By Smashing Editorial, September 27th, 2007


Sometimes you just want to get the information you’re after, save it and move along. And you can’t. Usability nightmares appear every now and again. In his article “Why award-winning websites are so awful” Gerry McGovern points out that “the shiny surface wins awards, real substance wins customers” and that is absolutely true. Nevermind what design you have, and nevermind which functionality you have to offer — if your visitors don’t understand how they can get from point A to point B they won’t use your site.

In almost every professional design (except from special design showcases such as, e.g., portfolios) you need to offer your visitors

  • a clear, self-explanatory navigation,
  • precise text-presentation,
  • search functionality and
  • visible and thought-out site structure.

And that means that you simply have to follow the basic rules of usability and common sense. You want to communicate with your visitors, not drive them away, right?

In this article we take a look at some of the usability nightmares you should avoid when designing functional and usable web-sites. At the end of the article you’ll also find a few usability check-points you should probably be aware of.

Hidden log-in link.

Make sure that your registered users know exactly where to log-in when coming in. The facility (or link) should be noticable at first glance.

Invisible links.

Visitors have to know where they are, where they’ve been and where they can go next. If designers don’t present this information in an appropriate way, visitors can have serious problems with site navigation.

Visual noise.

Often less is more. Visual noise is probably one of the most typical problems large web-sites’ designers have to cope with. And it’s extremely easy to get it wrong.

Drop-Down Menus.

Drop-Down menus are useful for web-developers and almost always get on users’ nerves. If you — as a designer — hide navigation items in a drop-down menu you can save yourself a large amount of vertical space; however users have to focus the mouse precisely to get to the section they’d like to visit. It’s not usable.

However, it can be even worse. If the distance between different levels of navigation is too large (for instance because some navigation items have more text) users have to move the mouse horizontally. If the mouse focus changes its vertical position, users have to start from the beginning.

Blinking images.

Sometimes you just want to read the content of a web-site you are visiting. And you can’t. To fight against the banner blindness advertisers make use of animated ads — usually animated .gif-images or Flash-movies. In both cases it might become extremely hard to focus on reading if such images are blinking all around the content.

Usability Check-Points You Should Be Aware Of
  • You don’t use pop-ups. Pop-ups interrupt the browsing session of the visitors and require an instant feedback. Respect your visitors.
  • You don’t change users’ window size. The same argument as the one against pop-ups holds. Some browsers, e.g. Internet Explorer, saves the browser dimensions and uses them for further browser sessions. As Ben Bodien commented, “it’s just plain inconsiderate to assume that you know better than the user how their software environment should be configured”
  • You don’t use too small font sizes. Long passages are harder to read, and to read brief sentences readers need more time. It holds also for links, buttons, forms, search boxes and other elements. Good news — in Web 2.0 the opposite is the case.
  • You don’t have unclear link text. Links have to be precise and lead to the destination they describe. Ambiguous link descriptions should be avoided.
  • You don’t have dead links. There are too many of them anyway; why would you want to point your visitors to a dead end?
  • You have at most one animation per page. If blinking images are wide-spread through the site, it’s extremely hard to focus on one single site element. Give your visitors an opportunity to perceive your content. Using animated ads, don’t place them right along your articles.
  • You make it easy to contact you. Maybe you just don’t want to be contacted, but if visitors do want to get in touch with you, and can’t find any contact information, you lose their interest and trust. Disastrous for online-shopping, a missed opportunity for the rest.

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