OPINION: If you have to explain web design, you’ve already lost

15 Nov 2014

The use of websites, like water taps, should require no explanation

It’s nearly two decades since we first witnessed the horror of the “You look like you’re trying to write a letter” message from the paper clip on our Microsoft Word screens, however, the cold sweats it gave us remain sharp.

Even in the days before the focus on user experience, we knew intuitively that an annoying-looking paper clip with Groucho Marx eyebrows telling us what to do was always going to be a poor substitute for a piece of software which simply allowed us to do it in the first place.

Perhaps Clippy should just have gone open-book and admitted “my author hasn’t spent enough time thinking about you and your needs, so I’m here to rub salt in the wounds”. 

Old-fashioned decorum and a good upbringing forbids me the luxury of suggesting some responses to Clippy, however, The Smithsonian spoke for us all when it summarised him as “one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing”.

What was it about Clippy’s well-intentioned interventions that enraged us so effortlessly?

The Venn diagram illustrating user-centred communication within an interactive context and organisation-focused marketing within a presentational environment has only a small amount of overlap, with one public relations principle sitting squarely in the intersection.

It put the ambitious web executive in the same boat as the disgraced politician, the oil executive left holding the baby after the major spillage, and the celebrity whose former partner has publicly demanded a DNA test because he’s not holding the baby.

It is the truism that if you have to explain you’ve already lost.

Form and function in web design

Web users behave like men travelling somewhere for the first time or setting up a new piece of electronic equipment. The map or the instruction manual are viewed strictly as a last resort.

The well-designed website or online application makes use intuitive.

At a local coffee shop there is an overly fancy tap in the gents’ toilets, with a handwritten sticker above it boasting instructions on how to use it. The notice was stuck to the mirror because of the number of customers forced to ask staff how to work the tap. Post-comfort break, I have one simple task I wish to fulfil, which is to achieve the right flow of hot and cold water to wash and rinse my hands. The tap represents a triumph of form over function, where the pursuit of creativity has been allowed to compete against, rather than support, the task the customer wishes to fulfil.

As a slight aside, this tap may (only just) be justifiable in a home where it might enjoy frequent use by a small set of users and thus they learn how to use it, but in a public environment where most use is first time it is simply wrong.

Too many websites fall into the posh tap trap, replacing intuitive design with instructions and intrusions, often well meaning but intrusions nonetheless. Guidance notes deliver important value in a user’s experience, but must never replace user focus in the heart of the product. In particular, the two interaction design pillars of menu systems and form completion are areas where increased user-centred thinking and research gleans significant results.

Design of forms and menus

As a general principle, menu systems cannot be too sober. Their language and layout must be plain to the point of being boring. They do not represent the place for creative thinking.  The statistics in this regard certainly focus the mind, reminding us that if a user pursues a piece of information from a global menu link, and can’t find it, only half of users will return to the homepage and give the site a second chance.

Forms should be laid out according to well-established form theory, in particular, where form labels should sit and matching form controls with the type of information they are designed to capture. Validation, in-line help and progress indication should all follow identified best practice. Error messages should be calm, measured and instructive. Calls to action should focus on customer language, avoid using ‘click here’ (not least because it’s not possible to click on a smartphone or tablet) and be plain and self-evident.

If you have to explain you are potentially wasting the precious time of your impatient, twitchy user. Commit that crime too regularly and you may as well pack up and go home.

Gareth Dunlop

 Gareth Dunlop Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Invest NI, Power NI, 3 Mobile, Ordnance Survey Ireland, and Independent News and Media. Visit Fathom online.

Water tap image via Shutterstock

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.