Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Links and Usability

Another developer told me that Amazon, Microsoft, eBay, and Apple were terrible sites. I completely disagree. Specially since Amazon and eBay have millions of users daily and I am sure some of them are not too bright. If their sites were confusing to the users they would loss business.

One of my favorite books is "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug. In my opinion, the best book on Web Design and Usability. This is a “must read” for any web developer.
Steve goes back again and again to Amazon to explain why they are a great example of usability. Sometimes we need to break with OLD consistence practices to make a more usable site.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm all for consistence within a web site. Five years ago, I would not have questioned the usefulness of underlines on links. Yes, normal state, on hover, etc… ALWAYS use an underline on a link. However, web standards are changing constantly. There are advancements coming because the web culture is growing and changing. Developers need to keep up, or their sites will look as old and Windows 3.1.

It seems to me that an accepted practice for several years has been the design where "Navigation" links are expected to be on the top and/or left of the page. Often these links are encircled in someway to make them standout as "Navigation". They standout, and users have come to expect this on a page. Because the user knows they are there, the web developer does not need to make them look like every other link on the page. When you hover over them they change appearance. They may have an underline on hover over, the background color may change, and the mouse pointer changes. I like to do all of these. I was already doing all of these in my application. And I should say the site had ALREADY BEEN USED by 20 users with ZERO complaints about the navigation links. I know 20 is a small test group, but this application is intended of school professionals. They just did not need an underline to know they could click on it. Since there were no complaints, I believe it was obvious to the users that the words in the box labeled MENU were links. In the end, I added the lines in the CSS file to make the links in my menu have underlines ALWAYS because our manager wanted to error on the side of OLD link conventions. I really could not believe he and my coworker were making such a big deal out of it.

When my users are using the site, which by the way is a dynamic data entry, review, and collaboration web site meant for teachers, I want their eyes drawn to the content of the page, and not to the navigation stuff that appears on ever single page.

My real beef is against the mind set that this way is always the right way to do something.

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