François Briatte has compiled a rather large-ish survey comparing 10 web sites selected from his daily reads. The findings are interesting from a statistical point of view, but more so because of the various dissidence from the perceived ‘norm’.
After François emailed those of us he had surveyed, it was suggested that it might prove even more interesting to have us each explain our personal reasons for each of our own results. While some of the 25 questions asked feel a little arbitrary, and I could probably think of 25 more equally valid questions, the questions asked cover enough ground that it serves as a perfect starting point for this type of discussion.
So to each question a reason for differing if applicable, and general commentary if not.
- Are links underlined? (80% do) (I do)
Though Nielsen recently embraced colours beyond blue for links, he still says they should be underlined. This is a generally sound principle; I still get frustrated trying to click on non-linked underlined text, so it’s ingrained at this point. Underlining links is an easy usability win.
However, there are situations where underlines are problematic; in a text-dense page where every third word is a link, they only contribute to the clutter. Situations like these may call for a re-thinking of the way the information is being presented, but sometimes it makes more sense to turn off underlining. It all depends on the context.
- Are hovered links underlined? (80% do) (I don’t)
François is mistaken in my result on this particular point — I don’t leave underlines on hovered links. Since I highlight the whole thing with a background color, leaving them on didn’t make much sense or look too hot.
Though it doesn’t make much sense to me to turn off the underline on hover in most cases, a change of some sort is a good thing to indicate the link is clickable. This is safely a stylistic matter, so it feels like one of the more arbitrary questions.
- Do visited links differentiate? (80% do) (I do)
- Common knowledge says that visited links should be visually different than “fresh” links. There are situations where this isn’t applicable (web applications don’t require them, and in some cases are even detrimental to the usability of the application) but for the regular, content- and document-based web, it’s a must.
- Is the layout in fixed width? (60% do) (I don’t)
Interesting that the survey was done now, as I recently went from a fixed-width design to a liquid layout (and other sites surveyed did the opposite). 60% is close enough to half, so the opinion is still clearly divided.
One of these days I’ll get around to writing the big “Defense of Fixed Width” article I’ve been meaning to do for ages.
- Is there a search box on the page? (50% split) (I don’t)
- This is another must. Content-driven sites must have search, end of question. That I don’t is inexcusable, and explained only by this: it’s on the list of things to do. (But then, it’s been on there for ages, so that’s no indication of when it will materialize)
- Is there a right sidebar? (70% do) (I do)
The left side of a page is a more important area (for Westerners anyway) since we read left to right. Left is seen as dominant, right as diminutive. The content of this site is placed front and center, the incidentals and etcetera are placed on the right.
- Is there a left sidebar? (90% don’t) (I don’t)
- It’s not a three-column layout, so I don’t have a need for a second sidebar.
- Is there a top clickable logo? (100% do) (I do)
- The clickable logo leading back to the home page is more or less expected these days. No reason to break the mold, although I realize this site’s current design has a pretty sketchy definition of ‘clickable area’.
- Is there a repetitive footer? (100% do) (I do)
- ‘Repetitive’ seems to be an unqualified term; it appears the goal was simply establishing if footers were used in web design. Everyone has one, so there’s not much more to take away from this question than a simple, “yes, they’re used in web design.”
- Is the main text on white background? (80% do) (I do)
I recently changed from a blue background, so this is a matter of timing. A coloured background is far more compelling, but white is more practical.
Not only does black text on a white background offer maximum contrast, but working with imagery is easier in the long run. Placing images with transparency means dithering to a specific colour, and when the redesign occurs two months, six months, three years down the road, you’re stuck with legacy images that you either retire or spend time and money converting to the new colour.
While it’s possible to avoid the issue by using only boxy and framed images, it’s usually a better strategy (though more boring) to stick to the white that 90% of the web uses already anyway.
- Is the main text sans-serif? (90% do) (I do)
Sans-serif is easier to read on-screen. Serifs are subtle, high-resolution letterform hints that emphasize the difference between each letter for better legibility and faster reading. It’s impossible to adequately express the subtlety in pixels, which makes on-screen serifs clunky and harder to read. Sans-serif is the only choice short of 24px body copy or 200dpi displays, neither of which I’m planning on designing for in the near future.
- Is the DOCTYPE Strict? (60% do) (I do)
- There are reasons for choosing HTML over XHTML, most of which are part of a pedantic debate that will inevitably flare up in the comments. (It always does.) The question, though, is regardless of which you choose, are you using the Strict or Transitional DOCTYPE? Since Strict further encourages the separation of structure and presentation (XHTML Transitional is loaded with presentational elements) I chose it.
- Do they use accesskeys? (80% don’t) (I don’t)
- I’ve already documented my reasons against using accesskeys. I’ve started to reconsider, not in light of the advantages they offer those they were meant for, but because I can potentially see them as a usability enhancement for everyone else. Which feels like the wrong reason to implement them, thus explaining why I haven’t yet.
- Do they use ‘Steal these’ buttons? (80% don’t) (I don’t)
- Ugh. Please, no.
- Is there a header graphic? (70% do) (I do)
- It’s a pretty obvious way of branding a site. Not to say it’s the only way, as Jon Hicks has a well-distinguished visual identity but no header. It works for me.
- Is the copyright explicit? (90% do) (I do)
I used to have a Creative Commons license on this site, but in dealing with Zen Garden theft I’ve come to the conclusion that Creative Commons still leaves too many holes open. These aren’t merely ‘he took my work, I wish he wouldn’t’ issues, these are liability issues that I believe too dangerous to be left unresolved.
So the license was changed to an ‘All Rights Reserved’ copyright notice. This isn’t to say I’m a lawsuit-wielding, pissed off creative type who’ll sue the pants off anyone so much as sampling my colour scheme; I’ve had many requests for sharing my work, and 95% of the time I happily allow it. But there’s the crux — Creative Commons doesn’t allow enough of the control I’d like to retain over who gets to use my work, or more importantly, who doesn’t. So a restrictive copyright it is.
- Is the designer’s full name present? (80% do) (I do)
- An interesting query, and one that gets overlooked too often. I like knowing who I’m reading. I hit ‘about’ pages almost as soon as I stumble across a new site. There are obviously valid concerns over snap judgements, which is why some people won’t talk about themselves; but for every one visitor who turns away because of something they don’t like about your profile, I’d wager five more turn away because they don’t take an anonymous voice as seriously.
- Is there a print style sheet? (60% do) (I do)
- I get email when I make a change to the site that I don’t account for in the print style sheet; the redesign, for example, added extra text needlessly to the first full printed page. Which goes to show that people print this site, which means a print style sheet is a must.
- Does the navigation bar use image rollovers? (60% do) (I do)
- I suppose this option was included because you can’t resize image-based text. Well, I thought of that, which is why Proton has a ‘large fonts’ version that doubles the size of the header navigation text. Problem solved?
- Is the page UTF-8 encoded? (60% do) (I do)
- I wrote up my Unicode experiences almost a year ago. UTF-8 just makes it easier, provided every piece of software along the way that’s going to be handling the data supports it.
- Is the page XHTML? (70% do) (I do)
- Again with the HTML/XHTML issue. Google “xhtml mime types” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
- Is there a XML prolog? (100% don’t) (I don’t)
- It’s optional, but it throws IE6 into quirks mode. Therefore, we exclude it.
- Are quotes educated? (80% do) (I do)
Using inch marks instead of curly quotes is the product of technological limitations. They’re a hack. Now that we have the ability, curly quotes — “ ” etc. — are the way to go.
Not to say that’s it’s just that easy. If you enable John Gruber’s SmartyPants in Movable Type, you must also un-do them for users who comment, quoting snippets of ‘educated’ text. Otherwise a mess of garbled Unicode will make you regret installing the plug-in.
WordPress handles the proper character encoding automatically, but other systems might not. Fixing them to do so requires a working knowledge of regular expressions, which also raises the bar significantly.
- Is there a 404 page? (60% do) (I do)
Though I wouldn’t call mine perfect, it does more than a stock “Error 404” page. My main problem until this afternoon was that it would bounce you to a special error page, overwrite whatever was in the address bar, and prevent you from re-trying a new URL without typing the whole thing all over again.
No more though! It’s an easy fix, and I’m surprised I haven’t done it sooner. In my .htaccess file, the line that previously went:
ErrorDocument 404 http://www.mezzoblue.com/errors/404/
ErrorDocument 404 /errors/404/
…and all is right in the world.
- Is there more than 6 navigation elements? (90% don’t) (I don’t)
Though my continual IA re-thinking has me up to 6 at the moment, they aren’t represented on the site yet. The lower, the better, or so the classic thinking goes. Don’t present too much choice to the user. Any more than 7 items and you have an IA problem.
Except that the trend seems to be wondering aloud whether broad and shallow categories might be better. Amazon was long a model for having just too many items. eBay until recently was an overload of too much choice. Interestingly, I’ve noticed both are looking a little more restrained these days. I guess the debate continues.
There, wasn’t that a lot more fun than talking about validation again? Thanks for the survey François, and more so for touching on a wide variety of practices. The questions bring to light some issues that we haven’t been talking about enough.