Navigating ESPN.com — Take a Few Deep Breaths

Finding your way through the home page of ESPN.com can be like reading a big city subway map or trying to locate your favorite dish on a diner menu. It’s a sensory overload experience.

ESPN.com seems to embrace the chaos, or at least believe that getting as much as possible on the front page of its site is advantageous. Like many web sites, ESPN.com uses a dominant headline and main photo (or a video still shot) in order to draw attention to the big sports story of the moment. There’s also the familiar right hand news bar that is a mix of original content and Associated Press top sports stories.

But beyond that, ESPN.com doesn’t follow news web site navigation conventions. The navigation experience begins at the very top of the page with tabs that allow users to choose their native language. Each version features a different mix of stories based upon the local sports interests — the Spanish version, for instance, is soccer heavy.

To the right of those tabs are more tabs that allow users to visit the ESPN.com region sites in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York. The look of these regional home pages and the navigation experiences are all nearly identical, which is comforting for users who are accustomed to the ESPN.com layout. But it is very easy to miss the tabs at the top of the home page because they are so far above the main photo and story. These tabs are even above the ESPN.com logo, the search bar and the score ticker.

Adding to the overwhelming user experience are the plethora of links that allow users to visit the home pages of their favorite sports — college basketball, NFL football, tennis, etc. The site uses navigation well in this case to organize content based upon the sport, and the major sections are always a click away from the home page. But it is easy to miss so much of the content because the home page is so cluttered.

While the top half of the home page is busy, the bottom half takes the chaos to another level. In the mix are photos and text of issue stories (such as violence in the NFL), photos and links to stories from columnists, viral ESPN videos, fantasy sports links, mock draft lists for ESPN insiders, a link to the ESPN shop, a SportsNation poll question, etc. While the navigation is similar from page to page, there is so little order to the home page that the ease of navigation off the home page is overshadowed by the sheer amount of content that is chaotically displayed.

Perhaps the problem is that on ESPN.com there is no “main navigation bar.” One could argue that the bar showing links to each sport below the banner fills such a role. But there are so many other points of entry, including the headlines box on the right hand side and the columnist links toward the bottom of the page. A more centralized and organized navigation bar would help.

The home page is laid out to some extent with eye-tracking studies in mind. The tabs that take users to the ESPN regional sites and the bar that leads users to their favored sports home pages are both horizontally laid out to form the top part of the “F.” But beyond that, the layout does not follow research about how people read. The lower part of the page has links and photos scattered across the page.

Finally, like many sites, ESPN.com puts the “contact us” link at the bottom of the home page. While it is not featured prominently, it is in a predictable place. That’s more than can be said for many other components of the page.

In summary: Anything important on ESPN.com is just a click away from the home page, the user experience from page to page is very consistent and sports fans are almost guaranteed to find something on the home page they will like. That is, if they can find it.

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