I’ve been using the Internet — and in particular the World Wide Web, which has since become synonymous with the former — since I was just barely out of diapers. Okay, that’s a lie, but it was definitely a long time ago. Over the last two decades, the information superhighway has evolved and matured into arguably the most critical element of global communications, but it didn’t get there without picking up a few bad habits along the way.
Unlike many other mediums, the Internet is permanent but also continually evolving and changing. Because things are always shifting and improving, but at the same time surrounded by content and interfaces designed a decade ago, it can be difficult to create strict, unbreakable rules.
Instead, I preach two simple rules. First: Do users already have an expectation or assumption about how that thing works? Second: Will this thing on your website annoy users unnecessarily?
Let’s take these rules and look at a few bad habits the Internet has picked up over the last twenty years, then use our rules to decide if they should continue or be abandoned.
1. Using “click here” as the call-to-action link text.
This is most likely left over from the Internet’s earlier years, when the concept of a hyperlink was so novel that users needed guidance for where to click. “Click here” text is something modern netizens no longer rely on. From a marketing standpoint, linked text is one of the most valuable and important pieces of copy on any web site. Relying on a generic “click here” to inspire users is an unfortunate waste of real estate and opportunity.
2. Auto-playing audio or video content.
The last thing you want to do is annoy the end user, and by far the easiest way to do this is immediately begin playing audio when people don’t expect it. Besides, aren’t most of us listening to music, podcasts, or something on television while surfing the web, anyway?
3. Hijacking the user’s default controls.
One of the more reliable ways to annoy and confuse your users is to change the way people use their device. That means you shouldn’t hijack the browser's back button, scrolling behavior, or anything else related to how users expect to control their device.
4. Deploying splash and pop-up dialogs on page load.
Just like error messages, most users are going to instinctively close the pop-up dialog as soon as possible, so any legitimate marketing goal would likely be unmet even if this habit wasn’t already dreadfully annoying.
5. Offering inconsistent and/or confusing navigation.
This might be the only bad habit on the list that is usually not intentional, but it’s still inexcusable. Any form of site navigation should be clearly labeled and behave consistently throughout the site, which means each tier of navigation needs to point to a unique interior content page — no external links and no empty tiers that don’t actually link to a relevant content page.
Like the Internet, these rules have evolved over time as we’ve learned our lessons the hard way. Some of them are slowly fading away, and some (especially #4 and #5 due to the rise of newer technology like touch screens) have come roaring back with a vengeance. After all, that’s why they are called bad habits: If they were easy to avoid, we wouldn’t need rules and lists and blog posts like this one!
Of course, now that I’ve created an official list of What Not To Do, somebody will point out that we’ve comitted at least one of these ourselves. That’s fine, as long as it’s done intentionally and with caution! Just remember my two rules: Don’t reinvent the wheel without a good reason, and don’t annoy users unnecessarily. Follow those rules, and the bad habits will solve themselves.