The most common web design myths busted

28th May 2009 | 12:00

The most common web design myths busted

Misconceptions in web design and development uncovered

Myths about your visitors

The moment you start working as a web designer or web developer, you're told 'do this' and 'don't do that'. Official and unofficial rules abound.

You soon internalise them and start passing them on to others, either consciously or subconsciously. But here's the bad news: not all of this advice is correct.

Some of these firmly held 'truths' are based on outdated assumptions, and some were just wrong to start with. It's time to take a step back and reassess some of the myths and misconceptions circulating in the world of web design.

With our sword of truth and shield of keen analysis, we'll begin to break the cycle of bad advice and free our minds from outmoded dogma.

We'll start at the very beginning of the design process, when you're investigating potential audiences. And our first myth is, in the words of standards guru Eric Meyer, "the idea that global browser statistics matter in the slightest". In fact, he points out, "What matters are the browsers visiting your site."

By way of illumination, Meyer notes that a recent client had 14 per cent IE 5.01 usage – so Microsoft's ancient browser suddenly became significantly more important than global statistics would otherwise suggest. But even when you're creating a totally new site, Meyer recommends consigning aggregate browser stats to history. "Develop in a standards oriented way, ensure a site's readable – if not beautiful – in older browsers, and be satisfied with a job well done," he advises.

The wrong path

When it comes to actually working on your site, one of the biggest and most oft-repeated myths is attractive in its simplicity: that no web page should ever be more than three clicks from the homepage.

Clearleft MD Andy Budd reckons it's nonsense, but can see how it came about. "It's an over simplification of the idea that navigational structure should be as simple and straightforward as possible," he explains. "That in itself is a good maxim, but to communicate this concept, somebody decided to set an explicit, entirely arbitrary number."

With the modern web, though, such a restriction is ludicrous and outdated, Budd contends. The number of clicks required to get to a specific piece of information depends on various things, including the breadth, depth and nature of the information, and user usage patterns. "However, the myth nonetheless clings on in the perception of many web design novices," he says.

Budd similarly decries the much-propagated 'rule' that navigation should only contain about seven items. Again, the empiric justification for this is paper-thin, he argues. "It came about because of research showing that people can typically hold only seven items within short-term memory. From this, a myth surfaced saying navigation should contain no more items than this magic number. But short-term memory has nothing to do with navigation menus, and so has no relevance to the number of items in your menu!"

The three-second rule

In fact, arbitrary numbers seem to be a theme of many widely held web design myths. For instance, there's the old chestnut that you've only three seconds to keep a user on your site.

"This is based on studies from around 2000 that showed how rapidly users made their minds up," explains Cajzer. "But users are now more sophisticated and experienced, meaning they're more relaxed when it comes to deciding if a site's worth exploring."

The prevalence of search has also changed habits, meaning there's a good chance most users visit a site looking for something specific. Rather than battering users with a barrage of components designed to grab attention, you're better off thinking about what your users want to find. More controversial is the whole subject of 'the fold'.

Designers often hear that users hate to scroll and therefore everything important should be placed above this 'magic' line. "This request often comes from clients, sometimes taking into account the lowest common denominator screen resolution, batting you back to 800x600," complains Kleber's Tom Muller. "This results in content being crammed into a small space, and a convoluted, confusing hierarchy of content."

But Muller argues that, while broadsheet newspapers may put important items above a literal fold, the web doesn't have the same fixed size restrictions, adding that modern sites like blogs have made users increasingly aware of scrolling almost by default. "Anyway, you wouldn't just read the top of a newspaper," he adds.

He recommends instead that you design website content that cascades down intelligently. "Lead the visitor down the page, and inform clients that scrolling is intrinsic to the medium," he advises.

So should the importance of the fold be classed as myth? Clearleft's Cennydd Bowles is not so sure. Although rigidly adhering to the fold is foolish, he says, it shouldn't be dismissed entirely.

"There's almost a myth of the myth of the fold," he argues. "Some designers use it to convince clients to accept a design, and, as such, it can be badly misused. We're talking about design principles like visual hierarchy, closure and figure-ground. These are as relevant as ever, and sometimes that does mean we should consider the top of the screen as a far higher priority than the bottom."

This advice is as much about usability than layout, which leads us nicely into another widely held and damaging myth – that usable sites are boring.

Design myths

Usability issues

"This myth probably came about due to sites like Jakob Nielsen's useit.com," says Bowles. "For a long time it was a trailblazer for usability issues, but it looked like it had been made by a colour-blind accountant. For years, usability people had to fight this negative perception, particularly against visual designers who wanted to embellish their sites."

Fortunately, Bowles says, the user experience field has matured substantially and usability is now seen as just one aspect of user experience, of which visual design is an important component. "There are thousands of exciting, engaging sites out there that are also easy to use. The next time someone tells you usability and attractive design don't mix, point them at the likes of Mint.com or Campaignmonitor.com."

Access all areas

Sometimes, user experience expectations lead to iffy techniques becoming commonplace, which in turn leads to more myths. For instance, there's the thorny issue of new windows.

Cognifide's Bartek Szopka reckons there's more than one side to this particular problem, and, in fact, two related myths. "It was once common to open external links in a new window, so the user didn't have to 'leave' the website and could go back to it by switching windows." This gave rise to a myth that external links should always be opened in new windows for user convenience.

Thankfully, this is rarely given credence today. Szopka considers it bad form for various reasons: designers shouldn't decide for users whether a link should be opened in a new window; links opening in a new window might confuse users (or be detrimental to the visually impaired), and; this behaviour breaks the 'back' button. However, Szopka believes this now discredited myth has given birth to an alternate myth that argues you should never open links in a new window.

"In fact, there are times when opening something in a new window is a good idea," he counters. "For example, a PDF or a large image that needs to be rendered, a help window in a web application, or a print version of a website."

This concern for accessibility leads us to Happy Cog founder Jeffrey Zeldman's biggest bugbear: the myth that accessibility is too hard, too expensive and just not worth it. "The reality: it is hard and expensive trying to retrofit accessible mark-up and unobtrusive scripting to sites built the 1990s way," he says. "But accessibility is easy and inexpensive if you design with web standards."

He says writing semantic mark-up, using CSS for layout and practicing unobtrusive scripting gets you most of the way there. "Remember, too, if your site's content is accessible to people with disabilities, it's also accessible to Google – a major boost if you want your content to be found."

CSS myths

Although a relatively new technology, CSS has nonetheless managed to become partly responsible for a couple of myths. Perhaps the most controversial is what Meyer calls 'the biggest myth in web design': that we have a layout technology. "We don't and never have – not from the birth of the medium and until today," he says, presumably sending advocates of CSS layouts into an apoplectic frenzy.

But Meyer has a point. He notes that various technologies have effectively been co-opted and bent to become layout systems.

"Some were better suited to the task than others, and some started out trying to be layout systems but haven't made it yet. Some were never meant to be so in the first place," he says, arguing that a great deal of ingenuity, cunning, and plain desperation has driven us to wring as much layout power as we can out of available technologies.

"I hope one day this won't be necessary, but I doubt it. No matter how powerful the technology, people will always want to do things it can't handle."

Ironically, the opposite is also true. Some myths state you can't do certain things with layout, despite them being perfectly feasible. For example, the myth that designers should only use web-safe fonts, when common installs make many alternatives available.

Engage Group's Nathan Thompson tackles a similar myth that web type is severely limited by current technology: "Techniques like sIFR provide the opportunity to use whatever font you choose without having to forego accessibility. But it's not all about aesthetics. Too often, online typography doesn't get the attention it deserves. Experimenting with all caps and letter-spacing can improve legibility and encourage a user to read."

At the absolute minimum, Thompson recommends using CSS line-height – doubling the default value immediately results in a more readable page. "There's nothing worse than struggling through overly compact online type," he says, "and it won't do your clients any favours."

Designers vs developers

Away from coding issues, there's a more fundamental myth eating away at the heart of the web industry. A belief exists that designers can't 'do' technical, that developers build ugly sites, or that print designers can't 'do' web design. Such reasoning crumbles – at least in a global sense – when looked at objectively.

Although individuals are typically drawn to and are more proficient within a certain area of expertise, exclusion from everything else on the basis of specialisation is absurd. "Design and development feed off each other and one can't exist without the other," Modera CEO Siim Vips reminds us. "Long have designers not been given credit for understanding technology, and, similarly, developers regarding design.

"While in the early days it was a different story, we're now in an evolving industry where each side has grown together. Successful projects are usually built by designers and developers that co-exist, knowing more – not less – about eachother's disciplines."

Lingering 'truth' to the myth exists only in a vague sense, in that someone lacking experience will rarely excel. "But there are plenty of places where, for example, designers can acquire knowledge to create layouts that won't present problems for developers," says freelance designer Martin Cajzer. He believes the 'can't do' myth can be eliminated entirely via a simple foundation:

"A designer doesn't need thorough expertise on complex frameworks – simple knowledge regarding what's possible is enough, such as understanding the possibilities presented by JavaScript libraries."

Post-build myths

Don't wait and see

With other myths eradicated, a last stand is in the post-build zone. Two examples are 'build it and they will come' and the oft-repeated argument that clients should never have access to their sites.

In some ways, these are the most dangerous myths to propagate, because they impact directly on site success and client relationships.

Though many assume web traffic will automatically gravitate to great looking sites, Vips feels there are now too many sites out there to make this assumption. "Having a great brand, product or service is no longer enough: firms require tailored, targeted strategies for driving traffic," he says. Companies should use every relevant method at their disposal to alert potential visitors to a site's existence – playing a waiting game no longer cuts it.

As for 'protectionism', Tim Gibbon of Elemental Communications understands why this happens – site creators always want their work viewed in the best light.

But in a world of blogs, instant news and rapidly updated content, it's wrong to suggest clients should never have the right to access a site they've paid for. "Even when providing a CMS, some agencies impose fierce restrictions, when they shouldn't, and clients think they've full control over modifications when they don't," he says.

Sometimes, suggests Gibbon, you just have to let go, and the same is true of the myths explored in this feature. Whether they're ingrained in your workflow, or you've been supportive of them and feel foolish for doing an about-face, take a step back and make a fresh start. You'll be a better, more modern creative talent for doing so.

Best of all, when passing on knowledge, you'll add to a bedrock of solid, accurate fact, rather than chip away at it with the equivalent of old wives' tales.

Five mini-myths - entries we 'mythed' elsewhere (sorry)

1 - Avoid using JavaScript

"It's not enabled universally, but that doesn't mean it should be shunned," says Bartek Szopka of software development consultancy Cognifide.

"JavaScript is the focus of modern browsers, and even an awareness of those who disable JavaScript shouldn't lead you to avoid it – instead, build accessible websites that work with or without JavaScript."

2 - PayPal equals e-commerce

"PayPal is online payment, but clients looking to add ecommerce must work with an agency that can look at the overall shopping experience and find the right solution," says on-IDLE's Marc Peter.

"There are more things to consider than the payment provider, such as shopping basket integration and product display and future maintenance."

3 - Never use tables

This one's a real doozy. This widely circulated myth originally came because people were being told not to build tables-based layouts and use CSS instead.

Fair enough – but no one in their right mind said to stop using tables for creating, well, tables! Therefore, those of you trying to cobble together tables using dozens of divs and CSS rules, just stop.

4 - Flash is evil

"This comes from Flash overuse during the days of slow bandwidth. Flash is also used for annoying adverts, so when people picture Flash they see ads," says Cognifide's Sebastian Zarzycki.

"But Flash means you can deliver rich content to pretty much everyone, offering great perks over HTML. And without Flash, there'd be no YouTube – so how can Flash be evil?"

5 - You can start designing your website before content is available

Okay, it's true that you can present rough ideas, but content is integral to a website. Rush ahead of yourself and start creating a design before you've got hold of any content and, at best, you'll create a nice design where the content looks like an afterthought. At worst, you'll create an unusable mess.

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First published in .net Issue 189

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