Usability on the Web

Ease of use matters. Customers leave difficult sites.

When I encounter a site that is slow to load, generates errors, won't let me use it, demands a special browser, demands scripting, demands cookies, etc., I stop using it. Often I stop loading the site before anything appears. There are plenty of other places to go on the web, and no one site is so important to me that I just have to view it. If you are selling something, you just lost a potential customer. If you are promoting some idea, you just missed a chance to push it.

If I know that a site offers me something I really want, I might make a special effort to get at the contents. However most sites are advertising something or selling something, and I'm not going to make any special effort to view them. I'll go somewhere else, and I'll buy some other product.

I find sites that tell me to update your browser particularly infuriating. I like the browser I decided to use. I like the options I've carefully set in it. I like it enough that I paid for a copy. I especially like being able to change all the defaults on pages, so that your pages display in a manner that suits me. If you don't think that is acceptable, I've got lots of other pages to view instead of yours.

My Site Rules

Any browser should work
You don't know what browser I'm using, nor what its capabilities are. I might be at home with the latest, or on the road or at the airport with only a PDA and a cellular phone. And no, you can't really successfully test for a particular browser, because you usually only test for a couple of browsers, and my browser is perfectly willing to lie to you and tell you what I want it to tell you.
No fixed widths
I'm not wasting my time scrolling back and forth across a page in an attempt to see your fixed width layout. You don't have the faintest idea what sort of display I have, nor how large I have set my fonts. Just drop the idea your potential viewer has a fixed width page. I might like keeping my browser out of my way in a small window in one corner of my display. I might be viewing your site on a cellular phone or my PDA. I might need larger fonts to suit my eyesight.
No Splash screens
Total waste of my download time. Most have absolutely no content, and therefore I don't look for your next page. Also on my first look at any site, I have graphics turned off, so I won't even see your fancy graphics.
No Flash
Just another even more wasteful Splash screen. I don't even have the plugin. If you have something such as a demonstration that is best done in Flash, then put a link to it later in your pages, and tell people how large the download is.
No looping animations
If you warn me about it, and it is funny enough, I'll maybe look at it, but normally animation is off. I figure the only people to use animation are advertisers, and I don't want to look at ads.
No bleeding edge effects
One scripting error, one missing link, one page that doesn't work, and I'm out of your site. I don't need problems while I'm surfing.
No Java
The security bug list that comes with Java is such that I'm not willing to run it. I basically haven't seen anything produced with it that makes it a pressing concern of mine to have it on my computer (and it doesn't run on all computers in any case).
No scripting
I don't trust the security of Scripting languages. As well, there are differences between the various ones on offer, and sites written for one browser do not always work on a rival. I normally have scripting turned off, and you would have to be a site I trust, and have something that can't be done without scripting for me to turn scripting on. If you really want to do something fancy, consider server side languages, not browser side.
No complex URLs
The standard for CD file systems is no more than 8 sub-directories deep. That seems a fair enough rule of thumb. It is a pain to pass along a complex URL to another potential viewer (they wrap in email, you can't remember them when away from the computer).
No frames
Harder to provide others with direct URLs. Older browsers have navigation and printing problems. Even newer browsers have printing problems, because if my viewpoint is not in the framed page, I end up printing the border in error. Normally I have frames turned off. If your page won't let me navigate without frames, then you will need to have some killer content on the very first page to convince me to turn frames back on.
Navigation Support
Some sites seem to delight in hiding navigation behind obscure graphics. If I can't navigate easily, do you think I'll stay at your site?
Link colours not standard
Using non-standard colours makes life harder for me, since I can't easily tell which pages I've visited, so I tend to override your colour choices on links. Depending on your other colour choices, this may make your page unusable to me (at which point I may stop viewing, or I may override all your colour choices).
Slow access
Contrary to what web designers believe, over 90% of all internet users still have slow access. Contrary to phone and cable company advertisments, this will continue to be the case for several years. For some areas, there will be little improvement this decade. At the moment I get about 5 kBps under the very best conditions (prior to 6 a.m.), but during the day my access can be down to 100-200 Bps. If your page takes more than 20 seconds to start giving me some information, I'm likely to stop it loading. You do the arithmetic.
They don't work on older browsers. Some redirects must only work with one browser. Immediate redirects (a pause of 0) totally stuff up navigation using the back botton (which is the second most used web command). If you must have a redirect, it should not be immediate, and the page should also include a clickable link. I'm not pulling your page into an editor to try to figure out where you want to send me.
No new windows
A site that opens new browser windows just occupies screen real estate I didn't want you to have. It disables the back button. It pisses me off (I think I'll add that to the list of things I'll turn off in the browser).
I'm not interested in your tracking systems, and I don't particularly trust cookies. I'm especially not interested in cookies that stay on my machine for decades. My browser throws away your cookies on exit. If you keep pestering me with cookies, I'll start sending you hundreds of fake cookies. Or I'll turn off cookies and refuse to look at your site.
Try It Yourself
Have your chief executives actually tried to find something on your site, and get a full set of specifications, and then buy it, while they are at a neighbour's place or using an old computer at an internet cafe? Try it for yourself, without any IT support staff around.

Resources for Plain Usable Sites

Jakob Nielsen does a wonderful site with many essays and hints at I highly recommend reading his site (and check how his site code is written).


Anyone who slaps a 'this page is best viewed with Browser X' label on a Web page appears to be yearning for the bad old days, before the Web, when you had very little chance of reading a document written on another computer, another word processor, or another network. -- Tim Berners-Lee in Technology Review, July 1996 (this is the guy who invented the web, kids.)

I hope you have enjoyed Internal evidence suggests this article was originally written around 1999, and modified from time to time. Most recent change 24 October 2002.