Mythbusters: Website Edition

keyboard As a web designer, I routinely speak with business owners and marketing managers who are in the midst of a website redesign project for their company. During these conversations, I am always amazed by the myths about user experience and interface design that they mistakenly cling to. Many of these misconceptions are the by-product of previous website projects – leftover relics from an Internet of old. Others are more baffling, as their tenets are not now and never were true. So in the interest of championing the best practices and principles of modern website design, we’re channeling our inner myth busters and blowing the lid off five of these most persistent myths (dramatic explosions not included):

Myth #1: Visitors need/want instructions on how to use your site.

The Internet is no longer a new and unfamiliar medium, yet many companies still populate their websites with content that seems targeted to someone who has never actually navigated the Web before. When you include instructions for visitors about how to use to your website, you are adding a lot of extra words, which in most cases only serve to weigh down your pages with unnecessary visual clutter. In fact, the goal of any good design is to create an interface that is so intuitive that no instruction or explanation is necessary to help visitors move from one page to the next and complete routine processes such as making a purchase or signing up for an account. As a result, if you feel instructions are necessary, that inclination is a major red flag for serious design flaws that must be addressed in order to provide a quality experience for your user. To be fair, there are certainly instances where some level of guidance is needed. Complex interactions or applications that are truly unlike anything that has come before on the Web will require some level of training for your users, but the vast majority of websites do not fall into this category. If your site is, well, just a website (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), forego the instructions and have faith that your users are savvy enough to know and understand the well-established conventions of using the Internet.

Myth #2: These days, everyone has a high bandwidth connection.

Over the last few years, the average size of a webpage has doubled, largely due to our profuse use of images. Current design trends that call for giant, page-spanning photographs combined with the drive to deliver high-resolution images for retina displays mean that the file size of the images we are using continues to climb. Many people argue that this is acceptable because, as the size of our webpages grow, so does the bandwidth speed of our Internet connections. But is this really the case? It is true that the number of people with access to high bandwidth connections continues to increase, but the belief that all visitors have the benefit of a lightning-fast connection is nothing more than wishful thinking. There are still many areas of the country and the world that are shackled to the type of slower connections that are only a distant memory for many of us. Also, keep in mind as well that mobile visitors may be operating on a network that is either unreliable or has data download limits. In both of these instances, a website that is bloated with large content (i.e., giant videos, unoptimized images, etc.) will pose a problem. Ensuring that your website is optimized for performance is as important today as it has ever been, regardless of how fast connection speeds may be. After all, no one has ever said, “Wow, this website loaded TOO quickly for me!” Better performance and faster downloads improve the quality of experience for all users.

Myth #3: There may be some users visiting your site on a mobile device, but not that many.

Years ago – when the iPhone was still a novelty and everyone and their 12-year-old brother didn’t walk around with a smartphone in their pocket – this may have been the case. But today, visitors are accessing your website on a wide variety of devices with a range of different screen sizes. Examining the hundreds of websites that we manage reveals that an average of 30 percent of all traffic to those sites comes from mobile devices of one kind or another, and for some, it’s as high as 50 percent or more. This is consistent with the forecasts of industry analysts, who predict that by 2015 – that’s next year, folks! – the majority of all Web traffic will come from mobile devices. Additionally, not only are visitors accessing your site on mobile devices, but the same visitor is likely using multiple devices to access your content. We call this the “muti-device user”. As we covered previously in our article “Website Design for a Multi-Device World”: The multi-device world is populated by multi-device users. While a staggering variety of devices are, indeed, being used to access web content today, it’s also important to remember that the same user is often using multiple different devices to access your website – and they expect that site to work well regardless of which device they happen to be using at the time. Gone are the days of “mobile users” coming to your site only to locate your phone number or directions to your office. Today’s mobile users – and multi-device users – expect convenient, on-demand access to the same content that they can find on the desktop version of the site. Clinging to an outdated belief that “no one has a reason to visit my website on a mobile device” will quickly translate to “no one has a reason at all to visit my website at all.” Read more: Website Design for a Multi-Device World

Myth #4: You should open off-site links in a new tab/window.

This is the most common myth that I hear from clients, who insist that all links that lead to another site must open in a new tab or window. This request stems from a belief that if a visitor leaves your website to look at content somewhere else on the Web, they will never find their way back. By opening that link into a new tab, your website remains open in the user’s browser for them to return to at any time. Or at least, that’s how it works in theory. Unfortunately, I have seen this practice backfire on a number of occasions. Why would this be the case? Think of the Web as a linear experience. You move from one page to another and another. You can travel seamlessly to and from any point along  this timeline by using the browser’s back and forward buttons. But when you open a link in a new tab, you start a new timeline for the user. Having observed many website users over the years, I can tell you that the back button is a feature that they are intimately familiar with. If that user clicks a link and visits a new page, and they then want to return to your site, they will intuitively click the back button until they get there. However, if you’ve opened the off-site link in a new tab or window, then the back button eventually leads to a dead-end for that visitor. Your site, which they want to return to, is not part of their current timeline because it is open in a completely separate tab. Of course, all the user needs to do is close the current tab, and your site will be in front of them again, but I’ve seen many visitors who are unaware of or confused by this. Instead, when the linear experience of the back button doesn’t bring them to your site as they expected, they instead type your website’s URL into the browser’s address bar, thinking that something went wrong along the way. They now have two instances of your website open, so in your efforts to “help” them easily get back to your site, you’ve actually confused the user experience. Does this mean you should never open links in a new tab or window? No, it doesn’t. For example, it’s a good practice to open PDF files in a new tab because these documents feel like they are separate from the linear experience of browsing a site. Additionally, opening links in new tabs is not “wrong,” per se. It is an acceptable solution, but if you choose to use that approach, do so for a reason other than the mistaken belief that if visitors leave your site, they will never find their way back. The linear experience of web browsing – and using the back button to return to a webpage – is a well-understood convention, so don’t be afraid to let your visitors explore in the manner that is most natural to them.

Myth #5: Visitors absolutely will/absolutely will not complete a form.

The final myth we will debunk concerns web forms. Interestingly, I hear competing opinions from clients regarding forms on their websites. Some believe that visitors will not fill out a form no matter what. Others think that their users will gladly complete a lengthy questionnaire for almost no reason at all. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Gathering information from website visitors is a valuable exercise. It allows you to understand who is coming to your site so you can follow up with them, engage with them and hopefully convert them into paying customers for your business. Just asking for visitor’s information is not enough, however. Very few people will be willing to complete a form unless they have a clear understanding of what they will receive in return – and what they receive needs to be of greater value to them than receiving more marketing from you. This value can come any number of different ways, such as receiving a free whitepaper or application download or registering for an event or webinar. In each of these cases, there is a legitimate reason for your site visitors to complete a form that gives you their personal information. If, however, your form simply says, “Sign up for updates!” without any further information about what those updates entail, how frequent they will be delivered or what potential value they hold, then there is a slim chance anyone will be inclined to complete that form. Creating a valuable offer is step one. Step two is the design of the form itself. Asking for too much information will be a roadblock for many visitors, who will either perceive a form with a large number of fields as being too cumbersome or too intrusive to complete, so the best course of action is to ask for only the information you need. If you never intend to call someone, then don’t ask for their phone number because that’s one less obstacle you’ll have to overcome. The more concise and easy your form is to complete, the more likely your visitors will do so. Website visitors will fill in forms, as long as you make those forms easy to complete and provide value to them in exchange for sharing their information with you.

R.I.P. myths and misconceptions

The Web and the behavior of its users are constantly evolving. Since the last time you engaged in a website redesign project, there have undoubtedly been a number of shifts in trends and tendencies, and what you learned through that experience even just two or three years ago may not be applicable today. Because of this ever-changing landscape, the importance of working with web development firm that keeps pace with these changes and the best practices of modern website design cannot be understated. Such a partnership will ensure that the decisions driving the the design of your site are relevant to today’s Web and are not relics of a time gone by.