Revealed: Why So Many Web Sites Are Lousy

Spend a lot of time on the web, and you begin to wonder: Why are so many sites baffling, annoying, incoherent or in some other way just plain bad?

A new report from Idea, a non-profit group dedicated to using technology effectively in education, is based on a survey of designers, operators and users of websites. [The report, “Finding Information: Factors that improve online experiences,” focuses mainly on what it calls “information” sites, including those of non-profit groups, but not shopping or social networking sites.]

The results shine light on a lot of things. But for me, it blasts a particularly harsh kleig lamp on a big source of the bad-site problem: The gap between what web designers and web users think. To me, the results reinforce my suspicion that too many web designers think more about what they like than about what the user needs.

[The blogger here withdraws his head deep between his shoulders, turtle-like, to provide a smaller target for the stylish, colorful projectiles about to be hurled by members of the design profession.]

A few highlights from the Idea report: [I have selected data to expand my theme; the report is more wide-ranging and forgiving than my excerpts suggest.]

Over 80 percent of designers believe that good visual design is important. Only about 50 percent of visitors agree.

As with people, good looks are useful but not sufficient. And as with people, excessive good looks can actually become a liability.

Or as the report authors put it, from the website operator’s viewpoint. “…don’t be overly seduced by fancy graphics and multimedia. Invest in strong, clear design and simple methods to quickly deliver current information to your visitor.”

Basic usability theory? Yes. But much easier to say than do.

Designers don’t realize it, but people get lost in their sites all the time.

According to the survey, about 70 percent of designers believe that visitors are almost always able to maintain orientation, which is defined as knowing “where they are, where they can go next, and which pages are related.” But only about 10 percent of visitors report being able almost always to maintain their orientation.

I don’t know which part of this is more unsettling: The fact that only 10 percent of site users say they usually know where they are, or that 70 percent of designers don’t realize this.

People are so confused by web sites, they often believe a human guide would be helpful.

The report finds 60 percent of site users believe a personal guide would increase the effectiveness of a website. Or as the report states it gently, “Designers tend to overestimate the clarity of their designs.”

There’s a saying in the world of consumer product design: The perfect product does not need instructions. It simply explains itself.

The fact that over half of users think they’d get more from the site if they had someone at their elbow telling them what to do suggests to me what NASA might call “catastrophic system failure.”

I know a lot of this is essentially basic usability, which website operators ignore at their peril. But what’s interesting to me here is the gap between what designers think and what users think. How could this be fixed?

Usability testing is fun. It’s fascinating. It’s pretty cheap. It’s cool to watch people actually interact with a site, blundering around and finding stuff, exposing serious flaws and hidden victories and producing all sorts of insights that can improve the site. Watching users in real life immediately disabuses you of the conclusion that your site is as good as you think it is.

I wonder how often the designers themselves sit in?

[The blogger dons a motorcycle helmet. And hopes designers don’t start poking around the blogger’s own sites too much.]

p.s. The Idea site itself–as one might hope–is a model of usability. Love the drop-down navigation!

Explore posts in the same categories: usability, web design

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2 Comments on “Revealed: Why So Many Web Sites Are Lousy”


  1. […] Por qué tantos sitios web son malos, pregunta el escéptico Craig Stoltz en Web 2.0, eh…really? […]


  2. […] Revealed: Why So Many Web Sites Are Lousy « Web 2.Oh. . .really? – well, that's an interesting report (none) […]


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