THE ABSENCE OF USELESSNESS: 5 Common Website Mistakes

By the time Kathy Smith* opened her new business brimming with potpourri in Chattanooga’s quaint Northshore district there was little left over in her budget for advertising. Eager to get the word out about her small shop hidden beneath decks and staircases, she called a friend for help developing a website. Within days Kathy’s business had gone global though she admits the site generates few if any new customers. “We can’t do a lot with it because our product is always changing,” she laments.

While Kathy may sleep better knowing her shop has a presence on the Internet, her site is anything but user friendly and she is among the growing number of small business owners whose rush to the World Wide Web is unlikely to reap dividends. One of five million commercial websites in the U.S. and among roughly 600 million sites in the world, Kathy’s is poorly designed and lacks usability features to attract users and spur them into action.

If your only goal is to establish an online presence for your business, says researcher Jennifer Chen in a 2009 report at, most likely it’s because you think your customers expect it. A great site can build trust and evoke a wide range of emotions, she notes, but poor design can adversely impact a user’s attitude about your product or services.

“Elements such as layout, consistency, typography, color and style all affect how users perceive your website,” adds Smashing Magazine’s Dmitry Fadeyev. “But content reigns as king.” When information contained on a website is not useful, visitors will quickly click away.

How to avoid five common mistakes on your website:

1. UTILITY: The Lack of It

“Many small businesses rush to implement an online presence without considering the work involved keeping content fresh and useful,” says Taholo Kami, the regional director of Oceania and an e-commerce enthusiast. “If a website isn’t able to meet users’ expectations, the designer failed to get his job done properly and the company loses money.”

Unless a site is seen as essential for the future of your business, adds Kami, “it is probably not worth doing.”  An effective business strategy, he says, “will cover the cost of integrating your web presence with your everyday processes to ensure information remains fresh and relevant.”

“It matters little that something is easy if it’s not what you want,” notes Internet research guru Jakob Neilson in his “Introduction to Usability.” A website may be artful but without essential functionality it won’t work. Users won’t tolerate fluff, dated information or “anything that looks like an ad,” he writes in another report. Creating and updating quality content that resonates with your customers is critical. Designers cannot make bad content good — no matter how hard they try!

2. NAVIGATION: Hiding It

Among the few well-documented facts about website use, according to usability expert Steve Krug: “We don’t read pages. We scan them looking for phrases that catch our eye.” Users don’t necessarily search for the quickest way to find information; they click the first reasonable option, seeking a link that may lead to their goal. “Users tend to act like sharks,” he observes in his bestseller, Don’t Make Me Think. “They have to keep moving or they’ll die.”

Trying to find your way around a poorly-designed site is a lot like driving without a map. A well-designed website allows users to know where they are and where they have been while providing a clear indication of where they may wind up—that is, if they heed easy-to-see posted signs.  Good web design requires understanding of the intended audience and a measure of attention to the niche publisher’s maxim: what may be meaningful to one reader may be useless to another.

Because new search technologies direct users to content-laden pages within complex hierarchies, navigational aids should always appear where visitors expect to find them. When poor design makes it difficult to easily move around a site, users will abruptly leave. Navigational aids on subordinate pages should be consistent with those on home pages.

3. CLUTTER: Creating It

Experts agree that users seeking information value simplicity more than creativity. The importance of white space is frequently overlooked by designers in favor of useless bells and whistles. “We know we don’t need to read everything,” says Krug. “On most pages, we’re really only interested in a fraction of what’s on the page. We’re just looking for the bits that match our interests or the task at hand, and the rest of it is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the relevant bits.”

Placing too many images or too much text on pages can hamper navigation, making layouts complex and difficult to scan. “If you can successfully evoke a feeling in your reader’s brain with 100 words, why would you use 200?” asks journalist Alberto Cairo, a visionary who has been at the forefront of print and interactive graphics development for more than a decade.

“You may impress me with many nice-looking lines and scales and colors, the same way a mediocre writer can impress me for a few seconds with tons of uncommon adjectives. But after the initial impact, I will grow frustrated because I won’t get what you mean.” Users may not spend much time trying to figure out graphics thrown at them, he says. “They are cool, sure, but they are also useless.”

In a personal manifesto defining his concept of deep simplicity, Cairo stresses that in journalism, visual or otherwise, deciding what to leave out is more important than deciding what to leave in. “It all comes down to editing,” he says.

4. LEGIBILITY: Ignoring It

The use of typography can be one of the most daunting challenges for website art directors. Poor font choices, extreme type sizes, long line lengths, inadequate leading (space between lines) and lack of contrast are among shortcomings that can send a site’s bounce rates soaring.

Even experienced designers will sacrifice legibility to background images or colors that can obscure text and graphic elements. Avoiding garish color combinations can protect users against eyestrain and prolong their visits. Though a pleasing combination of contrasting colors can improve legibility, dark text on a light background generally works best; many experts continue to recommend black on white.

5.  EASE OF USE: Failing to Test for It

Quality content, navigation and legibility may not be enough to ensure user-friendliness. To her graduate students in University of North Carolina’s lauded media programs, Laura Ruel advocates pre-launch user testing to ensure ease of use. “Invariably we have found that users tend to blame themselves when they can’t find something,” says Ruel, a veteran journalist turned educator. “Good design takes time, trial and error . . .  and usability testing!”

In a collaborative effort with the Poynter Institute, Ruel and her colleagues in 2003 mounted sophisticated, non-intrusive eye tracking equipment on the heads of dozens of Internet users in order to follow their eye movements while each spent an hour reading web content. A long list of fascinating findings revealed users tended to ignore advertising and quickly steer away from content perceived as mislabeled or misleading.

Eye tracking is “research that can be put to practical use,” says Ruel. “I think designers go most wrong trying to be creative and different. For example, they will sometimes hide navigation, or make navigation difficult to find. Eye tracking research shows that if you put that navigation across the top of a page, people are likely to find it, and most likely to use it. Trying to find creative ways to map out online space by putting your navigation in different spots can be a huge mistake.”

Though usability tests can provide crucial insight, most sites are launched before any are conducted.


The good news is great website design doesn’t have to cost a lot more than the alternative.  Content management systems such as WordPress and Joomla are free, offering templates that are well-structured and easy to use. But before launching any website, here is a checklist that will help you ensure its viability:

  1. How useful is content to your customers?
  2. Is it credible?
  3. Is it updated?
  4. How much doesn’t need to be there?
  5. Who will be using your site?
  6. What is your site’s purpose?
  7. Is it simple?
  8. Is it intuitive?
  9. Are navigation aids where they will be expected to be?
  10. Are pages uncluttered and legible?

*Not her real name

–Ken Berry


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