The beauty of Usability Professor Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox posts is that everytime he releases one, I know the forums boards will light up, RSS bells will clang and the tempo for the day is like walking into a noisy Las Vegas casino.
Everybody wants to know, “Is he right about this one?” How many of you run to your web sites and blogs to see if you screwed up again because Dr. JN says so?
Today we have a debate on in-line links. In his typical, glorious, “let’s push their buttons” style, our hero starts off with an article title to get the crowds running. This one is, Avoid Within-Page Links. I knew this was going to be a fun one.
Dr. JN doesn’t make up this stuff. I bet he does receive letters, like the two he points to in this article. When he writes things, he often states it in a way that makes you want to stop eating ice cream for a month, to punish yourself. I remember once at Cre8asiteforums we argued for DAYS when he suggested there never should be a link “Home” on the homepage. His articles are true food for any web site geek worth their twinkies and Starbucks.
Thou Shalt Not Use In-Line Links
This time, he starts out with a commandment about links that go somewhere on the same page because it will “Violate (the) Users’ Mental Model”. He’s good. For folks like me who believe that people aren’t stupid, this is a hysterical statement.
But he’s right. Darn it, he’s right. Even if everything he wrote has his typical “sermon on Dr’ J’s mountain” angle, he’s doing what he should be doing.
He, like me, does usability testing. He gets to do the eye tracking studies and his folks get out rulers to measure and grade every tiny thing humans do with computers. I don’t do the ruler thing. But, he sees what I see.
Web Site Visitors Can Learn
People are routine oriented. The radio buttons are to the right of the steering wheel. Yes, the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car on the other side of the ocean than from where I live, but if I had to drive in England, I’d get used to it. This is how web sites work too. If somebody designs something new, or puts an element in a spot where you are not used to seeing it, you may react.
Mr. Nielsen points out all the reasons why in-links are confusing. They are all good reasons. And, they do happen to people.
For example, I tested a site that contained in-line links, but I had no idea they were going to perform that way because these links were located on the left side of the page, where global or hub navigation is most commonly placed. This area is where we expect to find links to other sections of a web site rather than links to other sections of a page.
It caught me by surprise, but within seconds I saw a clue further down on the page, which was a “Top of Page” link. Still, end users don’t like the unexpected. They hate feeling dumb. User instructions, in a small font size, nearby as an aid or warning, would have been helpful, such as “This navigation will take you to sections within this page.” Then, I would have known what the links were for, and how to use them.
Jakob Nielsen writes, “To avoid confusing users, you must communicate exceptions to their expectations in advance.”
“Similarly, if you absolutely must use within-page links, say so. For example, add a short statement that says something like: “Clicking a link will scroll the page to the relevant section.”
He writes about in-line and anchor links in detail but there was little I could get excited about, other than the fact that I agreed with him for once. He’s suggesting we think before we code and consider acts of courtesy and instruction. That, to me, is good usability practice.
John Scott Spoke With Dr. JN
And yet, even though the interview reads well, John asked interesting questions (“Is search engine optimization compatible with best practice usability?” and “You recently wrote an article entitled, “Search Engines as Leeches on the Web”. One SEO forum administrator, Brett Tabke, challenged you to block search engine spiders from your website. How do you respond to this?”), I had the weirdest impression that Jakob was half asleep with his answers. Like,
“Most Flash continues to be bad. Sad, particularly since we did conduct a major research study to develop the usability guidelines for good Flash.”
I remember that. But, where’s the “call to action” prompt, Jakob? I want to know what your studies concluded and what the guidelines are, if any were developed. Where is the link to find that stuff?
John and Jakob have something in common. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em, or thank them for the entertainment.
Discussion here: Should we avoid within-page links? >>>