Why Less is More for Web Usability

usability

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I recently stumbled across this rant by reddit user poisondwarf on the topic of the "anti-usability trend of web development", and I thought it was one of the more insightful posts in the web design subreddit in recent memory. It touched on a nerve of mine where I've seen a definite trend of sites lately with a "kitchen sink" approach to design, where the designers have literally thrown every trick in the book at the site's design and interface, at the expense of usability. This is a bad, bad thing, and I'll explain why.

What is usability?

Firstly, let's look at what usability is and why it matters. Essentially:

"Usability is the ease of use and learnability of a human-made object. The object of use can be a software application, website, book, tool, machine, process, or anything a human interacts with." (Wikipedia)

In terms of web design, we shouldn't make things harder for users. We want them to come to a site and not have to think "how do I use this?" or "how does this work?". No matter how pretty the design is, if you're making life harder for users, the design is a failure.

Negative trends

As poisondwarf so eloquently mentioned on reddit, here are some trends that negatively affect a site's usability:

  • Preloaders - if your site requires a preloader, something is very wrong. A user does not want to sit watching a spinning loading icon. They want content, and they want it now.
  • Too many transitions - CSS transitions and animations can be nice if used sparingly, but don't go over the top and nauseate the user.
  • Scroll hijacking - for consistency, users except scroll to behave the same across all sites. If you're hijacking a user's scroll wheel to make it behave differently, you'll succeed at one thing: annoying the user.
  • Form placeholders - a trend of late is to remove labels next to fields and use placeholders within the field only. Not only is this terrible for compatibility (IE9 and less does not support them), but it's also woeful for accessibility.
  • Hero videos - large hero images and banners are one thing, but a hero video that takes 2 minutes to load and shows someone stock footage of someone sitting at a desk typing? There better be a good reason for that.

Do you like angry users? If so, disregard usability.

To this list, I'll add a couple of my own:

  • Not using screen real estate effectively - tons of whitespace available and you're either filling it with something useless that rarely changes, or not making use of it at all and hiding content behind a popup/slideout panel. Why?
  • Non-subtle images behind textual content - users want clean text that is readable. Subtle patterns behind text are fine, but you need to be really careful with the choice of image as it can quickly make reading your site a pain and drive users away.

Put users first before the design

Web designers should think long and hard before deploying that "kitchen sink" design with over 1,000 different transitions and all the bells and whistles: does this negatively impact the usability of the site? Will this design annoy users? Is this design intuitive for users to easily understand? A well-designed site will keep users coming back for more, but one which frustrates them for no reason will struggle to succeed.

As the old saying goes, "just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should".

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