Website Development Pitfall 3: Ignoring standards and best practice

By Angela Schuster

In accounting, you have Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The field has been around long enough for these principles to have developed and their existence means that when you see EBITA for one company you know it’s going to be based on the same workings as for another company.

The web has now been around long enough to have its own set of “generally accepted principles”. Pitfall 3 looks at the perils of ignoring such principles.

Pitfall 3: Ignoring standards, conventions and best practice

Call them web standards, best practices, usability guidelines, shebangabang – whatever you like. The point is there are things that users have come to expect online.

These expectations have become ingrained in a web users psyche and it’s usually not a good idea to try to re-educate them or change their expectations.

Some designers will argue that standards are an impingement on their creativity... well I would suggest avoiding any designer that tells you that (read Pitfall 2 for more on how to select a good website developer).

Make sure whoever is building your website understands and appreciates standards and practices. Also, some rules are made to be bent, you just need to know under which circumstances it’s appropriate to do so and how best to bend them without confusing your users.

There is huge subject and it could take another five blog posts before we even scratched the surface; however, here’s a quick list of practices to be aware of:

  • People scan web pages, they don’t read. Make the pages scannable, use bullet points, headings and subheadings.

  • There are recommended font styles and sizes for use on-screen - use them. Don’t use some random font your designer has on their Apple Mac because 90% of your audience won’t have it. Think about your audience here, for example if they’re older they’ll appreciate larger fonts.

  • Navigation should be hierarchical in nature but, importantly, it needs to be unambiguous, free from internal jargon, logical, intuitive and consistent throughout the site.

  • Don’t structure your site around your organisational structure - it only makes sense to your CEO. Your audience doesn’t care how your business is organised.

  • Get rid of blah blah blah text. You know; that stuff on your site that is back-slapping, hyped up, self promoting pointless dribble. It’s anything that is too many words like ‘we’, ‘our’, ‘[insert company name]’ or ‘[insert product name]’.

  • Make things obvious. If something is clickable, make sure it’s obvious that it’s clickable. Using ‘click here’ is not making it obvious and it is not accessible to people, assistive technologies or search engines.

  • The 'three clicks rule' is not a rule. Often it doesn’t matter how many clicks it takes a user to find something. As long as the clicks are easy and logical to follow they’ll generally keep on clicking.

  • If you need instructions on how to use something on your website, it’s not usable.

  • Never, ever, ever, ever launch a website with a splash page or one that solely comprises a Flash introduction that has to load. Google the phrase ‘why splash pages are bad’. (Repeat after me: 'splash pages are bad')

  • The 404 error page is the website equivalent to the blue screen of death on a PC.  Error messages need to be helpful. There’s no point saying ‘oops you got that wrong’, you need to suggest options to help users find what they were looking for.
  • Don’t ignore accessibility or the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards. Accessibility standards outline how to make website content accessible to people with disabilities. In some countries it is legally required and for some organisations it is policy. Other than that, it’s just good practice.

  • Make sure your site is cross-browser compatible on new and older browsers. Also, make sure it works on different operating systems (PC vs Mac). Don’t forget to check how it renders on hand held devices either. Test your site using a free tool like browsershots.org which will show you how your site looks on hundreds of browsers and platforms.

Escaping Pitfall 3

Standards and conventions are around for a reason. You wouldn’t want a car manufacturer to ignore safety requirements when designing a new car just because it stifles their creativity, would you?

The most important consideration when developing a site is that you need to break out of your shell and really put yourself in your user’s shoes.  Forget about what you like or don’t like – normally you are not the intended audience of your website.

Whoever is developing your website should be knowledgeable on the subject and develop your site to a set of standards. To find out more, Google: Jakob Nielsen, Jesse James Garrett, Steve Krug and Gerry McGovern as a starting point.

Up next, Pitfall 4 and how to avoid the Day-2 blues...

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