Digital Conversations

5 design myths (the truth, and how to avoid the problems)

1st May 2012

Web-designers can be quite an insular lot. If you sit around surrounded by other web-designers it’s easy to think that everyone uses the web in the same way you do. This is where self-referential design pokes its ugly head in – people start designing for themselves not their end users. And when the person you’re designing for is a web-designer you get to think that everyone is adept with their browser and everyone knows the industry rules of thumb.  I’ve got a message for you… they don’t.

At the risk of annoying designers a little, I’d like to explode a few design myths that I hear from people in the industry. Some of these you may disagree with – but I’m not just basing this on my opinion – I’m basing it on 10 years of experience running usability tests with real people.

folded paper“’The ‘fold’ is history, people are happy to scroll – right?” … Wrong. It’s one of those “in certain circumstances” debates. From what I’ve seen, everyone gets that internal pages on a site scroll, but many still expect that they will not need to scroll the homepage – or at least would prefer not to have to. This is made worse if there is nothing visual to indicate that there is content below the fold, and terrible if there is what appears to be a hard visual “stop” signal just above the fold – such as a straight line or edge of a box. In addition, homepages are largely transitory pages – people don’t dwell on them – they navigate away. So if you have important stuff below the fold a lot of people just won’t see it as they arrive and head straight to an internal page without scrolling.  So sorry designers, the fold still matters. Of course long pages do work – but consider how you are enticing the user to scroll – and still do try to get the key content up top.

home icon“You don’t need a ‘home’ link in your navigation” … Yes you do. I have sat and watched people laboriously clicking their back button to reach the homepage because they don’t know any other way to return. I’ve even heard one user say “can you do that magic trick to get me home again”. They were talking about me clicking on the logo of the page to go straight home. This is not an isolated incident. I’d estimate approximately 25% of users are unaware that the logo of a site is a shortcut to get home. You should think about who your users are – what are their skills?


text size“Everyone knows how to resize text in their browser” … They don’t. This is an argument over the three AAA symbol used to control text size on a site. I’ve heard countless designers tell me that it’s not necessary – people know how to control the size of the text in their browser if they have accessibility issues. I’ve also sat with pensioners who struggle with font sizes and have no idea how to control text size – but could recognise a visual cue like the larger letter A. Whether you need to include this control therefore is down to who your audience is – but you should certainly not rule it out. The other rational approach is to avoid using tiny fonts in the first place.

cars organised in very neat rows“If you put too much content/too many links on a page – people won’t know what to do” … Have you ever asked normal people (i.e. people who don’t work in web-design) about their favourite websites? I bet a lot of them will include BBC News and the Guardian. Both of them have well over 100 content items and links on the homepage, and yet when you ask why people like them – a lot will say “I like the layout – it’s nice and clear”. So it’s not the amount of content and links that matter, it’s the way you lay them out and style them. I have similarly done usability tests on sites with much less content and links on the homepage and had people say that the interface is confusing. Yes we shouldn’t create un-necessary complexity – but saying you can’t design a page with that much content that users will find intuitive is just laziness.

video camers“Video is a great resource for sharing” … It isn’t. No, really it isn’t. “YouTube and iPlayer are phenomenally successful, so everyone loves video right?” Yes, but…. Video takes time to watch. You need to devote a good minute or two. A still image or quotation can actually work better for getting a point across – it’s more instantaneous. The other barrier to video is the offices we work in. Many of us don’t have speakers on our work computer, and even if we do we’re uncomfortable playing a video out loud in an open plan office. So you’re limiting it to people with headphones. I’ve heard countless people in usability sessions tell me “it’s nice that they’re using video… but I hardly ever watch those things”. I’m not saying we shouldn’t use video – just that there is a time and a place – and that it’s not the best way of sharing a message. It’s something the user should elect to watch if they want, not something that we should rely on them doing.

At Reading Room we do two things that prevent “self referential” design. The first is quite simple, but something that many agencies don’t get right. We have multi-disciplinary teams: we don’t let designers surround themselves with other designers – or developers, information architects or project managers for that matter. Every team has a full range of skills and staff of all disciplines – there is no “creative floor” of the building that could allow these insulated viewpoints to occur. The second thing we do is of course a solid adherence to user centred design principles; using personas and goals to eliminate self-referential design. User centred design is not new – we’re not claiming anything revolutionary here – but it’s always worth remembering who you are designing for. Don’t think “what do I want the site to do?” instead think “what do my end users, my customers, my audience really need?”  If you work with us, we’ll always challenge you to see it from that point of view – because that’s ultimately how we are going to help you to make your site a success.

Tagged: | |

I'm the Head of User Engagement @ Reading Room.. i help clients to get the most out of digital through building an understanding of their business and their users and what they're both trying to get out of engaging with each other. No bunnies are hurt during this process.

8 Responses

  1. avatar Philippe May 8, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Then why do I have to hit my back button four times to get back to I was indeed expecting to see a button to take me right back but couldn’t find one.


    • avatar Ian May 8, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Since there already is a “home” link on our blog i’m presuming you’re referring to a link back to the main Reading Room website?

      It’s an interesting question that is not as easy to solve as it sounds. You could just have a “back to Reading Room” link – but then the concept of going “back” only applies to users who have arrived at the blog via the Reading Room website. Another approach i’ve seen where there are groups of sites is to place a strip of global navigation links across the top of the site to allow navigation to other sites in the group. We felt this wasn’t appropriate in this case as we actually want there to be some separation between our corporate site and our blog site; the blog is about generating “digital conversations” and we felt that we didnt want it to be too overtly linked to the main Reading Room site – that’s also the reason that the visual look and feel is very different between the two sites.
      It’s something we could revisit in future of course once we’ve got more analytics data on how the site is being used and what are main referring websites are. Hope that goes someway to explain things


  2. avatar To start the week | Sonja Barneveld May 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    [...] great blog post from Reading Room UK (via @sarah_vick) about five web design myths. Obviously I like it because  I so strongly agree with 1,2 and 5. Probably the most surprising one [...]


  3. avatar Adrian Longstaffe May 5, 2012 at 10:24 am

    I totally agree with all of these points – and it exposes a much larger issue – right across the board “experts” in any field frequently fall into the trap of designing whatever they do for an audience of other experts, not for the users – maybe it’s a normal human attribute :-)

    Adrian Longstaffe (I’m not a web designer – you’ve only got to look at my website to know that – but I sometimes have two work as a web editor/author – the person that acts as a channel between the content provider and the designer)


  4. avatar Andy Smith May 4, 2012 at 3:37 am

    Hi Ian,

    Great post. I kinda agree on the page fold, although it does pose an interesting question: Where exactly IS the fold now? Given the huge array of screen sizes out there, and different devices, do we still treat the “fold” as being about 600 pixels down, optimised for 1024 x 768?

    Also, do you think the fold issue will become redundant as the industry moves to responsive design as a standard approach? Should we be ensuring that users simply don’t have to scroll on a homepage – if there’s more content than they can see above the fold, do we just hide or shorten items until everything is above the fold?


    • avatar Ian May 4, 2012 at 8:47 am

      A very valid point!
      Lets start with desktop – there are fairly good stats available like these browser resolution figures from W3School.. 85% are now using higher than 1024×768 – but the majority of these are actually widescreen layouts… just looking at height, 50% are still at 768 or less, and 60% at 800 or less. So i’d say our assumption when designing (unless we have research on your users to show otherwise) is that the bulk of users will be at this type of dimension.

      Mobile and tablet obviously complicate things – here i’d say you need to be considering responsive design as the way forward, and adjust what the user sees “above the fold” by changing dimension, layout and form of homepage content objects. Responsive design seems to be the best approach – and one that BBC News recently adopted on its mobile site (interestingly this is still separate from their main site which is still optimised for desktop). On mobile many argue that you should either minimise the navigation or shift it to the bottom to allow you to lead on content and get some of that “above the fold” on mobile. I think thats probably wise.
      Hope that helps – and thanks for the comment!


      • avatar Tom May 15, 2012 at 6:18 pm

        I use Google Browser Size quite a bit –
        It’s a lovely little tool, a nice visual representation of what percentages of users are likely to see what areas of your layout. It also deals with page width as well as height, which often gets forgotten in these discussions.
        Another thing to remember is that while screen sizes might be large, window sizes might be smaller – basically the only rule I keep to is “if something is really important make sure it’s bloody obvious, and somewhere near the top of the page” :-)


        • avatar Ian May 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

          Haha! i like your rule…. couldnt have put it better. Sometimes the obvious needs saying!


Leave a response

  • Your email address will not be published.

  • nine + 5 =

  • You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>