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Why the web is hostile and how we cope

While the web has similarities to other media, it is a unique medium with a combination of special factors that affect how people use it. It is a far more difficult environment than almost all other media. Simply designing with these factors in mind can make the difference between success and failure.

Good web design understands how real people use media in the real world, and then applies techniques that help them do it successfully.

This section describes the distinctive features of the online environment in detail, and how they affect the way we use web sites.

Overview of factors influencing web users

  • The web is high in cognitive friction and low in trust
  • We rush, and don’t make considered decisions
  • We don’t like looking at computer screens
  • The web is anonymous
  • Each visitor’s browsing environment can vary massively

How we cope

  • We’re impatient and don’t make considered decisions
  • We’re creatures of habit
  • We scan for clues instead of reading

Cognitive Friction

The web is particularly high in uncertainty and low in trust. It’s the only environment where you can suddenly find yourself somewhere completely different, lost and confused or overwhelmed with seemingly no warning.

Interaction design pioneer Alan Cooper (www.cooper.com) has coined the term “cognitive friction” to describe the mental stretch that’s caused when tools behave in a way that seems unrelated to what you expect. I find it extremely helpful in illustrating the ever-present anxiety of the regular web user.

(Note: Alan describes this much better in his excellent book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”. Please buy it.)

In times gone by, using a tool to do something was a simple affair. e.g.:

  • Gather friends
  • Take sticks
  • Make sticks pointy
  • Poke mammoth with sticks
  • Repeat until mammoth falls over

Mechanical-age tools were low in cognitive friction

The pointy stick is very low in cognitive friction: its function and form are directly related. Even if you’d never used a pointy stick before, you could imagine how you could use it simply by looking at it or handling it. (The property of an object that means you can tell what it does by how it looks is sometimes called “affordance”).

If you stick yourself in the leg with a pointy stick, you would immediately understand why your leg hurt, and you would learn how to avoid getting stuck in the leg again.

Even later, complex mechanical tools, such as typewriters, cars, or clocks could be understood by taking them apart and looking at the bits.

With today’s tools, cause and effect are decoupled. It’s not at all obvious how to use a PC, a modern car, or a digital alarm clock works by looking at them.

Modern tools are high in cognitive friction

The modern tools we use every day tend to be high in cognitive friction: their form and purpose are more often unrelated.

In order to get my microwave to heat some food, I first have to set the length of time to cook for. I can’t just press ‘Start’ and then stop it when I choose. Then, I have to select my power setting. Then I press ‘Start’.

On the other hand, when I want to shut down my (Windows) computer, what do I press? Yes, the ‘Start’ button.

There’s nothing about my microwave that lets me know how to use it to fulfil my goal of getting food hot. There’s nothing about my Windows PC that tells me how to shut it down. You have to work these things out for yourself. That’s the cause of cognitive friction.

Another effect you notice with cognitive friction is: if something doesn’t work and you don’t understand why, you tend to think it’s your fault. (It usually isn’t. It’s nearly always a result of bad design.)

We’re not equipped to guess how electronics and computer software thinks (there’s no such thing as an ‘intuitive’ interface). Computers evolve much more quickly than we do – they should adapt to think in a way that suits people, not the other way round.

Another rule I hold dear is: “It’s never the user’s fault.”

The web is disorienting

There’s no concrete physical space on the web. All places are connected by hyperlinks, which (when they work) carry us instantly from one place to another, with the minimum illusion of distance and relative position.

Our experience also teaches us that we’re usually in the wrong place. There are so many web sites out there that when searching for something it’s likely that this unfamiliar site I’m on is the wrong one. Even if I’m on the right site, I’m probably not on the right page to get what I want.

To fulfil a typical goal (say booking a hotel ticket) you may have to visit 25 web pages (search engine, follow a link, change your mind, go back to search engine, follow another link, find the right site, select the hotel, navigate to booking section, select dates, select room type, check availability, enter all your information, enter your billing information, verify your billing information, confirm your order… )

Only one of those links actually books the hotel ticket, and reaches your goal. Most of the others either completely wrong, or are in the way of your goal, which means your way forward is often obscure, and you have to think.

Also, most pages tend to be very busy, showing lots of information, options, and links. Hopefully, one of these elements is the one you want. Because most pages are laid out differently, you have to work out how to use each one every time. All this creates cognitive friction, and means you’re constantly forced to guess how best to proceed.

Links cause cognitive friction

Even when you think you’ve found the right link to get you what you want, the uncertainty continues. Hyperlinks are naturally extremely high in cognitive friction. Clicking one could take you anywhere.

With hyperlinks, cause and effect are weakly related. “New users click here” could do anything. Its form doesn’t reveal its function.

Click the wrong link and you could accidentally launch an obscene web site, a hundred popup adverts, or pick up a virus.

The web is untrustworthy

We also know the web isn’t a totally safe environment. There are lots of people ready to rip you off. This is due to the lack of a barrier to entry (anyone can be a publisher, even a criminal).

Clearly, not all new sites can’t be trusted at first. Also, a lot of web sites lie about their offerings.

Congratulations! You are the 100,000th person to read this page!
Click here to claim your prize.

As a web user, you’re left to find your own way. There is no complete guide that can differentiate between good and bad sites for you.

We don’t like looking at computer screens

One of the most fundamental factors in designing for screen-based media is: No-one likes looking at a computer screen. They’re doing it grudgingly, because they want something.

This is because screens are tiring to look at: they’re grainy, they flicker, and staring at them for extended periods is unnatural and bad for the eyes. More »

We’re impatient and don’t make considered decisions

To deal with this hostile environment, we tend to adopt a defensive posture – it’s you against it. It’s a challenge that’s full of uncertainty. Some people enjoy this challenge some of the time, but most find it unnerving and frustrating.

Computer users quickly adopt time-saving tactics to try to make life easier on the eyes. In order to reduce the time we spend looking at the screen, we speed up and scan pages instead of reading.

Because we’ve learnt that we’re often in the wrong place, we quickly learn time-saving tactics:

  • Instead of reading, we scan pages for clues that we’re in the right place, or for signs of what we’re trying to find.
  • We make quick decisions about whether to carry on or go back. (It’s proven that most web users don’t read the page and make a valued decision on the best link to follow, but select the first likely-looking option. See Steve Krug’s brilliant book “Don’t Make Me Think” for more insight into this).
  • We often don’t even wait for the page to load, before deciding whether to click back or follow a link.

We’re creatures of habit

Most people don’t want to feel like pioneers exploring new and strange lands. We prefer to feel comfortable and confident that we will be able to complete a range of basic tasks and achieve our goals.

Usability tests continually show that, once we manage to find out how to achieve something on a computer, most people have a strong tendency to repeat the steps that worked before.

This is good and bad news for designers.

The bad news is that, once people manage to muddle through with a web site, even if it’s wrong, they’ll keep “doing it wrong”.

The good news is, if we enable them to succeed, in any way, they’ll reward us with some loyalty.

To design for success, we need to make the paths to goals wide and clear.

Scanning

Scanning is the number 1 most important feature of browsing behaviour to appreciate.

It’s what you almost certainly do when you look at a web page.

Instead of starting at the top and reading through, most people soon learn that they get better results by scanning over the page, looking for certain clues. There’s no predictable pattern – the eye jumps around between the most ‘attractive’ elements, and the places where we guess the most useful things might be.

To design successfully, it helps to know why people scan instead of reading, what we tend to scan for, and how to help them.

We scan for clues

The specific clues we look for will depend on the context and our goals. Very often the clue might be to answer the ever-present question, “Am I in the right place?”, or its brother, “How can I find what I’m looking for?”. Often, you’ll settle for a link that may get you nearer your goal than where you are now.

When navigating around, we don’t read the whole page and then make an educated, fully informed guess. What most people do is click on the first thing that appears to be offer a reasonable chance of being the right thing.

The web is anonymous

I don’t know you…

People accessing your web site might be from a different culture to yours. Your first language might not be theirs.

Also, because you don’t know how they got to your site, you can’t know what prior experience they may have of your company, products or services.

Tip: Use simple language to help users whose first language isn’t the same as yours

You don’t know me

Our collective experience of using most web sites is difficult and painful. We are quite used to failing to find what we’re looking for, and trying different sites quickly in impatience. This means our normal attitude to new sites is cautious, impatient, and mistrustful – for good reason.

It’s likely that many visitors to your web site are visiting for the first time. You can expect them not to know or trust you at first – why should they?

You don’t know how each visitor got here

You can’t always be sure what route a user has taken to get to your web page. They might have followed a deep link from a search engine or another site.

Don’t assume that a visitor automatically knows where they are in your site, what the site’s about, what else is on the site, what they can do, or how to go about it.

The browsing environment is unpredictable

Connection speeds and delays

Users may be connecting to a web site over a slow connection. A typical dial-up user will get a transfer rate of about 5 kilobytes per second, but that may be much slower at busy times.

There’s always some lag between any web server and browser, no matter what the user’s connection speed. The longer the delay before the browser renders your page, the more likely your user is to abandon the attempt. The general rule of thumb is that a web page should be usable within 10 seconds of being requested, before you can expect visitors to give up trying. They’ll need a good reason to wait more than a few seconds.

Fonts

Different computers and devices use different fonts. Macs have different fonts to PCs. Don’t assume that everyone sees your text in the same way as you do.

Colours

You can’t assume that everyone sees exactly the same colours. Some computers can’t display “true colour” (around 16 million different colours). A minority of older computers can only display 256 different colours, of which only 216 colours reproduce the same on both PC and Mac browsers. Also, different screens have different colour and contrast settings.

Window size

You don’t always know the range of window sizes in which your site will be displayed. Different monitors have a different maximum sizes, and not everybody runs their browser windows full-screen. Some people may be accessing your site on a palmtop computer or even a mobile phone.

Images

Not everyone’s browser shows images, and often people start using a web page before all the images have downloaded and rendered. Don’t rely on images being visible.

Support for the latest technologies

Not all browsers can support the latest HTML, CSS, Java, or Flash player. Some people aren’t able to install extensions and plug-ins at all. Some visitors will have JavaScript disabled, or may be accessing your site from a TV, handheld computer or even mobile phone.

Personas and research will help you find the minimum requirements that you need to support. For now, it’s only necessary to appreciate the way that people behave online, and the complication of varying and unpredictable browsing environments.

How to design for the web

Now we’ve seen the problem in more detail, it might seem dizzying or impossible. Don’t worry, because there’s a solution, and it’s SIMPLE. It’s partly about a simple mindset, and partly about simple learned skills.

About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben has over 20 years' experience in web design and marketing, and is one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written a bunch of books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally. In 2015, Ben created Open-Source Marketing, which promises to turn the practice of marketing upside down.. Find out more at http://opensourcemarketingproject.org