Reading Room

5 design myths (the truth, and how to avoid the problems)

by master

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Web-designers can be quite an insular lot. If you sit around surrounded by other web-designers it’s easy to think that everyone uses the web in the same way you do. This is where self-referential design pokes its ugly head in – people start designing for themselves not their end users. And when the person you’re designing for is a web-designer you get to think that everyone is adept with their browser and everyone knows the industry rules of thumb.  I’ve got a message for you… they don’t.

At the risk of annoying designers a little, I’d like to explode a few design myths that I hear from people in the industry. Some of these you may disagree with – but I’m not just basing this on my opinion – I’m basing it on 10 years of experience running usability tests with real people.

“The ‘fold’ is history, people are happy to scroll – right?” … Wrong. It’s one of those “in certain circumstances” debates. From what I’ve seen, everyone gets that internal pages on a site scroll, but many still expect that they will not need to scroll the homepage – or at least would prefer not to have to. This is made worse if there is nothing visual to indicate that there is content below the fold, and terrible if there is what appears to be a hard visual “stop” signal just above the fold – such as a straight line or edge of a box. In addition, homepages are largely transitory pages – people don’t dwell on them – they navigate away. So if you have important stuff below the fold a lot of people just won’t see it as they arrive and head straight to an internal page without scrolling.  So sorry designers, the fold still matters. Of course long pages do work – but consider how you are enticing the user to scroll – and still do try to get the key content up top.

“You don’t need a ‘home’ link in your navigation” … Yes you do. I have sat and watched people laboriously clicking their back button to reach the homepage because they don’t know any other way to return. I’ve even heard one user say “can you do that magic trick to get me home again”. They were talking about me clicking on the logo of the page to go straight home. This is not an isolated incident. I’d estimate approximately 25% of users are unaware that the logo of a site is a shortcut to get home. You should think about who your users are – what are their skills?

“Everyone knows how to resize text in their browser” … They don’t. This is an argument over the three AAA symbol used to control text size on a site. I’ve heard countless designers tell me that it’s not necessary – people know how to control the size of the text in their browser if they have accessibility issues. I’ve also sat with pensioners who struggle with font sizes and have no idea how to control text size – but could recognise a visual cue like the larger letter A. Whether you need to include this control therefore is down to who your audience is – but you should certainly not rule it out. The other rational approach is to avoid using tiny fonts in the first place.

“If you put too much content/too many links on a page – people won’t know what to do”… Have you ever asked normal people (i.e. people who don’t work in web-design) about their favourite websites? I bet a lot of them will include BBC News and the Guardian. Both of them have well over 100 content items and links on the homepage, and yet when you ask why people like them – a lot will say “I like the layout – it’s nice and clear”. So it’s not the amount of content and links that matter, it’s the way you lay them out and style them. I have similarly done usability tests on sites with much less content and links on the homepage and had people say that the interface is confusing. Yes we shouldn’t create un-necessary complexity – but saying you can’t design a page with that much content that users will find intuitive is just laziness.

“Video is a great resource for sharing” … It isn’t. No, really it isn’t. “YouTube and iPlayer are phenomenally successful, so everyone loves video right?” Yes, but…. Video takes time to watch. You need to devote a good minute or two. A still image or quotation can actually work better for getting a point across – it’s more instantaneous. The other barrier to video is the offices we work in. Many of us don’t have speakers on our work computer, and even if we do we’re uncomfortable playing a video out loud in an open plan office. So you’re limiting it to people with headphones. I’ve heard countless people in usability sessions tell me “it’s nice that they’re using video… but I hardly ever watch those things”. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use video – just that there is a time and a place – and that it’s not the best way of sharing a message. It’s something the user should elect to watch if they want, not something that we should rely on them doing.

At Reading Room we do two things that prevent “self referential” design. The first is quite simple, but something that many agencies don’t get right. We have multi-disciplinary teams: we don’t let designers surround themselves with other designers – or developers, information architects or project managers for that matter. Every team has a full range of skills and staff of all disciplines – there is no “creative floor” of the building that could allow these insulated viewpoints to occur. The second thing we do is of course a solid adherence to user centred design principles; using personas and goals to eliminate self-referential design. User centred design is not new – we’re not claiming anything revolutionary here – but it’s always worth remembering who you are designing for. Don’t think “what do I want the site to do?” instead think “what do my end users, my customers, my audience really need?”  If you work with us, we’ll always challenge you to see it from that point of view – because that’s ultimately how we are going to help you to make your site a success.