Eric Chung UX designer focused on creating meaningful user value and business impact for B2B products. I also write about design.

Tabbed navigation in UX: Where and when to use it

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Tabbed Navigation In UX: Where And When To Use It

Tabbed navigation is a popular way of organizing content in user interfaces (UI). The design pattern presents users with a set of tabs, each representing a different category of content or functionality. It’s similar to how tabs are used in a book to mark different sections, except tabbed navigation is used on a website or computer application.

Users can click on tabs to switch between them and see different information or options. Tabs keep things organized, and make it easier to find what you’re looking for. So, instead of having to look all over the place for something, you can just click on the right tab and find it quickly.

In this article, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of using tabbed navigation, as well as when and where to use the design pattern. Then we’ll talk about some best practices for designing effective tabbed navigation.

Advantages of using tabbed navigation

Tabs are a versatile and widely-used design component in UX design that can help organize and present content in an intuitive and efficient way. Tabs are typically used to group related content or functionalities together, with each tab representing a different category or section.

Tabbed navigation has several advantages that make it a common choice for many UI designers:

Tabs are easy to navigate

Tabbed navigation allows users to quickly and easily access different areas of an application without the need to navigate through multiple screens or menus. This can be especially beneficial for applications or websites with a limited number of top-level categories, where tabbed navigation can provide a simple and intuitive way for users to navigate between different sections of content:

Etsy Tabbed Navigation

(Source: Etsy)

Tabs save space

Tabbed navigation can help conserve screen real estate, which is particularly important in mobile applications or websites where space is limited. By presenting content within tabs, designers can make efficient use of the available screen space, while still providing users with access to all the content they need. This can be particularly useful on small mobile screens or when there are related categories of content without the space to support it.

Additionally, if multiple categories of content don’t need to be shown at the same time, then tabbed navigation can be an effective way to save space and limit what is shown at a given time:

Tabbed Navigation In A Mobile App

(Source: Facebook)

Tabs organize hierarchical content

Tabbed navigation can be used to create a sense of hierarchy and organization within an application or website. By grouping related content or functionality together within tabs, designers can help users understand the relationships between different elements and make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for. This can be particularly important for applications or websites with complex or hierarchical content.

In some applications or websites, the main navigation may be located in a side menu or navigation bar, while tabbed navigation serves as secondary navigation on the page. By using side navigation or a navigation bar for the main navigation, designers can provide users with an overview of the entire application or website.

Tabbed navigation, on the other hand, can be used to provide quick access to frequently used features or content within a specific section of the application or website. This makes it easier for users to navigate within a particular section and quickly find the content they need:

Tabs Organizing Hierarchical Content

(Source: Carbon Design System)

Tabbed navigation can be particularly useful for applications or websites with a lot of content or functionality that is organized into multiple sections. By using side navigation for the main navigation and tabbed navigation for secondary navigation within each section, designers can create a clear and intuitive structure that helps users understand how to navigate through an application or website.

Tabs enable quick access to content

Tabbed navigation can enable quick access to content or functionality that users need frequently. By placing frequently used features or content within tabs, users can access them quickly and easily without the need to navigate through multiple screens or menus. This can help to improve the overall efficiency of the user interface and make it more convenient for users.

Disadvantages of using tabbed navigation

While tabbed navigation offers many advantages, there are also some disadvantages to consider.



Tabs offer a limited number of categories

Tabbed navigation works best when there are only a limited number of top-level categories to navigate between. If there are too many categories to display within tabs, it can become difficult to manage and the user interface can become cluttered and confusing.

Airbnb lists dozens of options in its tabbed navigation, which essentially filters places by type. It’s impossible to view all the labels at once due to limited screen space. This can make it hard for users to jump between tabs, as they might forget which tab they were on previously or have to scroll through the menu to find the tab they’re looking for:

Tabbed Navigation On The Airbnb Website

Tabs offer a limited space for labels

Another drawback of using tabbed navigation is that there is often limited space available for labels. This can make it difficult to provide clear and descriptive labels for each tab, which can lead to confusion for users.

It’s important to keep labels short and clear, but this can be challenging when dealing with more complex or technical content. Long labels can lead to text wrapping within a tab label or even truncation, which can hinder understanding of the label’s meaning:

Truncated Tab Labels

(Source: Material Design)

Tabs may not work well with complex or deep hierarchies

Tabbed navigation is best suited to relatively simple content structures with a limited number of levels. If the content or functionality is more complex and hierarchical, tabbed navigation may not be the best choice as it can become difficult to manage and navigate.

Tabs can result in hidden content

One additional disadvantage of tabbed navigation is that it can sometimes lead to hidden content. When content or functionality is placed within tabs, it may not be immediately visible to users. This can be especially problematic if the hidden content is critical to the user’s goals.

When to use tabbed navigation

There are several situations where tabbed navigation can be an effective way to organize content within an application or website. For example, when there are a limited number of top-level categories, tabbed navigation can provide a clear and simple way for users to navigate between them. Similarly, if users need to frequently switch between categories, tabbed navigation can make this process much more efficient.

Many design systems’ websites use tabbed navigation to separate usage, style, and CSS guidelines for each component. This is effective because there are limited categories of information and users don’t necessarily need to view all the content at the same time:

Tabbed Navigation To Separate Usage, Style, And CSS Guidelines

(Source: Siemens)

Tabbed navigation is also useful when space is limited, as it can help to conserve screen real estate while still providing users with access to all the content they need. However, if the user will be comparing the content across tabs, then tabbed navigation may lead them to switch back and forth between tabs, which can be frustrating.

Finally, tabbed navigation may be appropriate when the content is complex or hierarchical, and users need a way to navigate through multiple levels of menus quickly and easily. Tabs can be used effectively as a sub-navigation within a page when the primary navigation lives in a side menu.

Where to use tabbed navigation

Tabbed navigation can be used in a variety of contexts, and it’s important to consider where it will be most effective for your users. When designing a website, you may choose to use tabbed navigation on landing pages or within sections of the website that have a lot of content that needs to be organized and presented in a clear way:

Tabbed Navigation Organizing Extra Content

(Source: Shopify)

For mobile apps, tabbed navigation is often used to provide users with quick and easy access to the most important features and content. This can be particularly useful in mobile apps, as it allows users to quickly switch between different sections of the app without having to navigate through a series of menus.

Similarly, in software applications, tabbed navigation can be used to organize content within the application and make it easier for users to find what they need. This is particularly useful in complex software applications where there are many different modules and features that users need to access:

Tabbed Navigation In Software Applications

(Source: Google Analytics)

Best practices for designing effective tabbed navigation

There are several best practices to keep in mind when designing tabbed navigation.

Keep labels short and clear

First, it’s essential to keep tab labels short and clear, so users can quickly understand what each of them represents. Additionally, make sure that the labels fit within the tab so that truncation or text wrapping isn’t necessary:

Using Short Labels In Tabbed Navigation

(Source: Reddit)

Prioritize the most important categories

You should prioritize the most important categories in your tabs, so users can easily access the content they need. Understanding your users’ motivations will help you know what they would want to see.

Use visual cues to indicate the active tab

Using visual cues to indicate the active tab can also help users navigate more efficiently. For example, you could use a different color, shading, or underline for the active tab to make it stand out from the others:

Using Visual Cues To Indicate An Active Tab

(Source: Jira)

Ensure consistency with other navigation elements

Additionally, it’s important to ensure consistency with other navigation elements in your UI, so users can easily navigate between different areas of the application or website. This means ensuring that hover and active states interact similarly to other UI elements, such as buttons or menus.

Test with users for usability

Finally, it’s essential to test your tabbed navigation with real users to ensure it’s easy to use and understand. This is a great opportunity to get feedback on the tab label names and whether the content shown under each tab was expected.

Conclusion

Tabbed navigation is a valuable tool in UX design that can help organize and present content to users in an intuitive and efficient way. Tabs offer many advantages, such as ease of navigation, saving space, and quick access to content. However, it’s important to keep in mind that tabbed navigation also has some disadvantages, including limited space for labels and a limited number of categories that can be displayed.

Ultimately, the decision to use tabbed navigation in a user interface design should be based on careful consideration of the content and functionality of the application or website. Designers should weigh the pros and cons of tabbed navigation and determine whether it is the best way to organize and present the content to users. By using tabbed navigation effectively, designers can improve the user experience and make it easier for users to find the content they need quickly and efficiently.

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Eric Chung UX designer focused on creating meaningful user value and business impact for B2B products. I also write about design.

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