David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Importance of Web Conventions

I’m looking forward to seeing the galleys for my novel sometime in the next few months. Pyr has decided to implement a lot of special features in the book design.

Page numbers won’t be in the top or bottom margin as you might expect, but right in the middle of the text. And since readers get bored constantly reading text from left to right, my editor decided to make the text direction vary on each page. The table of contents won’t be at the front of the book at all, but on page 225. As for the copyright notice, that will be hidden somewhere in the body of the text for enterprising readers to find on their own.

Obviously I’m kidding. Any publisher who released books that ignored the conventions of book design would soon be out of business. So why do people insist on ignoring design conventions in their websites?

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has a great rule of thumb that webmasters should remember: users spend most of their time on other websites.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that webmasters need to follow the conventions of the medium, just like book publishers do. When you pick up a new book, you instantly know where to find the page number, the index, the copyright information, etc. You don’t need to learn the conventions of book design every time you buy a new one, and the same should be true for websites.

Here are a handful of cardinal rules for good web design that should rarely (if ever) be broken:

  • Don’t break the Back button. When a user clicks on a link, they expect to be able to click the Back button to go back to the previous page. Some websites break this functionality and refuse to let you use the Back button (usually because of laziness on behalf of the programmer). Bank websites are the worst at violating this rule.
  • Don’t break the right-click button. Ever try to right-click on a page and find a Javascript pop-up message warning you that “this function is not allowed”? Bad idea. These webmasters are foolishly trying to prevent people from copying images from their site. But not only does this trick not work, but it alienates users who frequently use the mouse right-click to go back, add bookmarks, print, etc.
  • Don’t automatically open new windows. Period. If the user wants to open a new window, they can do so themselves by right-clicking or shift-clicking on a hyperlink. Opening new windows is a user-hostile attempt to make the user do something they don’t want to do. It clutters up your screen, it breaks the browser’s Back button, and it’s just completely unnecessary.
  • Don’t display unrequested music or video. Ever follow a link to a website and find yourself reaching for the Mute button to silence some shitty version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” that’s suddenly blaring from your speakers? People browse websites in libraries and offices and plenty of other places that require silence. Multimedia should only appear upon request.
  • Follow standard guidelines for links. Hyperlinks should be colored, underlined text (or occasionally colored, boldface text that underlines on mouseover). If you have colored or underlined text on your page that’s not hyperlinked, you’re just confusing your users.

This list barely scratches the surface. Thankfully, with web browsers like Firefox and tools like Greasemonkey, web users are finally starting to fight back.

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  1. Axl Rose on December 7, 2005 at 10:50 am  Chain link

    Daaave! You’ve already got two comments on your first blog entry, but hopefully this will be the first response to your second. I’m so proud of you! The “Infoquake” synopsis is compelling, the cover will draw people’s attention, and you look like a hottie in your photo. Watch out, JK Rowling! Love Axl

  2. Tom Witherspoon on December 7, 2005 at 12:37 pm  Chain link

    From your post:

    Bad idea. These webmasters are foolishly trying to prevent people from copying images from their site. But not only does this trick not work…

    Playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment, don’t folks have the right to protect images displayed on the web from being copied and/or referenced? Even though I believe that current copyright laws and practices are archaic and stifling, where do you draw the line?

  3. David Louis Edelman on December 7, 2005 at 2:49 pm  Chain link

    Tom: If a technology existed that would let you protect your intellectual property without interfering with normal web surfing, I wouldn’t object. But some of these JavaScript tricks totally disable the right-click button for even legitimate uses. And on top of that, they’re easy to circumvent. Webmasters who use them end up annoying legitimate users and doing nothing to stop the copiers.

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