Friday, September 24, 2004

What's Wrong with (Almost) All Web Sites

In attempting to compile a list of URLs of web sites that comply with user needs and good marketing principles, very few sites could be found. If a site complied with a few principles, it contradicted so many others, it was not deemed worthy to cite as an example of anything.

If the following statements seem harsh, cynical, or sarcastic, toughen up. Your site visitors are probably speaking to their friends in far uglier language about your web presence, if your site frustrates user expectations and fails to sufficiently guide and assist them.

While some design issues are subjects of heated debate, the abundance of clearly dysfunctional aspects of so many web sites makes it clear that all is not well on the Web. Let's work together to make the Web a more satisfying and productive place to visit.

How many of these problems have you encountered in web sites you've visited recently?

1. Counter-Intuitive User Interface. Immediate gut feeling of being dumped into an alien environment. You freeze. You can't overcome your paralytic sensation of futility. Seasoned web design pros say the user interface is “intuitive.” You wonder: “intuitive” to whom?

It's difficult to tell what can be done at the web site. A table of task options, telling you “If you want this, go to [site link]” or “If you are [customer/user type], please consider going to these locations first, in this order, before doing anything else” would be nice.

Conduct user observation tests to determine if your site is deficient here. If appropriate to your site, include novices with weak web navigation skills in your pool of test subjects.

Every site is different, and requires site-specific user guidance suited to its unique purposes and user types.

Insufficient user guidance is, according to many experts, one of the biggest problems with web sites today ( and Andrew Chak at

Slapping a site map, search box, and navigation buttons on your site is not enough.

Consider winnowing, multiple user-segmented site maps, information channeling, site tours, page/link popularity indexing, facet maps, topic maps, and other online helps. (See WEB DESIGN: THE COMPLETE REFERENCE, Thomas Powell, McGraw-Hill/Osborne, p. 338-348, et al.)

2. Clandestine Sponsorship. It's difficult to find out who's behind the web site, what the organization's purpose is, what agenda they're promoting, what credentials are possessed by key personnel, what a typical member is like, what audience they're striving to serve. Secrecy or indefinite identity works against the credibility of the site.

Some sites have nothing like an “About Us” page, assuming we already must know who they are or we wouldn't have landed on their site. As if all users type in their URL, or link to them from a related web site.

But the second most popular Internet activity, after email, is Search Engine enabled searching.

If you're reluctant to be transparent, what are you doing on the Web?

3. Link Labyrinths. The user links into a page that disallows returning to previous pages, or fails to clarify its relationship to the rest of the site.

It's even worse when the browser's Back button has been deliberately disabled. (This is called a "mouse trap"). The site now seems like a confining maze. Users at this point tend to close out of the site.

I got caught in a "mouse trap" at a popular ecommerce site. I was curious about a product. Customer reviews were available. I clicked on "Product Reviews." I read a review.

So far, so good. But trouble was lurking just ahead.

I had an option to "Rate This Review."

Being (sometimes) a nice feller, I thought: "Okay, I'll rate this review, I like it, and want them to know I like it, it was thorough and informative."

I clicked on "Rate This Review." Lo and behold, I'm transported to a page that is trying to force me to Register. I don't want to Register. I buy nothing online. I get facts online, and purchase at "bricks and mortar" facilities. Call me old fashioned.

I was tricked into a mouse trap. When I hit the Back button of my browser, I kept returning to the Registration page, over and over and over again. I was getting annoyed. I closed out of my Windows session just to escape this mouse trap.

Now I have a grudge against that ecommerce company.

Never take over the user's computer, usurp their navigation, or attempt to bully or deceive them into doing something. Just because you don't know how to persuade them to do it.

Consider putting an “information trail,” “depth gauge,” or “path indicator” across an upper region of the page, showing the structure of the site thus far (not necessarily user path):

Home > Products > Industrial > Engines > Truck Engines

The user can easily select (click on) one of these locations to jump back into. User's current location in site is in bold type.

4. Link Misnomerisms. Links are labeled in a way that doesn't clearly identify, in a manner that makes sense to users, what these links are. This forces users to embark on frustrating, time-consuming “linking expeditions” through the site, or to simply give up and go elsewhere.

Mysterious, poor labeled links are dead links. They're time-wasters and they tend to annoy users.

5. Print Design Transference Error. Text is in Print Read format, instead of Web Scan. Site looks like an article-driven cyber-magazine, rather than a link-driven web site. Dense text without bold highlights, underlined hypertext links, or heads/subheads is difficult to read online.

No “printer friendly version” function is available, so if you print out a page, you have to print the advertisements, editorial photos, navigation tools, and other irrelevant features.

Some Print Read text is okay for variety, but use Web Scan text, bulleted or numbered lists, and short paragraphs whenever possible.

Avoid the urge to write it the way you want to say it. Write it the way users want to quickly skim it.

6. Narcissistic Mirror Syndrome. When the site owner looks at the site, the site owner sees his or her own reflection.

Web site text conveys a “we” orientation, rather than welcoming users as valued individuals. Replace “We (blah blah blah). Our products (blah blah blah)” with “You'll find...Your interest in...You are...”

Focus on how user needs are satisfied by the benefits derived from product features. Let users see their interests reflected in your site. Mirror their concerns. Anticipate their questions.

If you don't know how to do that, or don't want to, abandon your business altogether: it's doomed to fail soon anyway.

7. “Welcome to Web Sites Anonymous.” No personality—the web site seems cold, dead, sterile. No staff credentials or bios.

Could the president or some spokesperson for the organization have a frequently updated editorial column, with a photo of that person, to make users feel like the site is a representation of a real living human? How about a personal welcome letter?

8. Credibility Deficiency. Lack of verifiable references to external sources. No relevant, substantiating outbound links. No bibliographies of sources quoted. No documentation of facts.

Sometimes the only supporting documents are other materials by the site owners.

For more guidelines on source documentation, go to:

9. User Animosity. Indifference or hostility toward users. Rarely do you see a “Can't find or do what you want? Let us know. We'll try to help you. Express your problem, and we'll get back to you within 48 hours” link for feedback to the site owner or organization. Rarely does a human vouch for site authenticity.

Microsoft does an admirable job at this, but who else? Feedback forms, when they actually work, force users to exercise creative writing skills, that most do not have, to convey their concerns, questions, frustrations, or suggestions for improving the site.

Why not offer, in addition to an essay type feedback form, a multiple choice series of check boxes? Give users the ability to click on a statement that expresses their concern, to help those who are not good at writing. Negative feedback can be your best ally. For every user who complains, there may be 1,000 too busy, lazy, or angry to do so. You can learn from harsh critiques. Glowing praise just makes us complacent and smug.

10. Spurious Site Maps. Users generally avoid, can't find, or can't understand standard site maps, according to a study by Jakob Nielsen at:

One thing that renders a site map hard to use is specialized, or site-inconsistent, terms for the page sections.

Structure your site map in a manner that's easy for users to follow and see connections. Even advanced users who know insider lingo will understand wording that is common to the lowest level users.

Label links and page sections in everyday language with which your users are familiar.

Don't know what that language would be? Abort your entire web site immediately. You have no business being online.

11. Dysfunctional Feedback Forms. This one's hard to believe: web sites existing in the “interactive environment” of the online community realm, but it's difficult to interact with the site owners.

This is frustrating for users, and contrary to the whole point of having a web site, yet the problem pops up where you least expect it. Web Design sites, Web Credibility sites, and Web Usability sites have been guilty of not monitoring their feedback functionalities.

Sometimes a site doesn't even have a “Contact Us” page, which is a huge violation.

But lo and behold, when you go to the “About Us” page, there's a feedback form, if you scroll down to the bottom. So you excitedly type in your comment or question, filling out all the required fields, like full name, email address, phone number, and land address, then click on Submit. “Method Not Approved. Error Has Occurred” appears on your screen.

You stare at the screen in bewildered astonishment. Then you return to the feedback form and try it again. You check and double check your work. All required fields are entered. The email address is valid.

You click on Submit again. Error message again. That's it. This web site has lost its credibility by violating usability expectations.

You'd love to write an old fashioned letter and land mail it to the site owners, to make them aware of the problem, but you really don't have time.

So off you go, clicking your way to its competitors.

12. Wrongly Rejected Registration Forms. It's a pain to register at many sites, but if the site looks credible and informative, users will comply.

Users provide a lot of personal information, and come up with a special user name (e.g. “Hipwebber 59”) and a password. Hard to hack passwords are composed of at least 8 characters, upper and lower cases with a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols.

Often, users are also encouraged to make selections from a list of email newsletters and unabashed updates on new products.

It's annoying when, after going to all that trouble, a user clicks on Submit, and gets an Error Message.

One instance of this was when the site registration form required a password, but not a user name, although actual full name was required.

When submitted, the Error Message announced that access to member area was denied, which was intimidating, implying the innocent user may be a malicious hacker, then asked for user name.

When actual real name was entered, the same Error Message appeared.

Registration was aborted, and the user never returned to that site.

13. Corrupt Comment Posting. The web is supposed to be interactive, right? What is going on, then, with all this deterioration of interactive functionalities?

It seems to be a full blown epidemic all of a sudden. Users are being defeated in their attempts to communicate with site editors and site owners.

Here's another example for you to ponder.

A user reads an email newsletter published by an extremely reputable and well known Internet information organization. It specializes in delivering news updates and in-depth articles on the topic of IT systems and network security.

The user clicks on a link in the email to go to the actual web site of this organization, to a specific article mentioned in the newsletter.

The user reads the article on a revolutionary new technology that will redefine the entire information industry.

When the user attempts to take advantage of the “Post Your Comment” functionality by clicking on the link, the URL included the phrase “Create a Handle” rather than “Post Comment.” A message appears on the screen: “You have already created a handle. Your handle is [handle name].”

This occurs repeatedly, whenever the user clicks on “Continue Posting” or “Back.” In frustration, the user clicked on the Back button of the browser to escape this “mouse trap” and aborted all attempts to post a comment on a topic of great interest.

The user then fired off an email to the site editor to inform her of the problem, requesting her to respond to the user about remedying the problem.

If you want to drive users and customers to your site, keep these prevalent blunders in mind and avoid them. Want a competitive edge? Want to dominate your online market? No problem. Help users understand your web site, navigate it, and accomplish tasks at it. You'll be miles ahead of most of your competitors.

If you experience problems with a specific web site, please contact the site owner or webmaster to report the problem, and your personal opinion or conclusion about that site.

Generally, site owners and webmasters will appreciate your taking the time and trouble to help them improve the site.

Complaints are welcome by secure personalities who know that nobody's perfect.

Every time you contact these people and make known a problem, you're moving us all closer to the goal of:

"Turning the World Wide Web into a user's paradise."

Thanks in advance!

Vaspers T. G.


Andy said...

"No “printer friendly version” function is available, so if you print out a page, you have to print the advertisements, editorial photos, navigation tools, and other irrelevant features."

Sorry to be picky, but this site isn't printer friendly - the right-navigation bar scrolls horizontally after the content, wasting several pages :)

steven edward streight said...

Andy Merrett, my friend, do be picky, in fact, take the gloves off.

I encourage readers to nit pick my site, my posts, my ideas. If I have any errors or faults, how can I know them if everyone is "diplomatic" or "nice"?

Now, what I suggest you do is instruct your printer to print only the pages that have the post on it, so you don't waste paper printing out the non-post right sidebar material scrolling after the post material has ended.

Have I understood the problem accurately?

Also: VTG and all my blogs, even the one on Busy Thumbs ("Radical Corporate Art") are ZBM sites.

ZBM = Zero Budget Marketing, a strategy I and Bennett Theissen invented, where you do amazing things with no funding, to tantalize a client who has limited budget and despairs of having any quality marketing material.

I could upgrade my Blogspot sites, and prolly will someday soon, but for now, it's ZBM.

Anyway, a paid upgrade to Blogger might not correct this "Printer Friendly" thing.

Which means, to be totally faithful to practicing what I preach, I'd consider moving my blogs to other hosts or something.

Maybe will.


Anonymous said...

If you can edit your html try a print stylesheet. That means when you print the page you can choose what it looks like and what is printable. normally people make the text black, the background white and remove menus, ads and pictures. All without having to make print-friendly pages.

handy eh?

also when you try to post you have to do word verifaction. Is this accessible? The Image letters should be individually done and the alt tags should be the name of the letter.

steven edward streight said...

Andy: I can't figure out what causes that right nav bar scrolling horizontally after content.

But I only see this, in Firefox, on Blog Core Values, not on VTG.

Anon: thanks for the info. The accessibility of comment posting word veri captchas is beyond my control at this point, but I see what you mean.