It’s been a couple of years since I summarized my personal qualms with the state of the web, but it’s time again. While some of the usability conventions in 2008 are still to this day very much in vogue, such as the inability to distinguish links from visited links and links that open new browser windows, other conventions such as styling push buttons and form elements have changed in recent years. More on that a different time, here’s what’s bad about the web today…
Mobile sites that don’t allow you to zoom.
Sometimes, no mobile site is better than a bad mobile site. Case in point, Flickr’s mobile, which has a reasonably mobile friendly layout. The problem? The viewport width is fixed so pinch-to-zoom is disabled. Worse yet, the Flickr image you’re likely to have clicked into from Twitter is smaller than Kim Jong Il’s sense of self-esteem. And there’s no “enlarge” to find.
Most common excuse: “Come on, it’s mobile! Who checks websites on their cellphones?”
AJAX sites with janky back/ forward navigation
Most common excuse: “Hmm, it works fine for me when I navigate the site really slowly, and the gallery is a known issue”.
AJAX sites with the hashbang in the URL
Go visit the fancy #NewTwitter. If it loads for you (part of the problem), have a look at the URL in the addressbar. See that little #! that splits up the address? That’s the hashbang, and it not only makes addresses look cryptic and ugly, it breaks a great many things. Sometimes pages do not load and when they do load, they don’t always load what you expected them to load. The reload button gets janky, and the pages themselves are hard if not impossible to index for search engines. Add to that the fact that you can actually make a full-on AJAX site without using the hashbang in the URL due to advances in HTML5. Just try and click the tabs on my Google profile while keeping an eye on the URL. It’s doable.
Most common excuse: “Oh come on, it works fine. You’re just nitpicking.”
Okay, full disclosure, I both AJAX and the hashbang on my company website. My excuse: “I don’t use that site anymore, and besides nobody ever visits it anymore”.
Multiple consecutive redirects that break the back button navigation, on purpose or not
Ever clicked a search result in Google and wanted to go back to your search results only to find the back button doesn’t work and only “blinks” the page? Sometimes doubleclicking the back-button fast enough, or long-pressing it to step two items back in the history fixes this. But it’s completely user hostile. Sure, some sites do this on purpose — this article is likely to be lost on those sites anyway. Other sites do it for a variety of reasons; redirecting to a mobile view, showing an interstitial ad or whatever oddball reason they have.
What these sites don’t know is that they can keep their redirects, so long as they send the correct HTTP header redirection code; modern browsers will detect these codes and omit them from the history, allowing the back button to function as expected.
Most common excuse: “But we need to redirect to a mobile view! … Wait what? Header codes?”
Implementing a scroll behaviour without the scrollbar
Yes, it looks like the general direction for scrollbars is that of the dodo. In the future, there might not be a scrollbar, it might work opposite to what you expect it to, and so on, and so on. That’s all fine. Seriously, whatever usability improvements operating systems might do to make navigating this or that easier, I welcome.
Most common excuse: “We believe the direction websites are going is that of smartphones and tablets. That’s why we want to adopt these new paradigms to ride the golden wave of momentum that space has at the moment.”
Sites that use QuickTime or Flash for video, without providing a fallback video format
You think Flash sucks? Yeah, it does, but so does the QuickTime plugin. Any video plugin, in fact. It’s been this way for a decade, but we’ve dealt with it because it was impressive video on the web was possible at all. This has changed in recent years, however. Web-video is available on smartphones, set-top boxes and in reasonably high quality. Laymen users are no longer impressed when video plays in their browsers, they expect it. So when they encounter a puzzle piece or a blank area, I no longer think it’s unreasonable to call that bad usability. There should be fallback to other video formats. H.264 or WebM, I don’t care.
Most common excuse: “HTML5?”
Netbanking sites that break when using the back-button
Accessing your bank via the web is no longer a “nice-to-have”, it’s absolutely essential for an increasing share of the population. Considering this, it’s high time these netbanking systems get a usability overhaul. That includes building it in a way that doesn’t break your login authorisation when you click your large convenient back-button, requiring you to click an HTML “back” hyperlink instead.
Most common excuse: “It’s as simple as that huh? You will use the software we provide and be happy! What are you gonna do, switch banks over a hyperlink?”
Inflexible form widgets in surveys or profiles
Ever encountered a survey whose “age” field requires you to select a birth year between 1900 and 2010? How about a credit-card input field that wasn’t updated for newer credit cards that don’t expire until 2015? Even a gender radio-group might rub you the wrong way. Either way, building a good form is an excellent excercise in usability; limiting choice is good, but you need to know when to be flexible. Which a lot of sites fail to do.
Most common excuses: “What other genders are there?”, “If age is a textfield, users are going to write ‘ripe’ or ‘timeless’.”
Sites that use flash for Navigation
Yeah Flash, it still kinda has a place in the world. But that place is not for navigation. Are you listening, Vimeo? That related content sidebar sucks! Get with the program!
Most common excuse: “Our target audience is a different one, one that cares a lot about design and visuals. These people will appreciate that our scrollbar matches the rest of the site design. Enough to halve their battery life.”
What else is there?
I hope you enjoyed reading this incomplete list of usability nuisances. Feel free to fill in the blanks.
[Update]: It looks like Gawker has rolled out changes to their janky AJAX stuff removing the hashbang but keeping the AJAXiness. Check it out on Gawker.com, Lifehacker.com and io9.com. I’m sure their SEO will improve, if not the overall loading consistency.