I find user experience in web browsing absolutely fascinating. This interest stems from teaching beginning Internet users how to do the things that many of us take for granted; signing up for an email account, using a search engine, and finding a specific piece of information on a website. In that job, I worked for a government-funded educational institution, so on top of learning about accessibility and usability, I also had the opportunity to see which common denominators on websites gave newer Internet users the most trouble.
More amazing is that many of these obstacles are well known, yet web designers continue to put roadblocks between users and the information they seek. Sometimes, I believe, this is due to a lack of knowledge on the designer's part. But since I've started working with more designers and interacting with them online, I've noticed that they often put their own (or their client's) needs ahead of those of the person they expect to visit the site.
It can be difficult, when you have a clear idea in your head of how you want a website to look and feel, to take a step back and look critically at elements that just don't work for your visitors. It's an important exercise, though; do you really want to alienate a portion of your traffic by not listening to their needs? Here's a gentle reminder of ten common missteps that could kill your user experience.
1. Confusing navigation. Categorization, whether of information or product, is critical. Clearly show me how to get to what I'm looking for, or I'm out. If a visitor comes from a search engine result and lands deep inside your website, is navigation to other sections fo the site or back to the homepage clear? Breadcrumb navigation helps them get oriented.
2. Dense blocks of text. These are incredibly difficult to read online. Format long pieces of content for skimming, with bold subheadings, short paragraphs, bulleted lists where necessary, and sufficient white space.
3. Flashing, moving, spinning, glittering elements. I had hoped these would take a hike by now, but we still see them. They're distracting and take away from whatever else you're offering on the page.
4. Contrast between text and background. It's harder to read light text on a dark background, and nearly impossible to digest text too close in color to the background. Keep it clean and simple.
5. Spammy ad formats. Ads aren't a terrible thing. They need to add something to the user experience, though, if you want people to actually click them instead of getting frustrated at how they overwhelm the page. The reason I'm here should never be buried in ads.
6. Vague 404 error pages. New users, when encountering a 404 page, just want to know how to get out of it. They don't want a technical explanation of why it happened. Offer links to get them back on track.
7. Indistinguishable links. Don't assume your reader can see color variations in link text. Underline the anchor text to make it clear.
8. Missing alt text for images. This can be a huge barrier for visitors with visual impairment or low bandwidth, for example. In some areas, such as Ontario, accessibility is now mandated by law on government websites. Make it clear what a visual element entails in text so the user, their software, or a search engine can tell what it is you're trying to convey with the image.
9. Long registration forms. Do you need to know the reader's job title, home address, phone number, or company name? I'm always amazed at sites that ask for this information and never use it. When faced with a long form, users may just find the information more accessible somewhere else.
10. Noise. There are two types of noise that kill the user experience most: visual and auditory. Autoplay music or speech on a website is annoying. It just is. Visual noise and clutter make it difficult to read or find information on the page.
User experience research and testing are two important steps that many web designers often gloss over. It's not enough to have a few friends or people in the office visit the site to tell you what they think. In fact, anyone involved in the project is unlikely to give a review that will actually point troublesome elements.
I compare it to the inability to edit your own writing; you know what you meant and how you wanted it to come out. Those involved in the planning or design of the site have a natural bias towards your vision for the site. It's worth the time and expense of researching and testing, or hiring a user experience expert, especially when you consider your potential lost traffic and sales.