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Is usability the ugly stepchild of web design?

Usability, or lack thereof

5:04 am on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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I find it interesting that one of the most important sections in this forum is one of the least active.

Yet when I surf the internet, time after time I come across sites that are barely readable.

The most common flaws I see are

1. Tiny text: whoever decided that 9 to 11px text should be the standard should be shot, or at least severely maimed. Most browsers default to 16px, and there is probably a reason for that.

2. Poor contrast text: I see many sites using things like light gray text on white background. And far too often this is combined with #1.

And lest you think that this is the realm of amateurs, sites like Eric Meyers' book site are guilty of this. (color #50554F, 11px).

I have not seen any definitive studies on color vs usability, but it seems to me that anything under 12px should only be used as footnotes and the like, while most text should be in the 12 to 14px range, or even larger.

A while back we adjusted the text size on our ecommerce site from 12 to 13.4 (approx), and the bounce rate dropped about 10%. There might have been other factors, but that was the only major change for about 20 days, and it was consistent. To verify it, I dropped it down to 11.5 for two days, and the bounce rate spiked up again, while "time on site" dropped.

5:48 am on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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Here is a font size and style usability study [surl.org]

I find that non-usability is driven by the client as much as by the designer. People want eye candy, and it does little good to try to talk sense to them. So called "Web 2.0" designs have only made it worse from what I have seen, as has the proliferation of broad band, which only encourages graphic and Flash heavy designs.

6:14 am on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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I have not seen any definitive studies on color vs usability,

Try GOOGLE: "Color Deficient Vision" deuteranopia protanopia [google.com]

12:08 pm on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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Here are a couple of relevant past discussions:

Color Contrast [webmasterworld.com]

Ideal Line Height [webmasterworld.com]

P1R's Famous Font-Size Rant [webmasterworld.com]

I agree that usability is given short shrift, and that most (not, many, most) Web designers these days don't prioritize on usability in their designs. I also think that many designers don't actually understand the techniques used to ensure usability, nor do they understand the underlying principles of the design practices for things like "The Web 2.0 Look."

For example, many people feel that mild gradients, round corners and pastel colors mean you have a "Web 2.0" site, so they stock up on low-contrast text that doesn't deal well with the gradients against which it's presented, or they use a palette that looks great on their 23" Eizo monitor, but like poo on just about every other monitor out there, so they actually deliver a site that is BOTH unusable AND unattractive (Don't laugh, I know designers that have done exactly this. When asked about it, they blamed the users, for having bad gear).

I consider usability to be the "unheralded accessibility." We think of accessibility as being accessible to people with physical limitations, but I know people that are legally blind that are better Web surfers than perfectly-abled people who barely know how to right-click.

I find that ensuring usability affects a great many more people than accessibility. Just last night, I was having coffee with a woman who declared herself a "Web Incompetent," and said that she couldn't use my (very usable) site. I took the opportunity to quiz her about it, and got some valuable information. I was able to make one change last night to help her out, and give her a tip for some other stuff (although we should never rely on "user training" as an essential part of using our sites).

5:38 pm on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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I run into problems mainly on my "day job" computer, which has no flash or JS compatibility and has an older version of IE as its only browser (we don't have control over those things).

Some time back, I accessed a site I'd used often, and was surprised to find that their home page was unreadable because of almost complete lack of contrast between dark text and dark background. I emailed the webmaster who responded along the lines of "Gee, we can read it fine so it must be okay." I tried it later on my home computer and found that, yes, using flash their new home page was very readable.

A bigger surprise came from a large national cancer organization. My day job, BTW, involves editing grants and journal articles on cancer research at a university medical school (which is one reason our computers are ill-equipped: each "new thing" is seen as a new security risk by some grant funders, and we deal with personal genetic info). Anyway, on this organization's site, I saw some books mentioned that I hadn't found available anywhere else, so I went to the site's "store" where I saw - nothing! [ETA: I could tell where items were supposed to be.] This time I realized the source of the problem, and emailed the listed contact person (signing my full title and sending from my .edu email address), assuming there would be an alternate way to buy books. - Reply was "Nope. Sorry."

Our older version of IE brings up the issue of sites that use CSS where the page body text doesn't start until the left column has ended (i.e., if there's a left-column navigation panel that's, say, 4 inches long, the main body text doesn't start until you're more than 4 inches down the page. I don't know how many times I tried refreshing pages, thinking I wasn't getting any page body at all, until I figured this one out and started scrolling below the fold to read the page.

The CSS problem is just annoying, and I can understand sites not wanting to worry about the pitiful few of us still using IE6 (which seems to be the only browser that has this problem). But the first two are usability and accessibility issues. I figure that if I can't access something using my office computer, neither can someone using a text reader. It's given me a lot to think about when working on my own (non-day job related) sites.

[edited by: Beagle at 5:53 pm (utc) on May 25, 2008]

6:05 pm on May 25, 2008 (gmt 0)

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Thanks for the links, some I had not found before.

When referring to "color vs usability" I was thinking more of what text color on a white or light background is easiest to read.

What I find interesting about the "font size and usability" study is that they don't follow their own recommendations or findings. Not to mention that they are stuck on "pt"'s, which don't always translate well to some displays.

Something that I have not seen addressed much are the newer fonts, such as Calibri, that shipped with Vista and many other MS programs. Most of those were specifically designed for the web, and overall seem to be much more legible - perhaps due to using Cleartype. But the catch is that they are a slight bit smaller, so might need a tweak in sizing.

I don't think we should blame "web 2.0" here, what we should blame is the idea that web 2.0 have to suck for usability :D

3:30 am on June 27, 2008 (gmt 0)

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I am a big fan of Accessibility and Usability, and try to set as high a standard as reasonably possible for each site that I work on.

Profitability comes first. ROI comes first. Access to the many outweighs access to the few. A&U are not free.

I love oversize text, and get great feedback with 1.1em - 1.3em. Perfect for some sites. Impossible to sell for others.

I find that non-usability is driven by the client

Agree 100%. I work hard to learn more and do better with A&U, but I charge for what I've learned. It's not a throw in unless you are spending enough money that I can go that extra mile.

many designers don't actually understand the techniques used to ensure usability

True; and true for me as well despite my best efforts. There is a learning curve as with any other area of IT. One could easily do nothing but learn and implement accessibility 24/7,but they have to get paid.

It is stunning to me, however, how many 'advocates' (professional organizations) of A&U don't know anything about it themselves beyond that they expect it be done for them.

Also, I have sometimes felt that accessibility issues are oft times not appropriately the problem of the designer/coder, but rest with the s... software and unrealistic expectations of the end user. Do I care about an IE5 user or 800 x 600 user. Not in the least. Harsh, but you see the logical extension here.

I code my own sites to be as close to AAA as possible. Most paying clients are not going to put their money there and make A&U a top priority. Nor will most designers until 'advocacy' groups do a whole lot better job of being helpful over demanding. Every aspect of IT costs time and money, and there has to be a return beyond 'satisfaction' for most. Long-term, I think that greatly increasing my skills in this area will be helpful. Short-term, today, very few care.


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