Web Design Irks

Sometimes I call myself a web designer. I say sometimes because while I do have the knowledge and qualifications, I don’t create layouts free for use for others or for commission. I am inclined to call myself more a web designer than the people hired to design for major websites though, because the designs I see there just aren’t any good.

There’s a heavy degree of homogenisation in social networks, there has been for several years now, but it’s getting to a level where we simply won’t know how to design otherwise. Already people are more inclined towards quick-fire fleeting content in the form of Tumblr or blogging platforms, as opposed to content orphaned from its metadata to give a sense of timelessness.

Those points aside though, there are some more particular web design irks that are being replicated with increased frequency seemingly only because follow-the-leader is an appealing design strategy. If [successful website] does it, we should too! That sort of ideal. The kind of ideal that ignores your own network’s format or its userbase.

I’m sure those of us familiar with “Web 2.0″ already know about the common tip-offs: heavy use of javascript, whites and blues, Helvetica, sharing buttons, those sorts of things don’t have much to talk about, so I’m going to move on to the things that I feel need more seeing to. Javascript (hopefully) will be out the door as HTML5 becomes more regular and design fads should deal with the other three.

I hope.

Breaks in the content

There needs to be a very important reason to break the flow of content. Though off the top of my head I can’t think of a good reason to do so. This sort of behaviour was something I originally saw done with news articles or similar websites to deliver advertising. Thankfully advertising can be blocked pretty efficiently nowadays, but there was times in the past where you'd be met with big empty boxes between paragraphs in news articles.

Irrelevant information is the keyword in my issue with breaks in the content. Advertising does it because I don’t believe advertisers care about the end-user, they just want that adbux. If they got your attention by getting in the way of what you were reading, they’ve succeeded in getting that adbux. This isn’t even touching on the fact that online advertising also comes with the risk of malware or being bandwidth sinks.

Now moving on from that, irrelevant content inserted within the main content is something that has begun to occur with the likes of social networking.

The first one guilty of this was Google+. Putting aside other issues with its design — I’ll get to one of them — regularly throughout your subscription feed you are given a box telling you to follow even more users based on your metadata/own followers. Sometimes you’re told to follow organisations. More recently, Twitter has started to do this too.

I like to refer to Dunbar’s number when it comes to social networks insisting users follow as many as they possibly can. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. 150 people you could have a reasonable relationship with, and yet you must know of at least one person who says they have 1000+ “friends”.

Social network is telling you that you ought to follow more people within the content you’re already busy with. Now sure, a network feed is going to have varied content, but in this context the main content is “information users have consciously agreed to see/share”. The social network wants to control what you see by constantly nagging you with more content - and following more users isn't going to make those nags stop.

Also on the subject of Google is Youtube. No matter how much you tell Youtube you only ever want to see content your subscriptions have uploaded, the site will push miscellaneous information upon your front page like their “likes”, and if there’s sufficiently little recent uploads, it just gives up entirely and gives you inaccurate recommendations based on your location.

The next website guilty of breaking the flow of content was Tumblr. With its purchase by Yahoo, of course big business was going to turn it into a money making scheme instead of preserving its original intent. Tumblr broke the flow of the dashboard by introducing advertising posts that looked just like normal posts. Twitter soon followed with promoted tweets. It’s one thing to put advertising in the way of what you’re wanting to read, it’s another thing to design it such that some users may tricked they consciously chose to follow the account (advertiser) doing the advertising.

There must be a reason that post was shared to you, thinks the ill-informed user, so better check it out! Oh wait, no, it’s just an advert. You’ve clicked it and the advertisers got what they wanted.

It’s all effectively advertising in the end. Be it actual adverts, regional recommendations, follow recommendations, or user “likes” on the index. If I want to follow more users, I’ll likely look through the follow lists of people I follow. I don’t need the network to “help” me with it. The division between a social network trying to be helpful and user free will I feel is a particular issue that shows itself in the way more and more websites — and other interfaces — are being designed.

Fixed “UI” elements

I absolutely hate the css position: fixed;. Fixed position elements lock themselves to the browser display and stay on screen when the user scrolls the page.

The reason I don’t like this is because it creates an awkward relationship between the browser, the content, and continuity with what I browse during the day. I don’t have any issue with the browser’s UI not scrolling with the content because I don’t expect it to. I know that the browser’s UI will always be where I expect it to be (drastic updates aside) no matter what website I’m on, and so, by contrast, I expect everything inside the “content area” to do the opposite.

If a website has a fixed element this is defied, and I feel imbalanced because there are now extra UI elements besides the browser’s that are fixed, but inconsistent. These UI elements change with each website, meaning I could in quick succession have to deal with different setups of fixed and scrolling elements. It’s not enough to cause any sort of motion sickness, but it’s off-putting.

This is also why I dislike Firefox and Chrome turning their status bar into something that hides itself when there is no hover information. Besides losing network activity/loading progress, the status bar is now doing the opposite to the problem here: becoming an element I expect to be consistent throughout my browsing ~experience~, but it isn’t.

The browser’s UI is the only thing that I want or expect to be consistent the whole time I am using said browser, so I don’t want any website to be trying to create its own interface within the browser.

While I dislike fixed horizontal elements at the top or bottom of a website personally, if a vertical element is fixed then this becomes an accessibility problem. I may have a large 1080p screen, but not everyone does, nor do I have my browser occupy the full screen when I use it. If a fixed vertical sidebar is long enough, some content will be cut off for some users and becomes inaccessible.

Some Tumblr themes have tried to circumvent this by using dropdown forms, but that’s an obtuse and unclear way to deliver navigation, and certainly doesn’t help if your pagination is underneath the entire sidebar, or your sidebar is so long that even that dropdown is obscured beyond the bottom of the screen, unable to be reached because the sidebar won’t scroll.

Remember frames? That’s what’s happening all over again here, with a different set of accessibility issues.

Streamlining

What this all comes down to is misguided streamlining and accessibility. (Funny that, given I just said about it being the opposite.) I use the term streamlining when it comes to web design to refer to any design choice to make it seem like there’s little or no transition in your activity. The first example that comes to mind is the aforementioned fixed elements.

The second example is when streamlining is used to load entirely different content to hide/work around the loading of separate pages. The first website I observed to do this was Deviantart, to make a change. This issue is a part of the heavy use of javascript issue mentioned at the start of this: these pages or content load/replace the current page instead of loading a fresh page.

This creates an accessibility problem because it prevents bookmarking or loading a page separately, requiring the first page to load, followed by the content asked for on top of that. It also requires more activity on part of the user’s connection: a stand-alone page could be cached to improve load times, whereas generating a page or element from the bottom up does not help slow connections or PCs. (Don’t even start on the “everyone has broadband nowadays” excuse people have.)

This behaviour breaks Tumblr’s posting elements entirely. In the past the post buttons lead to a separate page. Unlike Deviantart, which retains this behaviour with loading in a new tab (or clicking a link before their javascript kicks in), Tumblr’s buttons now reveal a hidden text/upload box that requires you to remain on the dashboard page to use it. I’ve already mentioned how Tumblr culture loves bandwidth heavy posts, those posts create extra strain on bandwidth and memory while trying to interact with the posting interface.

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I feel that I should apologise if this was mostly stream of thought rambling and coming from personal experience or taste. Obviously, given this is my blog, my personal taste is to be expected. I might also only say this because of the sheer number of sites (or Tumblrs and blogs) that use the concepts and design principles mentioned here. That number sometimes tells me that they must be working out for people, the person in the wrong here must be me, or no one would play copy-cat, right?

Which is why I then look to those sites — especially the major sites — and wonder who they hired to design their interfaces. Why are these traits popular? What purpose do they intend in applying these designs? Is it thought out, is it manipulation on part of the CEOs or the advertising corporations, or is it a vicious cycle of follow-the-leader, where each site in turn copies something the other is doing because they don’t want to be left behind...

Of course that just makes this a chicken and the egg problem, these design fads must’ve started somewhere and with some purpose, and I can’t help but wonder why, so we can think of better alternatives.

Thursday, 10th April 02014

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