Do You Make This Obvious Web Design Mistake?

    November 8, 2004

The most common web design mistake is to design for the exception, and to ignore the obvious. That’s because designing for the obvious is boring, while designing for the exception is fun.

Some years ago, I was involved in designing content management software. We spent a lot of time designing breadcrumb trail navigation, which tells the reader where a particular page sits in the overall classification.

Another feature we wanted for the software was multiple classification of a particular piece of content. This caused significant problems for the breadcrumb trail design, as there could theoretically be two or more breadcrumb trails for content. Anyway, it was a bit of a challenge, and we really enjoyed working at it.

Nobody actually questioned whether breadcrumb trail navigation was genuinely useful. It just seemed like a great idea. We were sure that everybody would love it. It turned out that it was a feature that the vast majority of people ignored. Everybody I have talked to since, and every report I have read, has stated that breadcrumb trail is, at best, a like-to-have feature.

“The resistance to using breadcrumbs is perplexing,” states Dr. Eric Schaffer, CEO of Human Factors International. “They increase efficiency. They support site learning. They reduce the user’s “where-was-I?” memory burden by providing a list of recently visited pages. They make it easier to cross levels of the navigation decision tree within the browse environment.”

“But users don’t use breadcrumbs spontaneously,” Dr. Schaffer continues. “Studies show that, too. Not surprisingly, the picture is not so black and white. Super users DO use breadcrumbs. You do, don’t you? And you use them because they are efficient. They make sense.”

This is the New Economy, and we’re not supposed to be bored, are we? We’re all supposed to be doing challenging work that fulfills us and moves our career forwards. We all want to design for the “super users” because this sort of design stretches and challenges us.

There are far more ordinary people out there than super users. These people want to be lead through a simple process so that they can complete their tasks quickly and with as little mental effort as possible. They like a website such as eBay, which under a big heading called “Find” asks: “What are you looking for?”, and then gives you a nice wide search box, with a button beside it labeled “Search”.

The obvious is very often boring to the designer. When I tell designers about the “stupid” things people do on websites, they often laugh in disbelief. For example, lots of people click on the search button without placing text in the search box. They do this because they think the search button is actually a link to the search page. So, when someone does that on your website, what should you do? Bring them to a dedicated search page.

Every time you add something to a webpage you potentially make that page a little less clear. Go through your website and list all the parts that you think are really cool; the parts your friends are really impressed with. Remove them.

What impresses you most is likely unnecessary to the successful completion of the core task. Your goal should be to design a website that even an adult can understand.

For your web content management solution, contact Gerry McGovern

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