The source order question came up again on an email list recently - ie. should content or navigation be first in the source order?

This is a "jury is still out" issue since so far nobody has comprehensive data, just studies with a small number of respondents and opinion informed by observation of a relatively small number of users.

The paper Source Order, Skip links and Structural labels is the best research currently available; and its findings suggest either that the order is less important than other factors, or that there's a slight overall preference for navigation first.

However, the small number of participants in the study means we can't be 100% sure if the findings would be the same with a larger sample size. It's likely and it's backed up by anecdotal evidence, but it's not confirmed.

So, what I think we can say for sure about the source order of content and navigation:

  1. No matter which way you go, be consistent across the site so users can learn how your site works and trust it to work the same way as they move through the site.
  2. Either way, include skip/jump links; but...
    • Include visible skip links where possible, or use invisible-but-accessible skip links (ie. do not use display: none; to hide skip links as a very large number of users will never be able to access them).
    • If they are hidden, try to make them visible on focus so sighted keyboard users can see them.
  3. Use meaningful link text and a logical heading structure. Not only is this just good practice and good for SEO... the accessibility-oriented reason people say this is that some (many? most?) screen reader users don't actually read a page from top to bottom. They use features which extract all the headings or links into a list; read just that list then use that to jump around content. Once they identify that they're on the page they really need, then and only then will they read the whole page.

Please note that I am not saying all screen reader users navigate by link and/or heading. Screen Reader users have habits which are just as varied as other web users. No two people use the web in precisely the same way - but overall trends and common approaches can be identified. Enough disclaimer? :)

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