Top 5 usability mistakes web designers are still making

Stepping in gum.

How's that for a linkbait headline? Sorry about that. The web design industry is still only a baby, but it's old enough to have established a number of best practices that make sure that everyone has the best possible experience. It saddens me to still see the following crimes against usability pop up on the web.

1. Not linking the logo back to the homepage

I'm often asked by clients to add a "Home" link to the main navigation. I almost always reply with the fact that linking the logo of a website to the homepage is an industry standard that is so commonplace that a dedicated "Home" link has become unnecessary. Clicking the logo to return to the homepage is now second nature for most people to expect a trip back home. Also, the homepage is usually devised to introduce the user to the website and act as a launching point to the popular areas of the website. The main navigation should function well enough to guide the user through the site to find the information they need. In most cases, the user doesn't ever need to return to the homepage.

So why do some websites still not link to the homepage from the logo? Moving the home link to the logo saves valuable horizontal screen real estate in the main nav and lessens visual noise, reducing the number of nav items. I would love to see some research to back this up, but my gut feeling is that I'm right. If your home page is very important functionally (ie. something like Facebook), then sure, go ahead and have both, but at least make sure the logo links back home.

2. Underlining stuff that isn't a link

Set a standard for how links and actions will appear on your site. Pick a colour and make sure it's use mainly for links, buttons and other interactive elements on your site. Links don't always need to be underlined, but if you decide to remove the underline, make sure there's another way to visually distinguish links from from non-link text (that doesn't rely on colour) and don't use the same colour as your headings!

Having said that, many people (especially those that have been on the web for a long time) associate underlined text with clickable links. Don't go confusing your users by underlining non-linked text. If the text you want to emphasise is semantically important, use the <strong> or <em> tags instead.

3. Telling people to "click here"

Pssh! Who "clicks" any more? It's all about the tap, baby! But that's not the only reason. For starters, users with screen reading software can isolate all of the links on the page to make the page easier to skim for links. Imagine a screen reader dictating these links as "click here, click here, click here..." It's always better to use text which describes, when read out of context, what's going to happen when the user follows the link or clicks the button.

Also, the word "click" puts too much focus on mouse mechanics. Users know how to use a mouse and what a link is. Don't call attention to the mechanics; it is unnecessary and can diminish their experience. The W3C recommends that you choose a strong descriptor for your link text to best represent the link's destination, eg. "Learn more about...", "Download the report".

4. Using justified text

This is another mistake that some people are still making which leans more to the accessibility side, but it's something that can make the experience much better for everyone, regardless of their abilities. Justified text might look nice and straight to the eye, and can work well in print where column widths are narrow, but it's best to be avoided using it on the web. It makes text hard to read and can cause eye-strain and loss of comprehension, particularly for Dyslexic users who can find it troublesome to identify words due to the uneven spacing of justified paragraphs.

I've encountered many clients who love using justified text everywhere because they think it looks nicer, but there's been a lot of research and evidence to prove that it's a bad practice on the web. Once I bring this to their attention, it usually does the trick. Usually...

5. Designing your site navigation to match internal corporate structure

Working for local government, I've put a lot of thought into this. The way your company thinks of its products/services is almost never the same as the way your customers thinks of them. The customer is not savvy to your internal organisation structure, the jargon you use or the name of the department that handles the task they came to your site to perform, nor should they. Managers want to see their department name on the website so they can know that's "their section". Do not build a site that your managers/executives will love: they are not the target audience.

This is what "information architecture" is all about: in simple terms, it's the art of organizing and labeling website content. So how do you figure out what structure works best for users? Start out with a card sorting study to determine your site's top tasks. Refer to your analytics to learn which items to place higher to the top. Do some market research to learn the words your customers use to refer to your services (eg. a local council's "Waste Department" doesn't stand out to the general public as much as "Rubbish Collection" or "Recycling".)

6. Forcing visitors to register to access basic information

I used to work for a local newspaper during the rise of the internet during the late 90s/early 2000s. During this time, newspapers were paranoid that the internet would bring the death of newspapers, but didn't know how to move with the times. Vast slabs of content were hidden away behind a paywall, with subscription costs equivalent to purchasing the newspaper every day. In the early 2010s, the New York Times spent an unbelievable $40 million coming up with a paywall solution that can be easily bypassed with a few clicks. By hiding content behind a registration, your search engine optimization also suffers.

Requiring registration for premium content isn't always a terrible idea, especially if the content wouldn't be relevant to most casual browsers but have worth to a niche audience willing to pay. But you have to be careful when selecting the content to hide away. Whether you charge for the content or simply require a free registration, you run the risk of alienating or annoying casual visitors who will drop your site in a second to look elsewhere.

7. Not prioritising responsiveness.

Google is all about giving you the best experience for whatever device you choose use to view the web. So, you might have heard about the changes to Google's search algorithm which gives a boost to sites that are designed to look good on smartphones, while penalising those that don't. At the time of writing, one of the most popular websites that I manage has around 54% of users on mobile/tablet devices. It just doesn't make sense to ignore this when making a new site.

As I've already written, learning to build responsive websites properly is an investment of time, but it's been over five years since the idea hit the mainstream. This is probably the most vital skill that all web developers must learn. Responsive web design has made it possible for us to build one web that works anywhere and everywhere! Do it!

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