. Only if there are clear groups of targets (or functions), putting them away under one primary category can help the user. The worst design is one where the user does not know under which primary category she has to look for a target.

There's a pretty simple standard method to determine whether your users would be able to recognize the structure (or information architecture): Card Sorting, where you ask users to group all available targets. If they come up with largely the same groups, you're fine. Otherwise, your set of targets might be so diverse that you are better off with a lengthy primary menu.

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A cluttered primary navigation menu loses it's effect and usability the more items that are stuffed into it. In my view, it's definitely recommended to utilise secondary navigation where necessary usually in the form of:-

Primary Navigation

Horizontal across the top includes the main parent categories/pages.

Secondary Navigation

Vertical in the sidebar that shows the child categories/pages of the current page.

This format often works well for sites with large/complex navigational structure. But ultimately, it is what works best for the users on an each-case basis.

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You didn't specify how much elements nav will contain. It's important because if there will be over 50 links stuffed in small navigation with minimal space between them, it may be a usability disaster.

Based on my experience there are no difference what kind of presentation you use provided that you do it right. The most safest option is to keeping it logic, visible and consistent according to the principles of hierarchical navigation.

There is nothing wrong in using dropdown menu if you don't have many categories. You don't need to divide navigation to secondary and primary, but on my opinion links to child pages of the category should appear only when guest is on page of that category.

http://webguide.gov.au/finding-content/navigation/

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