Web design has come a long, long way since the 1990s, when things like GeoCities and AOL dominated the Internet. Design itself has evolved, along with a deeper understanding of principles like usability and the user experience. There certainly hasn’t been a lack of studies examining everything from typography and site speed, to content above versus below the fold.
The Nielsen Norman Group is one of the premier user-experience consultations on the planet. It’s been in business for decades, conducting study after study on design, usability, and UX. In one of its earliest studies from all the way back in 1996—when “Friends” and “The X-Files” were still on TV—they identified 10 web design errors that were hugely problematic back then, in the very early days of the web.
You’d think that, 20 years later, as design has gotten more sophisticated and information about design has become much more accessible, designers would learn to avoid design mistakes, but a recent, large-scale usability study from 2016 by the NN Group found just the opposite to be true.
Instead of learning from past mistakes, designers have been continually repeating them throughout the decades. In fact, if there’s one thing that’s certain in web design, it’s that these errors continue to persist because designers keep forgetting the basics:
- Enabling users to find information
- Enabling users to read that information
- Enabling users to understand where to click and where the destination is
A lack of clarity
One of the most stubborn errors designers continue to make on websites is not sympathizing with the need of users to clearly and easily understand what the site or its elements is about.
The study identified these mistakes surrounding a lack of clarity:
- Unexpected locations for content
- Competing links and categories
- Hidden fees and prices
The study revealed how too many designers put content in places that users aren’t familiar with based on ordinary browsing habits. For instance, inaccurate or inappropriate category names that failed to match the expected content within the categories was a recurring problem.
Another issue was navigational categories or links that sound similar to each other, which hampers users from finding the information they want. In such a case, your users will likely end up leaving your site and going somewhere else, where content is sorted much more clearly.
Hidden fees and prices will also hurt your conversions because no shoppers want to feel like they’re being treated dishonestly. When it comes to money, your users want to know about everything they’ll have to pay for up front, at the beginning of a transaction. This refers to prices, subscription fees, convenience fees, and anything else where money is involved. From a pure design perspective, it’s a huge mistake if hiding fees and prices causes a loss of customers and transactions.
Overstock is a great example of full disclosure: note how big and bold its pricing information for products is.
How easy your site visitors find that it is to actually use your site is integral to whether or not your site has good UX or not.
The NN Group’s study found these UX-related design mistakes that just won’t go away:
- Islands of information
- Link repetition
- Stranding users on microsites
- Inadequate search results
- Flawed filters and facets
Two big design errors are isolated pockets of information on any given page that fail to link to other, related information on different pages and forcing users to repetitively click on what amounts to the same types of links to get specific information. Both design errors inconvenience your users by failing to provide them with the information they’re looking for in context.
Many sites feature subsites (think Yahoo). The problem is that some of these subsites provide users with no way of returning to the main site, creating a headache for them and stranding them where they don’t want to be. Yahoo is actually an excellent example of a main site and subsites done right, as users are never stranded and can always click on the home button to return.
On the issue of search, unfortunately, a lot of sites still either fail to search the entire site for search terms or return results that fail to even match users’ search terms in the first place.
And while filters and facets (essentially filters for various attributes of objects in a set of content) are well-intentioned, they’re much of the time either tagged incorrectly or are insufficient, thereby creating confusion.
Information architecture foul-ups
Information architecture should, in many ways, be the heart and soul of good design. Essentially, it’s what helps users understand your site environment and content quickly, so they find what they want. It involves labeling, organizing and structuring your content in the clearest way possible.
The usability study again found stubborn, repeated mistakes designers still make in this area, just as they did 20 years ago. These include:
- Overwhelming users with excessive information
- Presenting users with hidden links
Studies show that users don’t really read web content; it’s more like they skim or scan said content instead. That’s why content should be chunked, in small and short paragraphs, and broken up with everything from bullet points to enumerations for better reading. The last thing you want to do is put huge blocks of text before your users.
Wayfair.com is a case in point for how to present information to visitors. Note how its content is easily digestible, as it’s efficiently broken up.
On the problem of hidden links, you’d be surprised at how many times designers hide links to relevant site content—for example, the menu of a restaurant—in the same column as ads leading to external links. The long and short of it is that most users won’t be able to find such relevant links amidst all the ads, which makes considering the placement of relevant links extremely vital to design.
Will it get better soon?
Part of the problem is that many designers just aren’t usability experts, but that’s no excuse. When you’re designing, you have to be obsessed with providing your users with a superb UX. Otherwise, your site’s usability, conversions, on-page time, and sales simply drop—and no client will tolerate that.
It will be interesting to see if, in another 20 years, we still see studies like these, talking about how design errors from decades ago are still haunting our web-design community.