(Note: This post is for my webwriting class so it’s a little different from my normal topics.)

Web design is a hairy thing. It’s not merely a matter of taste or what you like when you go to websites, but the conventions that users adopt in order to use the web. In a lot of ways, I think those conventions have to do with giving people what they want they way they want it because people are lazy, lazy creatures. And the web just makes us spoiled. Most people who go to a website are not willing to spend any time to figure out how it works; they just want to find what they’re after and get out.

I suppose I could get all idiosyncratic and defiant (my usual mode) in response to the advice of guys like Jakob Nielsen on how not to piss off your visitors with bad web design. A lot of what he says does make sense: make search relevant, minimize intrusive adverts, write short and sweet. Other things he says I’m not so sure about, such as “Users hate coming across a PDF file while browsing, because it breaks their flow. Even simple things like printing or saving documents are difficult because standard browser commands don’t work.” This is one of those areas where he’s against something because it makes the user do a little work. I partially agree, however, that users ought to be warned if a PDF is a-comin’ as a result of clicking on the link. (I hate being surprised by a download.) I also like when websites offer either a PDF or HTML version of a longer document – the otherwise usability-challenged government of Canada website is a good example.

A while back, I read Nielsen’s point about not programming links to open new windows because it is a “user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine.” Up to that point, I had been programming all my links to open new windows, both to keep y’all here and to not send you off into the unknown. Who knows what’s on the other end of that link? But after reading Nielsen’s mistake #9, I decided to compromise thusly: the links in the blogroll open new windows, but the links in the text do not. Uncharacteristically helpful hint: Firefox can be configured to open links that open in new windows in easy-to-manage tabs instead. (Just go to Tools, then Options, select the Tab button, and choose whether you want to open links in new windows or new tabs.)

Now I don’t know if the guy was running out of web design quibbles to include on his Top Ten, but I feel the uncontrollable urge to point out that #6 Page Titles With Low Search Engine Visibility and #10 Not Answering Users’ Questions are issues of content, not design. That’s my editor. I feel better now.

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