Debunking user experience myths

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Andrea Fallas considers some common beliefs about what makes a good website

We all have an intuitive understanding of the user experience (UX). However, in my job as a UX practitioner, I find myself confronting myths and misconceptions about what constitutes a good user experience more often than I would like. Far from being simply differences in opinion or aesthetic, these fixed beliefs can be downright detrimental to any web development project.

I’d like to address the most common ones I’ve encountered in light of the latest evidence so that we can start building better websites together. 

1. ‘All the important content should be above the fold’

The first problem with this statement is that “the fold” is deceptively difficult to define. Screens come in all sorts of different sizes so it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where the mythical fold occurs.

When foraging for information on the Internet, we tend to follow a trail of “information scent”. If what’s at the top of the page is enticing  – and representative of what’s below – then we will happily scroll down to find out more (provided there are no design elements that discourage us from scrolling).

Cramming content in at the top of the page can overwhelm us with multiple elements competing for our attention. Think of a web page as a three-course meal: it isn’t served all at once. Pages following a similar narrative are more easily digestible and encourage us to explore.

When it comes to signing up for a service or making a purchase, we might also need a little persuasion or reassurance before we are comfortable with making a commitment. Placing such calls to action below the fold provides the opportunity to explain the value behind the proposition. So while “above the fold” will always be prime real estate, some key content can and sometimes should be placed below.

2. ‘That’s too many clicks’

If you have ever lost time browsing through links in Wikipedia, you’ll know there’s no such thing as “too many clicks”. Like the fold, the notion of an ideal number of clicks is an illusion. The physical effort expended per click is so tiny that the cost of making an extra click is negligible. Instead of thinking about the number of clicks, we should be more concerned with their quality.

So what makes a good quality click? In the hunt for information, each click should take us closer to our goal while progressively differentiating our destination from the remaining content. In other words, good clicks follow strong trails of increasingly specific information. Clear labelling and chunking of content are far more fundamental to a good user experience than reducing the number of clicks in a journey.

3. ‘There’s too much white space on the page’

White space is not simply unused space. It is an important design element that enables objects to exist: it defines relationships and boundaries; it guides the eye and helps us to make sense of things.

A page with very little white space risks looking busy or cluttered and can be difficult to read. Ample white space allows written characters the space they need to be recognised and assists us in distinguishing relationships between areas of the page. Subjectively, white space can also give a page a premium appearance.

Unlike the confines of any physical structure, the internet is effectively infinite. As a result, space is not really at a premium. In other words: you can afford lots of it.

4. ‘The font is too big’

There are a staggering number of websites featuring 12px body copy. It is perhaps the most common font size on the web. A common reaction to designs featuring more readable sizes is that the font looks ‘too big’. This reaction is hardly surprising: our judgement of what ‘looks good’ is largely the result of what we are familiar with.

Of course, it’s not really about looks as much as readability. As anyone who has ever taken an eye test will know, there are two parts to being able to read a line of text comfortably: the size of the letters and how far away they are.

We typically hold printed text at a distance of around 40 cm. The same is true for tablet devices, while smartphones are held much closer at around 25 cm. Laptops and desktops are usually positioned at a distance of 50 cm or more away.

The font size in most printed material is around 10 points, which corresponds to approximately 12 px. Of course, unless you hold your monitor as close as you would a book, text at this size appears much smaller and is consequently more difficult to read.

So what should we be using instead? Taking viewing distance into account, usability expert Oliver Reichenstein shows that 16 px is a good equivalent for a desktop reading experience. In terms of minimising visual strain, the most comfortable seems to be around 20 px. Either way, 12 px is definitely too small.

5. ‘Images will improve my page’

Pictures have the power to convey messages in an instant. High-quality, relevant and appropriate imagery can certainly be a useful addition to a website and help to create a great user experience. Conversely, poor quality, generic or unnecessary images can be a waste of space or worse. Images are powerful and should be used with care.

As users and consumers, we understand these factors instinctively. As content creators, we can sometimes be led astray by misunderstandings or a misplaced attachment to our own idiosyncratic preferences. By valuing good design and increasing our understanding of its intricacies we can collectively create more powerful and meaningful experiences.

Andrea Fallas is user experience architect at Semantico