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Six Common Web Design Misconceptions (And Why You Should Avoid Them)

As designers, we strive to learn all we can about your company in order to create for you the best possible web presence, but we can never know your company as intimately as you do. Clients are quite often able to bring great ideas and suggestions to the table that we may not have thought of. The most successful web designs spring directly from this kind of teamwork.

However, just as it is your job to know all about the widgets you make, or the service you provide, it is our job to know all about the web and what makes great web design. Occasionally a client has a suggestion that at first glance seems like a great idea, but may not be effective for a web site. Following are six of the most common misconceptions about web design and why you should avoid them on your site.

Misconception #1: “All links to [YouTube/Google/other external sites] should open in new windows.”

Why You Should Avoid It: There are several reasons why we don’t recommend this, primarily because it’s bad practice to take away control of the browser from the user.  The best way to keep visitors to your site happy is to provide great content and functionality and let them use it the way they want to. A happy visitor is more likely to purchase your product or services, and return to your site over and over again. Users have several options available to them to control how their browsers open links (right click, hold Ctrl while clicking, browser preferences, etc.). Let them decide how they want to browse.

The second reason is that most people are used to clicking a link and seeing the new page load in the same window as the one they just left.  The browser’s history tracks where the user was previously, and all that’s needed to get back there is to click the Back button. When you force a link to open in a new window, the browser starts a brand new history, and the function of the Back button is “broken”. The user can no longer return to where they came from with one simple click.

Clients often think opening a link in a new window is preferable because it keeps their site open and they don’t want visitors to leave their site. While we understand that instinct, ultimately, it’s a losing battle. Repeat after me: There is nothing you can do to keep visitors from leaving your site… short of tying them to their chairs and unplugging their mice and keyboards. Eventually they will leave your site. The question is, do you want them to leave happy because they enjoyed using your site or annoyed because unwanted pop-ups, windows and tabs opened every time they clicked a link?

Misconception #2: “There’s a lot of wasted empty space in this design. It should all be filled up.”

Why You Should Avoid It: In some print media, especially mass marketing pieces like direct mail, empty space is, in fact, wasted space. However, the web is not a print medium, and empty space (also know as whitespace) should be accepted and embraced. Here are some reasons why:

A very busy website
  1. Websites with less clutter are easier to read. Web users don’t read pages, they scan them. A page full of widgets, graphics, ads and text will be much harder to digest.
  2. Web sites with whitespace look “cleaner,” “nicer” and are perceived to be of higher quality. Think of magazine advertising. Lower-end, cheaper products generally have busy ads brimming with loud graphics and text. Luxury brands generally have a nice large photo with a line or two of text surrounded by plenty of space. Consider your website a luxury brand ad, and let the whitespace do its work.
  3. Well planned whitespace is a design element, not “wasted space.” Whitespace can ease eyestrain when reading large amounts of text on a computer screen. Extra whitespace around an important section of your site can help draw attention to it, and it enhances the look of your site by making the design as a whole flow better.

Misconception #3: “Everything has to be bold! It’s all equally important, so it all has to stand out!”

Hinkley Lighting - a nice clean design

Why You Should Avoid It: When everything is bold, nothing is bold. In order to make something stand out or attract attention, there has to be contrast between that item and its surroundings. If everything is “yelling” at the same visual volume, the result is a noisy, unpleasant mess.  As designers we have plenty of different tools to draw attention to the really important messages in subtle, attractive yet efficient ways. Might I suggest whitespace (see above)?

Misconception #4: “We want the visitor to watch a cool Flash intro on the home page.” – or – “We would like to have music play automatically on the home page.”

Why You Should Avoid It: Flash can be a useful tool, but only if it’s done well and enhances the content, message and usability of the site. Flash intros rarely do any of these things. Here’s why:

  1. Many users find Flash intros annoying and hit the “Skip” button as quickly as possible. When was the last time you sat through a whole intro animation to use a website? Especially one you’ve already been to before? Unless you’re an animation or film studio, or your content or product is intrinsically tied into animation or video, Flash intros only serve to turn off users. If you are sure your site needs a Flash intro, consider these questions: why has the user come to your website?  Is it to watch a Flash animation, or is it to buy your product or service?  Why put obstacles in their way?
  2. Flash isn’t search engine friendly. Google has made some headway in indexing the text content of well-made Flash animations, but overall, Flash is still mostly invulnerable to search engines.
  3. Flash isn’t mobile friendly. The iPhone does not support Flash, and it’s unclear as to when it will, if ever. The other major mobile players are either currently testing Flash on their phones or planning tests for early 2010. With web traffic from mobile and smartphones increasing, Flash is not a smart option right now.

The same goes for auto-playing music or sound:

  • There’s nothing on a web page that can be communicated with music that can’t be communicated visually.
  • If your visitor’s speakers are off, or they don’t have speakers, the sound is useless.
  • Deaf users will not hear the music.
  • Many users look for the “stop” button to turn off auto-playing music as quickly as possible.
  • Music isn’t free – unless you’ve secured an original composition and recording from someone, you will have to pay a license for any kind of commercial music, and it’s not always cheap.

Misconception #5: “We really like the content on our competitor’s site. Let’s just take that and reword it a little bit for our site.”

Why You Should Avoid It: It’s a widely held belief that content on the web is copyright-free, public domain, and there for the taking. This is absolutely not true!

Using your competitor’s content not only violates copyright law, it hurts your standings in the search engines. Remember, Google crawls millions of web pages every day, and it compares what it already has to what it finds. If they find your new site sporting content that is very similar to content that’s existed on your competitor’s site for a long time, guess who’s going to get a better search result ranking? Not to mention the fact that those search results will make it easier for your competitor to discover that their content has been appropriated. Aztek has professional copywriters available who can help you develop original, meaningful content to help get your message across.

Misconception #6: “We don’t want people to steal our images. Let’s disable the right mouse button while visitors are using our site.”

My right click menu

My right click menu

Why You Should Avoid It: For exactly the same reason you shouldn’t open links in new browsers – it breaks the expected behavior of the browser application and annoys or confuses users. The right click or “context” menu offers users a number of different and useful options, including printing the current page, bookmarking the current page, viewing the source code of the current page, and of course, viewing and downloading images. In addition, many experienced web users have various plug-ins for their browsers that give them advanced menu options through the right click. Blocking your users’ access to these menus is annoying at best, rude and presumptuous at worst.

The desire to protect your content is understandable; however, just like trying to keep people from leaving your site, there is nothing you can do to keep people from taking your images. If they really want your images that badly, they will find a way. The good news is, there aren’t that many people out there who are that bound and determined to do so.

We welcome your ideas, and we want your input on how we can make your site better. But remember, the web is not a new medium anymore. Web design has been well established for more than a decade, and while technology is always changing, there are some concepts and practices that have become widely accepted as best practice. It’s our job to know what these standards are and how best to apply them to your site. Let’s work together to make a better web.