A Rant about Web Design

I made mistakes
I made blunders
That's true of thousands and thousands of people

David Byrne, "Eggs in a Briar Patch"

This page was inspired by a "10 top Web mistakes" page that needed some serious work itself. Presented for your edification, and my peace of mind, here's a list of 10 common Web design errors.

  1. Using the <a> tag's target attribute

    This non-standard attribute forces some browsers to open the link's target in a new window. What this says to your site's visitors is "I, Web designer, think my content is so important to you that you should always have it available.". Not all visitors might agree with this self-important philosophy. What the site designer has forgotten is that the visitor should have complete control over browsing, not the Web designer. If a visitor wants to keep your information available, she can do so without your insistent assistance.

    Opening new browser windows also contradicts expected browser behavior: when a link is followed, the current page is replaced by the destination page. Opening pages in new browser windows creates confusion: will a link open a new window, or not? It's rather like having a toaster that for some foods acts like a freezer instead, because its creators thought that would be more useful. Usability tip: let the person actually using the thing be the judge.

  2. Designing for a particular technology

    Java/Javascript/both/neither? Best viewed with a particular browser? Frames/no frames? Shockwave/Flash/plug-in du jour? Best viewed at a particular resolution? Sound/no sound? High/medium/low bandwidth?

    I've never liked split-level houses. They seem so unfriendly. When you enter through the front door, the house immediately forces you to make a choice: up or down. You can't just relax into a nice chair; you have to make a choice.

    Forcing your site's visitors to make a choice is like entering a split level house. They can't do anything useful without making a decision, but they can't make an informed decision, since they haven't seen your site yet. It makes for an unfriendly welcome.

    Even worse are the sites that require the tech du jour to view the site. Even the largest of companies (e.g., Microsoft) have been guilty of this.

    The trick is to use the technology that gets the job done, but no more. Even though I usually eschew anything but the barest bones in Web design, there are pages on this site that use tables for layout, Java, and I even offer (and demonstrate) a bit of Javascript. What they do cannot be done with other techniques, and it is not used gratuitously. If that's the case, go ahead. But keep the flashy stuff to the absolute minimum; less is more.

  3. Animated images

    They're not completely evil, but less than 0.01% of animated images I've seen are necessary to make the page useful. Why waste your visitors' time, and distract them from the real content of your pages?

    What would be useful is an animated image that only animates when a visitor selects it. This would be very handy in instructional materials. You can do it with Java or Javascript, but see #2.

  4. Colored text

    This is fine as long as you don't accidentally make the color the same as the background. However, since each visitor can choose his or her browser's colors, there's no way to know if your color choices conflict. It's best just to avoid the problem by never using the <font> tag's color attribute.

    Likewise, don't redefine the colors of links. People use the color of links to quickly identify a link's state. If you redefine them, your site's visitors will have to work harder to read your pages. Don't use the link, vlink, and alink attributes of the <body> tag.

    While I'm at it, here's one final piece of advice: check your HTML if it was automatically generated by another program such as a word processor. If it uses numeric HTML entities, there might be a problem. Verify that all the numeric entities have equivalent names. For example, the copyright symbol '©' is both &#169; and &copy;. If you find numeric entities that don't have equivalent names, remove them! They might appear fine in your browser because you have a particular typeface, but others might not have it. Instead, they'll see garbage. (Here's a table of ISO8859-1 HTML entities.)

  5. Frames

    Again, this goes back to visitor control. If you use frames, the visitor can't bookmark pages, nor even necessarily know where she is. Use a menu bar at the top and bottom of the page if you have to, or even on one side, but lose the frames. It's just another way of saying "my content is so important that you, the visitor, should always see it". Remember: your site's visitors should be in control, not a Web designer.

    As for sites with more than two frames in one browser window: get a clue.

  6. Multiple page stories

    Some sites (Wired News, PC Magazine) split stories over many pages. A PC Magazine story I looked at today was spread over more than two dozen pages. How is the user who wants to read it off-line supposed to do that? Do they expect her to download two dozen pages? Not in this lifetime. And what about searching and printing? Let's be serious.

    Why split a story? One benefit of HTML is that we're not bound by the limitations of conventional media. Each page can be just as long as it needs to be to tell the full story. Yet many sites split stories into multiple pages, all the same length. In PC Magazine's case, this meant pages that had as little as two paragraphs of actual story. The rest of the page was navigation and advertising.

    And that is the answer to the question of why sites do this: to have more places to put advertising, and to increase their page hit statistics.

  7. "Click here to..."

    Not everyone uses a graphic browser. Not everyone clicks a mouse to follow links.

    (I really dislike this phrase. It's so stuck in the present. Can't Web designers envision a time when we might follow a link through some other method than clicking a link with a mouse? Perhaps we'll speak them; maybe our eye movements will be tracked. Imagine how the outdated your site will sound then. Why not replace this phrase with what it is you're describing? Instead of "click to download", why not just make "download" a link? Links can be both nouns and verbs in this brave new world.)

  8. Forwarding to a page in the same domain

    This is a rarity, but it's one of the stupidest things I've seen on the Web. Just a few weeks ago I went to Ford's Web site. www.ford.com brought up a short page which said the site had moved to a different server (www.ford2.com), then forwarded my browser there after a few seconds. Why in the world wasn't Ford's default address valid? Don't they have a clue about how to set up a Web site? Just what is the first server for? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

    [It didn't help my impression of the site to find next to no information on their newsworthy new vehicle (the 19 foot long gas guzzler). It wasn't listed with the other vehicles; the only mention was in archived press releases. They didn't give the information I was looking for, its physical dimensions. If I were going to buy a vehicle, it would be nice to know if it fit in my garage or carport. Anyway, the lesson here is that content is what makes a site useful, and Ford's site was not.]

  9. Images of text

    There are still Web designers who use images of text instead of plain text. For a logo this makes sense, but otherwise it's just a waste of everyone's time.

    Even worse, I've seen pages wherein the entire page's text is an image. Be afraid. The text wasn't even in an unusual typeface. (When I look at the HTML of these pages, I keep seeing a <meta> tag that lists the generator as Microsoft Publisher. Should I be surprised?)

    While I'm at it, there's one thing I'd like to say about the face attribute of the <font> tag: It's easily abused.

  10. Advertising on personal pages

    Advertising on commercial pages is bad enough, but must we be subjected to banner ads on personal pages? Billboards, television, junk mail, spam, magazines, radio... don't we already get more than enough advertising?

    What ads on personal pages say to me is that you're for sale. Once I know that, then it's just a question of your price. As Roger Waters wrote, "Each man has his price Bob / and yours was pretty low.". How low will you go?

  11. Special Free Bonus Tip: File formats

    If you're going to put data on the Web, please take the time to make it readable by all Web browsers. The biggest offender here is Adobe's Portable Document Format. It preserves the original document's format well, but it's completely unreadable without a special program. If you're going to make the effort to put information on the Web, do it well. Translate the document into HTML. Don't make the Web a dumping ground for a gazillion different file formats. There's a decent standard out there. Use it.

    I particularly hate PDF. A lot of people use it -- even people I respect otherwise, like Counterpane -- but that doesn't make it acceptable. The reader is annoying to use; if you try to view a full page, you can't read the text. If you make the text legible, then you can't see much of a page. Even worse, you can't select and copy text from multiple pages. It's a weak product. Use it when format is more important than information. If information is more important, then use HTML.

    You don't have to take my word on this one; a usability expert thinks that PDF is only useful for offering documents ready for printing.

  12. Extra Special Free Bonus Tip: Spell check

    Spell check your documents before you post them. I can't believe the number of misspellings on the Web. Even sites that pride themselves on their usability have been guilty of this. To me a page with misspellings is one that says "my author does not care about communicating".

    Spell checking is easy and quick. Why don't people do it?

Final thoughts

In the end, it all comes back to two things: content and accessibility. Without the first, there's no use worrying about the second. Concentrate on creating content that is useful to a wide range of people. By now, we've all seen hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of pages, and as many page designs. Your new one will not amaze us. Useful content, on the other hand, will make us come back.

If you do have good content, why make it inaccessible by using the tech du jour? Keep it as simple as possible. Don't rule out tech unilaterally, but give careful thought. For each enhancement you make to a page, it becomes inaccessible to a wider audience. With some care, it's possible to be both accessible and useful. Just keep it simple.

What have I left out? Let me know.

Last updated 23 September 2003
All contents ©1999-2002 Mark L. Irons

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