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August 2019
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What You’ll Be Creating

Navigation menus are changing. Instead of just throwing one into a site without considering what form it’ll take, designers are taking the time to consider the design of navigation menus, the space they take up on the page, and how users interact with them.

One growing trend is for sticky menus. These are menus that stay at the top of the browser window when the user scrolls down.

This way, however far the user moves down the page, the menu will still be accessible, making it easier for people to navigate around the site.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn when to add (and not to add) a sticky menu, and how to add the code to your theme.

When To Use Sticky Menus

Sticky menus aren’t always ideal. They’re best used on small, one-line menus with no submenus, that sit at the top of the page.

Here are some examples of effective sticky menus.

The apple website has a simple menu with no drop-down elements. It takes up very little space at the top of the page so is an ideal candidate for a sticky menu.

apple home page scrolled down showing sticky menu

The Ted Baker site also has a one-line menu which is sticky. In this case, the site uses a mega menu so it expands when you hover over one of the elements.

Ted Baker home page with sticky menu

But there are cases where a sticky menu wouldn’t work. For example, the Guardian website has a large header with the menu below that. If the menu was made sticky, it would mean that it and the header took up way too much of the screen space.

The guardian website doesnt have a sticky menu

The IBM site features a menu at the top of the screen with drop-down elements. This site doesn’t use a sticky menu, probably because of the drop-downs, which don’t always work well when added to a sticky menu.

IBM menu at top of screen - not sticky

The best time to use a sticky menu is when your navigation menu is at the top of the screen and is a simple, one-line menu. As you can see from the examples above, this can work with a mega menu but you do need to handle that with care. If the user accidentally hovers over a sticky menu while scrolling down, and suddenly the mega menu appears, it won’t make for the best user experience.

Adding a Sticky Menu to Your Theme: Getting Started

Now let’s look at the code you need to use to make your navigation menu sticky. 

You’ll need:

  • A theme you can edit (see below).
  • A development installation of WordPress—don’t try this on your live site!
  • A code editor.
  • Access to your theme files.

I’m going to be working on a theme I developed myself. If you’re using a third party theme, make sure you create a child theme and add any edits to that. If you edit the third party theme itself, you’ll lose your changes next time you update it.

The Starting Code

Here’s the site I’m going to be working on:

A website with a single-line navigation menu at the top in a blue band

If I scroll down, the menu disappears:

The site scrolled down with no menu visible

I want to edit the CSS for the menu so that it stays at the top of the page when scrolled.

Here’s the code that adds my menu to the site, which is in the header.php file of my theme:

This code contains a number of elements:

  • the background to the navigation and header, which is full-width
  • the header element itself, which has CSS for width
  • the site title and description
  • the navigation menu

It uses CSS from my theme for layout, floats and colours, such as the .right and .left classes for floats.

Here’s the CSS for the main elements of that header banner:

The elements that are floating next to each other (the site title and description and the menu) use CSS for floats and width that’s not specific to these elements:

Your styling will be different from this but will include styling for backgrounds, widths and floats in some form. If you’re creating a child theme for a third party theme, take some time to look over the existing stylesheet so you know what you’re targeting with your child theme CSS.

Making the Menu Sticky

Now let’s add the code to make our menu sticky. The element I want to target is the .header-bg element, which contains everything else.

In your theme, find the element that represents the menu background or the menu itself if it isn’t wrapped inside anything else. There may well be a header element involved somewhere. This is why it pays to use a development installation of WordPress—you may need to experiment!

Once you’ve found the top-level element that needs to stick to the top of the page, add this to it:

This does the job for fixing the menu to the top of the page, or making it sticky:

sticky menu overlapping content at top of screen

However there is a problem. The menu is overlapping the content below it, at the top of the screen. When I scroll down this isn’t apparent, but when I scroll up to the top of my screen, the first line of text is hidden.

This is because the .fixed positioning for the menu has taken it out of the normal flow of the HTML as it’s rendered, meaning that the browser renders whatever HTML comes next at the top of the screen.

Let’s fix it. To do this, we need to add a margin to the top of the next element which is a div with the class of .main. We also need to set a height for the sticky menu to ensure it will be equal to that margin.

To get this right, I need to interrogate the CSS for the elements inside the .header-bg element, so I can find out how the height is being computed.

The .header-bg and the header elements don’t have height set, and have top and bottom padding and margins of zero. If I drill down further, I can find padding for list items within the menu:

The font size for the text is the same as for the body element, so we can take that as 1em. Which gives us a total height of the header bar at 3em.

Here’s the adjusted CSS:

Note that I’ve overqualified div.main instead of using .main. This is because this theme also uses the .main class on the main menu (nav.main). Whether this is necessary for you will depend on the way your theme’s coded.

The menu now appears above the content as it should:

nav menu above content

And when I scroll down, the menu (and the rest of the header) stays fixed in place:

The sticky menu is fixed in place when I scroll down

So that’s how you make your navigation menu sticky!

A Sticky Menu Can Enhance User Experience and Modernise Your Site

If your site has a simple menu at the top of the screen, making it sticky using this technique will make it easier for users to access it and navigate around your site, wherever on the screen they are.

But if your menu is very large, or it’s below header elements that will take up too much space, a sticky menu may take up too much space on the screen and detract from user experience.

It’s your call—but a sticky menu is easier to add than you might think.


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