Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, December 23, 2002:

Top Ten Web-Design Mistakes of 2002

Every year brings new mistakes. In 2002, several of the worst mistakes in Web design related to poor email integration. The number one mistake, however, was lack of pricing information, followed by overly literal search engines.

As the Web grows, websites continue to come up with ways to annoy users. Following are ten design mistakes that were particularly good at punishing users and costing site owners business in 2002.


1. No Prices

No B2C ecommerce site would make this mistake, but it's rife in B2B, where most "enterprise solutions" are presented so that you can't tell whether they are suited for 100 people or 100,000 people. Price is the most specific piece of info customers use to understand the nature of an offering, and not providing it makes people feel lost and reduces their understanding of a product line. We have miles of videotape of users asking "Where's the price?" while tearing their hair out.

Even B2C sites often make the associated mistake of forgetting prices in product lists, such as category pages or search results. Knowing the price is key in both situations; it lets users differentiate among products and click through to the most relevant ones.

- woman (at car  dealership): 'How much is it with automatic transmission?'
- sleazy salesman: 'I'll give you a hint - it's an EVEN number...'

2. Inflexible Search Engines

Overly literal search engines reduce usability in that they're unable to handle typos, plurals, hyphens, and other variants of the query terms. Such search engines are particularly difficult for elderly users, but they hurt everybody.

A related problem is when search engines prioritize results purely on the basis of how many query terms they contain, rather than on each document’s importance. Much better if your search engine calls out "best bets" at the top of the list -- especially for important queries, such as the names of your products.

- Man searching for 'Honalulu' and getting no results.
- Woman: 'Oh, forget it. Let's just go visit my mother in Fargo.'

3. Horizontal Scrolling

Users hate scrolling left to right. Vertical scrolling seems to be okay, maybe because it's much more common.

Web pages that require horizontal scrolling in standard-sized windows, such as 800x600 pixels, are particularly annoying. For some reason, many websites seem to be optimized for 805-pixel-wide browser windows, even though this resolution is pretty rare and the extra five pixels offer little relative to the annoyance of horizontal scrolling (and the space consumed by the horizontal scrollbar).

- 'Hey, this site has Jakob Nielsen's credit card number!'
- 'Wow, really? What is it?'
- 'It's [rest of speech bubble cut off]'

4. Fixed Font Size

Style sheets unfortunately give websites the power to disable a Web browser's "change font size" button and specify a fixed font size. About 95% of the time, this fixed size is tiny, reducing readability significantly for most people over the age of 40.

Respect the user's preferences and let them resize text as needed. Also, specify font sizes in relative terms -- not as an absolute number of pixels.

- man (kneeling and offering a ring): 'Jeanette, I ...'
- woman (looking at tiny skywriting): 'Hold on ... What's that say? Murray ... my ... janitor ... ?'

5. Blocks of Text

A wall of text is deadly for an interactive experience. Intimidating. Boring. Painful to read.

Write for online, not print. To draw users into the text and support scannability, use well-documented tricks:

  • subheads
  • bulleted lists
  • highlighted keywords
  • short paragraphs
  • the inverted pyramid
  • a simple writing style, and
  • de-fluffed language devoid of marketese.
  Cartoon - guy being crushed under wordy 'terms and conditions' legalese

6. JavaScript in Links

Links are the Web's basic building blocks, and users' ability to understand them and to use various browser features correctly is key to enhancing their online skills.

Links that don't behave as expected undermine users' understanding of their own system. A link should be a simple hypertext reference that replaces the current page with new content. Users hate unwarranted pop-up windows. When they want the destination to appear in a new page, they can use their browser's "open in new window" command -- assuming, of course, that the link is not a piece of code that interferes with the browser’s standard behavior.

Users deserve to control their own destiny. Computers that behave consistently empower people by letting them use their own tools and wield them accurately.

  Cartoon -  guy (surrounded by pop-ups): 'They just keep popping up everywhere I go!'

7. Infrequently Asked Questions in FAQ

Too many websites have FAQs that list questions the company wished users would ask. No good. FAQs have a simplistic information design that does not scale well. They must be reserved for frequently asked questions, since that's the only thing that makes a FAQ a useful website feature. Infrequently asked questions undermine users' trust in the website and damage their understanding of its navigation.
- woman wearing dress made of cut-up CD-ROMs reading from computer screen:
'Q2: How can I get MORE of your free sign-up CDs?'

8. Collecting Email Addresses Without a Privacy Policy

Users are getting very protective of their inboxes. Every time a website asks for an email address, users react negatively in user testing.

Don't assume that people will sign up for a newsletter just because it's free. You have to tell them, right there, what they will get and how frequently it will hit their mailboxes. Also, you must provide an explicit privacy statement or an opt-in checkbox right next to the entry field. Otherwise, you have little hope of collecting email addresses other than mickey@mouse.com.

- call center operator 1: 'Fifteen faxes a day? We prefer to think of it as one every 96 minutes.'
- call center operator 2: 'Oh no, sir. We would never sell your address to Mistress Natalie's House of Leather (... again.)'

9. URL > 75 Characters

Long URLs break the Web's social navigation because they make it virtually impossible to email a friend a recommendation to visit a Web page. If the URL is too long to show in the browser's address field, many users won't know how to select it. If the URL breaks across multiple lines in the email, most recipients won't know how to glue the pieces back together.

The result? No viral marketing, just because your URLs are too long. Bad way to lose business.

  Cartoon - Man on phone: '... E, R, dot com ... No, there's no dash ... dot com, slash .. yes, forward slash. Tilde ... that's the squiggly thing like over the 'N' in Spanish ... no, no, 'n' ... No, we already tried emailing it, remember?'

10. Mailto Links in Unexpected Locations

When you click a link on the Web, what do you expect? To get a new page that contains information about the anchor you just clicked.

What don't you expect? To spawn an email program that demands that you write stuff rather than read it.

Mailto links should be used on anchors that explicitly indicate that they're email addresses, either by their format (donald@duck.com) or their wording (send email to customer support). Don't place mailto links on names; clicking on people's names should usually lead to their biography.

Again, interaction design must meet users' expectations. The more that things behave consistently, the more users understand what they can do and the greater their sense of system mastery. Violated expectations create a sense of oppression, where technology rules humans and reduces their ability to steer the interaction.

  Cartoon: woman surprised by a Jack-in-the-box jumping out of screen holding a letter Cartoons by
Doug Sheppard and Katrin L. Salyers


The Growing Importance of Email Integration

It's interesting to note that the last three mistakes all relate to email. Despite being the oldest of the main Internet services, email continues to be one of the most important. It's also finally becoming better integrated with the Web, and I expect that this trend will continue (if websites can avoid making those mistakes, that is).

Other Top-Ten Lists

Most of these earlier top-ten lists are still highly relevant for today's websites. Even as we get new mistakes, the old ones don't go away, though (happily) they do get less common.

New Mistakes

To hear my newest findings, come to the Usability Week 2004 conference in Orlando, San Francisco, London, Copenhagen, and Melbourne.

Complete list of other Alertbox columns