Fright Night: 5 Usability Skeletons in Your Website Closet

Ghosts and goblins. Ghouls, demons, and phantoms of all kinds. It’s that time of year when the ancient Celts believed the barrier between the dead and the living became porous, allowing spirits and fairies to visit us and demand appeasement.

Something like that is going on with your website and not just at Halloween. No amount of treats will make them go away—they must be exorcised, or they will give your visitors (and therefore you) no peace. We’re talking about usability problems, those busy monsters that can spook site visitors into going elsewhere. Here are some common ones that you should watch for and banish to their coffins.

  • Stealth links: They hide in plain sight. No one knows they’re there. These are links to other parts of the site—perhaps important ones, from a business viewpoint—but because they aren’t visually distinguished from the rest of the text or graphics, it’s not clear that they actually are links. Sometimes they will “light up” only when the user hovers the mouse pointer over them, which is better than nothing but still hard to find. Don’t make your visitors guess where your links are—make them look like links! For text, use underlining, or a different color, or some other decoration to distinguish them from regular text. For graphics, make them look like buttons or a menu list or use familiar icons.
  • Bottomless-pit forms: They start off innocently enough, but as users go deeper, they realize there’s no way out except for the back button or closing the window altogether. Users shouldn’t have to tell their life stories to register on your site. If a user has to scroll to get to the end of a form, it’s probably too long. All you need are the basics—more details can be obtained when it’s time to do transactions or in quick surveys.
  • Corn-maze forms: They twist and turn with switchbacks and dead ends. In addition to being short, forms should be logically arranged—for example, group physical address fields together in the order you would write them on an envelope; put all phone-related fields (home/cell/fax) together, too. And set up the tab order so that users can press the TAB key to go from field to field in a logical sequence, instead of jumping around at random (or jumping to things that aren’t fields). And make sure the last tab goes to the Submit button.
  • Error messages from the crypt(ic): If you really want to send people running for the exits, show them error messages, such as, “An unknown error has occurred,” “Please make sure all fields are completed” (without showing which ones are incomplete), or “0x0003FC912FE.” If there’s a problem with something a user has entered on a form, highlight the field and explain how to do it correctly. If a script has malfunctioned, it should be able to tell the user what has happened.
  • No feedback for actions taken: One of the most serious usability problems is a lack of feedback—no indication that an action a user has taken has had any effect at all. Any time a user clicks a button or a link, something obvious should happen, such as loading a new page, popping a “Form has been submitted” message, or showing a (non-cryptic!) error message. If they think nothing’s happened, users may try again (which could make matters worse, especially when payment transactions are involved) or just give up. Neither outcome is good for you.

Finding and Getting Rid of the Goblins

Finding these problems should not be difficult. Ask someone who wasn’t involved in designing or building your site—in other words, someone who will approach it like a regular site visitor—to go through it and let you know what parts are mystifying or frustrating. Doing something about the problems you uncover will probably involve a call to your web designer or developer. One of the things we do is ensure we—and our clients—understand the design principles that make for a good user experience. Armed with this knowledge, we can send these spooks back to the B-grade movies from whence they came.