On Web Design / 08 Jan 2014
Don't make me think! Best Practice for the best User experience

As a web developer I tend to feel the greatest swell of pride when I have written a particularly elegant line of code; something that will make the site smoother, faster or more responsive. The fact is, however, that you, dear browser, don’t give a fig for my code – hell, the vast majority of you don’t even know it’s there. Just how those words, pictures, clever animations and videos appear on your PC screen is no concern of yours.
If there are awards for website code they are buried as deep as the code itself – award winning websites are chosen for two things: firstly the quality of their design and secondly the quality of the user experience – the UX as it’s known in the trade. UX designers are some of the best paid individuals in the industry – and with good cause. It’s their job to visualise the site, to try to second guess all the possible visitor journeys and then to plan how those journeys might be made in the smoothest possible way – like playing a three dimensional game of chess. A good UX can net you millions, a poor one can lose you visitors faster than you can say ‘Don’t make me think’ – and this is the key.
From time to time I come across a book for which the title is all you need. ‘Don’t Make Me Think’ by the estimable Steve Krug is one such. (‘Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream‘ By Robert I Simon is another – but that’s another matter). Steve is one of the world’s leading UX men and the title of his book nails it. Every second spent staring at the screen wondering where the ‘X’ or ‘Y’ is represents hundreds of lost visitors.
So – here then – with a considerable spoonful of help from Mr Krug – is my Top 10 ‘don’t make me thinkers’:
1. Give me something to click
All too often in web briefings it becomes apparent that people believe that browsers enter their website at the top left hand corner and work their way methodically and horizontally to the bottom right. They don’t. The first thing they do is to look for something to click – so give it to them – preferably a nice juicy ‘PLAY’ button on your new video – but anything that takes them deeper into the site or entices them to stay.
2. I don’t want to look, I want to search
Who the heck can be bothered to look for what they want? If you’re like me, the first thing I do is to bang what I’m looking for into the search field and hit ‘GO’. What do you mean you don’t have a search button?
3. Why am I here?
Not even the best website can answer the ultimate existential question – however, if you bear in mind that the vast majority of new visitors to your site have via a search engine, they will have come looking for what they searched for – so, if your link in google says ‘garden shears’ make damn sure you have ‘garden shears’ somewhere REALLY prominent on the page.
4. Where the Hell am I?
Don’t let your visitors get lost in the forest – it’s just not friendly. If your site is any bigger than about four pages make sure you give them one of those nice Hansel & Gretel breadcrumb trails. And for those of you for whom the last sentence was meaningless …. it’s one of these:
Home  >  Fruit  >  Citrus  > Lemons
5.  Reading on screen is a bummer
There was a time, way back when, that we web designers thought that people would learn to read on screen with practised ease. We were forgetting, of course, that the human eye is the product of several million years of evolution and it’s principal purpose is to be able to spot a Thomson’s Gazelle in a thicket on the savanna – not to read text off a PC monitor. The fact is we’re rubbish at it and we’re not going to get better for at least 10 million years. So keep your copy short and snappy – nice short bursts of text like – what’s that thing called? Ah yes, Twitter.
6. Get Responsive
We all like to think of visitors to our websites as sitting before their PCs at their office desks or at the corner table of the lounge – it’s a nice secure image with the browser fixed comfortably in single position in front of a decent sized monitor via which we can pass on acres of information. Sadly this is not reality. More than half of browsers now see a site for the first time sitting on top of the bus or walking into the floral display outside a hotel in Canary Wharf (yup – that was me). The bounce rate for browsers leaving sites that are not phone / tablet optimised is in the mid to high 90% so if your site doesn’t work on these medias you can kiss goodbye to half your potential audience immediately.
7. Whistles, flashes and bangs …
… are loved by the CEO who thinks more nonsense there is on the site the bigger the WOW factor (O cursèd WOW). The fact is, a joke’s only funny once; before moving through dull, to a mild irritant to the kind of frustrated rage that three year olds have made all their own. If you must have an animation or a slideshow make sure it revolves no more than three times before ceasing and restoring the kind of Zen-like calm that is essential to the very best of user experiences. And PLEASE no background music EVER – not even on a background music site.
8. Don’t put up barriers
Heard of re-marketing? It’s about as ethical as a Central American drug cartel  and it’s about as profitable. Basically it’s  harvesting your online behaviour to market stuff back at you that your behaviour suggests you might like. A big source of this is abandoned baskets and a big source of abandoned baskets is barriers to progress; that’s demanding more personal information than most people are prepared to submit, not making it clear if you’ve received a promised discount, unclear delivery charges and all round crap information. The more people leaving your site without achieving a desired outcome the more you feed the hyenas at the re-marketing house. See the next point to avoid this.
9. Test, test, test, then test again.
No matter how clever your UX professional has been, in my experience  there’s just no way they can predict the unpredictable behaviour of all browsers. There’s hardly a website that we’ve launched that hasn’t, at some stage in its early history, absolutely staggered us by throwing up an incredible visitor journey into oblivion. There’s only one to reduce this to the statistically irrelevant and that’s to QA the hell out of your new site and then get everyone you know to tell everyone they know to try to break it. Someone will and it’s better that it’s the junior designers  clever dick cousin than the major share-holder on launch day.
10. We’re not all 20:20
It’s called Accessibility, it’s about the visually impaired and it’s an absolutely essential part of planning the user experience. Here’s a couple of useful links:
http://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/webaccessibility/lawsandstandards/Pages/uk_law.aspx
http://www.w3.org/WAI/
Conclusion: The debate between style and content is as enduring as the dance between reason and emotion; in both cases it’s usually a delicate harmony that wins the day. However, if I pushed on the question of content versus style in the user experience debate I would definitely favour the hegemony of content. Wherever style dominates on a site so usability suffers.
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