We got into a debate about what to call the different areas of navigation, specifically what the definition of Secondary and Utility navigation is. And I was unable to find much on Google about standard navigation definitions. Take a look at these 3 examples and let me know what you'd call each number.

Also, note that these are not screenshots of a rollover state. This is of static navigation.

Thanks in advance!

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2 Answers 2


In my experience, there are often established naming conventions within a company that may not necessarily align to Nielsen's definition or other "standards" - so unless you are in a position to redefine how people talk about the various navigation structures, it's good to be flexible.

Both "secondary" and "utility" are open to interpretation (does secondary refer to "2nd level in hierarchy" or "less important than primary"? Must "utility" include tools? Can it include links to pages?). For this reason they're not great terms - the less ambiguous the better.

To your question, here's my response to the examples provided:


  1. I don't really understand what these are, but maybe Global Navigation? Does selection of these change the main navigation below?
  2. I wouldn't call this navigation - Search + Account Tools
  3. Main navigation, primary categories
  4. Main navigation, second-level categories

American Century

  1. Main navigation, primary categories
  2. Again, not navigation - Account Tools
  3. You have a couple of elements here with different functions, so it's not really just one thing - I'd call the left-most item a Role-Selector, middle item Utility Links - right item Search tool
  4. Main navigation, second-level categories

Charles Schwab

  1. Main navigation, primary categories
  2. again, multiple items - you have Tools, Account Access, Search - I'd recommend Utility Bar if you want to refer to the whole thing
  3. Main navigation, second-level categories
  • Yeah, it is very true that often each company has their own vernacular, particularly in long established companies! And I think you hit the nail on the head that "secondary" in particular is often open to interpretation. Thanks for your opinion on what you'd call the elements in the screen shots. Good food for thought!
    – AmK
    Jun 24, 2016 at 20:32

Utility Navigation definition from Nielsen:

Summary: Utility navigation consists of secondary actions and tools, such as contact, subscribe, save, sign in, share, change view, print. These activities strongly affect website visitor satisfaction, user experience, and engagement. Put utilities where people expect and need them.

Primary vs Secondary Navigation

Primary navigation stands for the content that most users are interested in. But importance is relative; the type of content linked from the primary navigation on one website may be the same kind linked from the secondary navigation on another (for example, general information about the company or person).

Secondary navigation is for content that is of secondary interest to the user. Any content that does not serve the primary goal of the website but that users might still want would go here. For many blogs, this would include links for “About us,” “Contribute,” “Advertise” and so on. For other websites, the links might be for the client area, FAQ or help page.

More Resources

Other types of Navigation (Structural, Associative, Local, Contextual, etc)

Antharia: Understanding Site Navigation: Key Terms (Part 1) (this is a zip file)

  • So what would you call the persistent navigation denoted with #4 on the USAA example and #4 on the American Century example?
    – AmK
    Jun 14, 2016 at 17:34
  • those are not navigation, but full width sub-menus
    – Devin
    Jun 14, 2016 at 18:36
  • Not to get too in to semantics, but why do you consider the #4s in the examples to not be navigation? Isn't a sub-menu navigation?
    – AmK
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:17
  • I think you're confusing things a bit. When we talk about navigation, we're talking of navigation areas, not every element that is inside a navigation area. These elements are what will define which kind of navigation area we're in, but they're not the navigation itself. It's very simple: if you click (or hover, don't know the behavior) over Investing, you'll see a set of links below. If you click Investor Education, you'll see another set of links. The navigation is still the same, yet the items INSIDE the navigation have changed. Reading theresources I added will help you understand
    – Devin
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:33
  • I would call it parent tab and sub tab for the global navigation. And the no 3 for AIC, no 2 for CS are header or utility navigation.
    – YogaPanda
    Jun 14, 2016 at 19:43

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