Website features to consider carefully

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Under_construction_icon-orange.svg

I've had to do a lot of web browsing recently outside of my normal areas of web usage. A lot of the sites I've found have implemented some commonly used website features that I think would benefit from a bit of closer scrutiny. If you're thinking of getting a website built for you, or are just interested in user experience stuff, read on.

Infinite scrolling

This is the practice of only loading the rest of the page as the user scrolls down. It's most commonly used where there are repeating blocks of content, such as a list of products, and is used in place of pagination, where the user clicks 'next page' (or similar) to see the next set of products.

Good:

  1. The user gets an almost seamless experience of browsing the site, in that they don't have to keep clicking to get to the next page, which can be fiddly on a touchscreen.
  2. Page loading times are decreased, not only on initial load (usually only enough products are shown to fill the page) but also as the user scrolls (only the needed HTML is injected into the page, as opposed to loading the whole page, header, footer and all, again).

Bad:

  1. The user can't access the footer of your page (and any useful links there) until the infinite scroll is exhausted. This can be mitigated by moving all the useful stuff in the footer to somewhere more accessible, and only using infinite scroll where it is appropriate.
  2. The browser's 'back' button no longer returns the user to the position they were in the list of products once they have viewed a product. The user would then have to find where they were in the page to continue browsing. There's probably a technical solution to this problem but it could be complex.
  3. The size of the page is determined by the number of products, which could lead to a large page, which could cause some devices, particularly mobile, to struggle memory-wise. This should only be a problem in extreme cases.

I'm not a fan of infinite scrolling from a user perspective, because I tend to use the height of the scroll bar as a gauge of the size of the page content and it annoys me when I start scrolling and my browser suddenly struggles as it starts to load the next batch of results. I'm against things happening in a user interface that I'm not in control of. It can make for a smoother user experience but it needs to be carefully thought out.

Drop down menus

Sometimes a website has too many pages on it to limit the main navigation to a single row or list of links, and so dropdown menus in webpages were invented. They vary in terms of how they work (click or hover) and how complex they can get - some websites settle for a single dropdown per menu item, others have further sub dropdowns.

Good:

  1. The user can navigate the site much more quickly and easily, because they can get directly to the page they want without having to go to another page first.
  2. The user can much more easily see what pages and content are on offer.

Bad:

  1. Operating dropdowns, particularly hover based dropdowns, can be difficult for some mouse users.
  2. Dropdowns and dropdowns with sub dropdowns positioned to the right of a page can fall outside the boundary of the browser window. The solution is to switch the side the sub dropdown appears, but this can lead to an inconsistent user experience.

Dropdown menus are one of those UX features that are appropriate in some circumstances and not in others, so it's difficult to have a general for or against opinion on them. I will say that dropdown menus with sub dropdowns are a bad idea, if only because of the skill needed to successfully traverse the more complex ones. Generally, a menu will be off-putting if it has too many options in it - simpler is usually better. If your site structure is appropriate to a dropdown menu, use one, but keep it simple. Also consider carefully how the menu will work on touchscreen devices.

Mega drop down menus

Some drop downs menus are designed to fill the page width (and usually much of the page height) and feature longer lists of links to other pages, often accompanied by images. They don't work on mobile devices so generally only appear for desktop or tablet users. Their biggest problem is simply that they obscure most of the screen, which can be annoying if you're trying to read something and accidentally move the mouse upwards, triggering their appearance. They're also prone to accidentally opening if the user has to access links above the mega drop down, so if implementing one consider not having any links there.

There are arguments for their use, but consider carefully whether they're really needed.

Fixed position elements

There's a feature of web design that allows chosen elements to remain in view when the page is scrolled, as if they're glued to the edge of the window. They're called fixed position elements and they're often used by sites to provide easy access to key things, such as a link to the 'contact us' page, or the entire site menu.

Good:

  1. Users can easily access key information regardless of where they are on a page.

Bad:

  1. Every fixed position element intrudes a little bit on the available viewing space, which can leave the page feeling cramped.
  2. Such elements can overlap other content if not positioned carefully.

I want to be unbiased about this, but I really can't - I hate it when websites do this. If I want to contact them or use the main menu, or share their page on social media, or whatever other banal things companies decide to put in these annoying boxes, I can find those links just fine on the page by scrolling, thanks. I have a fairly small screen on my laptop, so I don't want it cluttered up with extra stuff that just gets in the way.

Also be sure that the use of fixed elements isn't simply to make up for poor design. If your visitors can't see your phone number in your header without putting it in a fixed element, maybe you need to look into that.

Popups that randomly appear

We're starting to get into the dregs now, where I'll probably get increasingly ranty. Sometimes, when my browser loads a page or a few seconds after I've started reading the content of a page, a popup will appear, obscuring the page completely. Often this popup will contain either an advert for something elsewhere on the site or (more usually) a suggestion that the visitor sign up to a newsletter, or fill out a survey.

Dear website owners, stop doing this. I have never had one of these popups appear and done anything other than immediately close it. Once, I was trying to log into a site when a popup appeared, resulting in my typing half of my password into an email address field before I realised what was happening. They're just annoying.

Share on social media

Ever since Facebook went mainstream companies have longed for people to share pages on their website on social media. Just in case you were still wondering, here is a list of the kind of things found on a webpage that people actually share on social networks.

  • Funny and/or amazing videos or pictures
  • Well written articles or news stories
  • Anything with kittens

And, to clarify, here are the kind of things that people don't share.

  • Insurance policies
  • Bathroom fittings
  • Lettuce

Consider carefully how prominently you want to display your 'share' links, or even if they're needed at all. Remember, if your visitors really want to share a page on social media they will do so whether you put those links on your site or not. It's the content that drives such actions, not how big the share button is.

And if you're thinking of having the share links in a fixed position element, just don't.

Why care about any of this?

There's an alarming statistic about the number of visitors who will immediately leave your site if it hasn't loaded in a certain number of seconds. I don't remember it exactly, but it highlights how impatient web users can be, particularly considering the choice they have on offer.

I'd like to suggest that there's probably a similar statistic about how quickly visitors will leave a site if they find an aspect of it annoying or intrusive. I'm certain that's true, because I do it myself - the 'face' of a company is in effect its website, and my opinion of that company is shaped from there.

I've seen too many websites in my time that could be so much better if features like those above had been considered with just a little more care. Please, let's make a less annoying internet.

Related

This article is tagged with