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Website owners, you're not special!

January 1, 2008
Jim Huber

After 14 years as a Web developer, you learn a thing or two about best practices for designing sites. And you also see how users, clients, and other Web designers think. When I talk to users about common usability concerns, their eyes light up because as users they know exactly what I'm talking about, They rattle off their own examples. I know that when I talk to a regular user, I am singing to the choir. In fact, I'm surprised by how excited they get. I know I'm good, but I didn't know I was that good!

Okay, so usability rules and so do I. All hail me. Well, maybe one day. But wait. There's more. Something seems to happen when these website users turn into website owners. I don't know if they they just lose all objectivity. Or if they are hungry for business that they will buy into whatever shortcuts other website designers tell them. Or their business is so important to them, they convince themselves that users will feel the same way.

For example, I've heard Web designers teach - and site owners repeat - that visitors are comparing your site to your competitors's sites, so your site needs to be flashy so that it stands out. There are a couple things wrong with that one. First, you don't pull up 2-3 websites and compare them side by side. You go to one at a time, and you only go to another if the first one didn't completely satisfy you. But, second, when you do go to multiple sites, when was the last time you used a website because it was flashier than the others?

So site owners willfully make their sites more difficult to use, when they wouldn't accept it from the next site they visit as a common user. Maybe for search engine optimization they will be fine with verbose content on the front page, even a visitor would never read it and will feel lost on the page. Maybe they will change the link colors to match logo colors for branding purposes or remove the underlining to look cleaner, even if it makes it a chore to figure which text is a link and which is regular text. And so on.

They think that the rules don't apply in their own sites. That the users are committed to the site because they came there for a reason. Yet at the same time, these great deviations from good usability were made because they supposedly help entice the users they hurt. It's sort of like selling boxing gloves by punching customers in the face.

With that in mind, I want to deliver this message:

You're not special!

You're not worth enduring an annoying website. I don't care how great your product or service is, the laws of nature still apply to you. You were right the first time. The same reasons you didn't like other sites are the same reasons people won't like yours. They are not a captive audience who will take what you give them. In fact, even if your site is usable, they don't want to hang out there anyway. They want to get in and out. Make it easy. Get out of the way, and let them be happy. They may endure usability problems, but they will walk away feeling unsatisfied. And unsatisfied users aren't likely to become satisfied customers.