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October 3, 2007

When Usability Guidelines Go Out the Window

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It’s time for a follow up to last week’s 7 Site Usability Mistakes That Bug Me. In case you missed it, that post outlined some of the usability errors which site owners regularly commit that make me want to punch Susan square in the face. I went on to explain why I didn’t think you should make them on your own site. What I didn’t do, however, is preface the post by saying that it was a list of things that bothered me, personally. It’s very possible that your audience likes when magical voices appear from nowhere and start shouting at them. If that’s the case, and you’re the Bangles Web site, well done!

There’s been a moderate amount of conversation regarding my 7 Things post, especially over at LED Digest where one of the main things being debated is how you should style visited links and whether or not they should be a different color than unvisited links.

My opinion at the time was (and still is) that, yes, the links should be two different colors. I think it helps users understand where they’ve been and where they have left to go on the site. The consensus over at LED Digest has been mixed. Some of the more snarky members remarked that we should just leave it up to users to keep track of where they’ve been on your site. If your users are capable of doing that and don’t waste clicks reclicking old links, then that’s great. I, however, can’t count the number of times I have clicked on a link 17 billion times before realizing that, oh yeah, I’ve already been there. But then again, I’m special.

Today Shari Thurow joined the should-you/shouldn’t-you conversation and helped put things into perspective. Shari commented that there will always be times when "some usability guidelines fly out the window when dealing with a specific profile or role". In other words, you can have all the design "guidelines" and "suggestions" you want, at the end of the day, you have to do what works for your users, even if it’s textbook "wrong".

Nicely put, Shari.

If there’s only one design guideline you follow it should be this: Create your site to fill your users’ needs and expectations, not your own.

In my first post, I argued that site owners should change the link color once clicked because it helps me to navigate through a site. I, Lisa, mouthy blogger extraordinaire, rely on you changing the link color to show me where I am. In my world this makes sense because, as a regular FireFox user, if I’m on your Web site, I’m going to scroll down, find everything that could potentially be relevant to me, and then start clicking. I’m going to open up every link at the same time and watch all my tabs explode into a loading frenzy. Then I’m going to sit and read them all. This is how I get information. It’s also how I crash FireFox. [All. The. Time. You should hear her freak out. –Susan] Hey, without all those tabs there is no Friday Recap!

But that’s just my preference. As a site owner, you should find out what your users prefer and then deliver. Construct user profiles and then break them by going beyond that and conducting actual testing. Watch users as they navigate through your Web site. Ask them what works and what doesn’t. See if they click on the pretty girl or if it pushes them away. Watch as they get confused and keep clicking on the same link, expecting different results. Or perhaps find out that they think you just got sloppy when you made your links two different colors. Give your users what they want and what works for them.

An interesting example of this comes from the ad agency Nonsense. Nonsense decided that it’s time for them to create a real life Web site, not just a placeholder. They’ve also decided to make the entire process viral by allowing their users to decide what kind of Web site they release. The folks behind the site have created three different ideas and they’re asking their audience to vote on the one they like best. There’s also a Creative Brief available for download that specifies the company’s target audience and the desired reaction they’d like their Web site to produce. In case you’re curious, that desired response is this:

"Cor! That was clever/fun/interesting. That lot at Nonsense sure know how to come up with a good idea. Where’s my phone".

In case you couldn’t tell, the Nonsense "lot" are British.

In 29 days, voting will close and Nonsense will have their new Web site. One that their users already have an attachment to because they helped picked it. They’ll be invested and rooting for it to succeed. They will feel like their voice has been heard.

I’m not saying you need to leave every decision up to your audience, but figure out what you want your users’ desired response to be when they stop by and then build something that will illicit that. And if what you build breaks every rule on my week’s 7 Site Usability Mistakes That Bug Me post (except maybe number 2), then so be it.

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