Usability And Convention

It seems my latest post on usability was well timed. Ok usability isn’t exactly new, but earlier in the same day Jakob Nielsen released his latest Alertbox column on avoiding within-page links. I think some his rationale emphasizes points I made in that post and figured the topic was worth a revisit.

Stick To Conventions To Avoid Confusion

I won’t rehash the article since you can read it yourself. Instead I want to comment on what Jakob mentions about avoiding confusing visitors to your site.

“To avoid confusing users, you must communicate exceptions to their expectations in advance.”

This is exactly what I was talking about in making site tasks understandable. Visitors will come to your site with preconceived expectations of what they will find and the more you meet those expectations the more usable your site will be to them.

Does this mean you can never break with expectation? Of course not. It’s ok to break with expectation and most of the best sites are those that find a way to break with some standard design convention while still maintaining usability. And just as Jakob mentions if you do deviate from expectation communicate to your visitor that you are.

Navigation Conventions

One of the conventions I talked about last time was navigation and how it’s probably best to place your navigation along the top or down the left side of your site. Later that same evening I came across this post from Aaron wall of SEO Book on where is the best spot to put site navigation.

Aaron argues that it’s ok to have your navigation down the right side of the page and I have to agree in spite of what I said the other day. Part of the reason navigation isn’t as common on the right was simply a resolution issue. In the old days of the web, which would be about 2 years ago I guess, the most common resolution for monitors was still 800×600 px and many people still surfed at a 640×480 px resolution. It’s difficult to fit everything you want on a page in 640 px so the design theory was to ensure that your most important page elements on the page were to the left.

I think the recent explosion of blogs online, most of which come with a menu on the right by default, will add them to convention and our expectations of where a site’s navigation will be located. Add to that the ever increasing screen resolutions of today’s monitors and right-side menus aren’t really a problem.

Still I imagine those first few right-side menus lost a few visitors before they began to adjust, but as with more frequent use they became part of convention.

Too much Convention Is Not A Good Thing

Convention can, of course, lead to monotony as is easy to see when looking at some of the sites online today. They do start to look alike after awhile and you do want your business to stand out don’t you.

Breaking from the tired and true can actually be a good way to get your site noticed. But before you can successfully break with convention you need to understand why the convention exists and what you will be giving up in breaking from it.

Spend time learning what has worked in the past and why it works and then use your creativity to forge a new aesthetic that maintains usability and becomes the convention of tomorrow.

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