"If you still don't like it, that's ok: that's why I'm boss. I simply know better than you do." - Linus Torvalds

Website Annoyances

Website Annoyances

Friday 10th February 2006 - Sunday 5th March 2006

Categories: Internet, Opinion

As you may, or may not, have guessed from the title of this article (and, indeed, the first page), I'm here to complain about all the things wrong with websites from across the globe. Before we start, though, we need a disclaimer. This website is far from perfect (yes, I coded this monstrosity). There are certain things that don't work as well as they should, some things I should implement, and so on, mostly due to a combination of laziness and incompetence. I'm probably guilty of some of the things I'm about to list, but I'm going to list them anyway.

Before we begin, a quick note on Bad Things. Bad Things aren't always Bad Things. For example, chocolate is normally a Good Thing. However, if it is a hot summer's day, and your chocolate is now melted, it will start sticking to the wrapper. And your fingers. And then anything you touch. And it will flop over onto the floor after your first bite. Clearly, it has now become a Bad Thing, and eating a Custard Cream Biscuit would have been a far better option. My point [you actually have a point?] is that that are certain times and places where it is appropriate to use certain things. It is when we use them in the wrong place and for the wrong purpose that they become Bad Things.

A short while ago, I asked you for what annoyed you. After being inundated with literally an e-mail, I collated the result. So, without further ado, here are your top ten annoyances!

1. Flash and Java

Way out in the lead, we have Flash, closely followed by Java (actually, Java came third, but I'll lump them in same category). While this may not be my number one, I certainly agree that Flash and Java are rather annoying.

I have nothing against the above when they are used properly - they all have purposes to which they are well suited. The problem arises when people use them in a situation where they are not well suited. For example, I have seen people using Flash for navigation, or Java to show the latest news - even though they don't really add anything to the experience. In some cases, they can be extremely annoying - taking over the screen, or making stupid noises. There is a wide array of people that cannot, or do not want to, use these technologies. Ordinary (X)HTML and CSS is more than capable of doing these tasks, and does it using less bandwidth, while keeping just about any user agent happy.

2. Pop-ups

Yes, the second most annoying thing on the Internet is advertising, specifically in the form of pop-ups. There is not actually that much to say about this - anybody who actually values their visitors, rather than just wanting to frustrate them, will not use pop-ups. They get in the way of browsing, and they are not even that effective. What happens if you get a pop-up? With most people, it's just like the loose leaflets in your morning paper - you just shake the paper so they all fall into the bin. Please, advertisers, stop using pop-ups. They are annoying, don't work all that well, and... er... well, that's plenty enough reason.

As for the user... if you use a browser such as Firefox, Seamonkey or Opera then most of the pop-ups will be blocked - some will probably still get through, but it should make for a more pleasant browsing experience.

3. Complex Navigation

One of the things that often annoys me, and, it seems, you, is complex navigation. Some sites really like to make it difficult for you to get to articles, or to find a specific review that you were looking for. This tends to be especially true for older information - just because information is not recent, it does not mean it is not useful. Therefore, I would like to invent something that somebody else has probably already come up with: the Five Click Rule. That means, from any page on a website, you can get to any other page in five clicks i.e. links, or less. Whether this is through a sitemap or just clever design, it is important that you can get to where you want to go quickly.

It is also important that you can get there easily. Sometimes, links are not particularly clear, or they are too hard to find. Along with any page being five clicks away, they should be five obvious clicks away. Right now, I'm looking at a better way to organise the menu you see on the left (unless you're in print mode), since it isn't as clear as I would like it to be. Similarly, I recommend any web designer to look at their webpage, and ask themselves, "Is there any way I could make it easier, clearer and simpler to navigate my site?"

4. Poor Design

Poor web design was another common complaint - coming in at number four. Particularly criticised, besides navigation which got its own section, was the fixing of width of pages.

I really, really hate it when I'm told how wide a website is supposed to be. Often, this is around 800 pixels. So, if your screen is narrower, you get horizontal scrolling, which is a Bad Thing. If you have a screen that is wider, you can get a huge amount of wasted space. This isn't as bad as horizontal scrolling, but it is still a Bad Thing. I ask any web developer, please make your webpages fluid. By fixing the width, you are making life more difficult for plenty of people.

The problem persists when you start trying to print. This can be even worse since, instead of horizontal scrolling, the right most part of the page gets cut off. I hardly need to tell you that that is a Bad Thing.

5. Links

Links are among the most important elements of the web. Without them, you'd probably end up going nowhere. How, then, are they the fifth most annoying thing on the Internet? There is a wide selection of points to choose from, but I'll leave them all under the same heading.

First of all, we have links that open new windows. This is a Bad Thing. The argument normally goes: by opening a new window (often for external links), the old window remains, so people stay on our site more. Only that doesn't quite work. By opening a new window, you break the back button, and the user cannot simply click back to go to your website again. So, in many cases, it actually makes it harder to stay on your website. Besides, breaking the back button is always a Bad Thing. Additionally, the user is more than capable of opening a new window if they want one.

We also have links that pretend to be normal text, but are actually links. If there is a link in the text, make it obvious! Similarly, if something is not a link, do not make people think that it is a link. That means you should not underline them, or change the colour to blue - people frequently associate this with links. Even colours besides blue can be risky since some people associate any coloured text with links.

Finally, we have links that stay the same colour, regardless of whether you have been there or not. That means that people can often end up going in loops, finding old pages again, and generally getting lost and irritated.

6. Registration

"How can registration be bad?" some might ask, and quite rightly too. Registration does not have to be bad. If we could not register, we could not buy things from Amazon, or buy a domain name, or post on forums using our name. Registration is, however, a Bad Thing when it is forced upon you for the simplest of things - for example, some news sites do not even let you read any stories if you have not registered. Many of you commented on the reasoning behind this - the general consensus is that there is no point, unless you want your e-mail address to be hit by spam. Personally, I believe the Internet should be as free as is practical - and that means not giving out your e-mail address to random websites just to use them.

Imagine you wanted to go into a shop, perhaps to buy something and give the shopkeeper some of your custom. Then, shock! Horror! A security guard steps in your way, and says you cannot go in until you tell them the address of your house. My response would be just not to go in - and the reaction of the participants of the survey seems to the same online.

7. Slow Pages

There seems to be an awful trend at the moment towards slow, bloated webpages, filled with Javascript and countless images. This normally means that the page is slow to load, either due to the high amount of data to download, even on broadband, or the extra load on the server. This aggravates the problem of navigation - it is annoying enough to go around a website, unable to find a particular page. It is even worse when you have to wait twenty seconds after every link, only to find out you were waiting for the wrong page to load.

This should be a relatively easy problem to alleviate - most sites are slow because the template that each page is based around is filled with images. Some of these really aren't necessary, or could be much smaller. For example, many sites use an image for the name of the website. That's fine - it creates a consistent look for your website. However, too many people have a huge amount of solid colour around the text, creating a huge banner image that could be much, much smaller, both in screen space and size. Cutting download sizes makes browsing your website far more pleasurable, and shouldn't be too hard to do.

8. Animation

It does not seem to matter what it is that is doing the moving - Flash, GIFs - you do not care, and you do not like it. Now, that does not mean that anything that moves should be banished to the eternal depths. Instead, they should be used more sparingly, when it is appropriate. You can hardly make a film using (X)HTML and CSS, and in this case, something along the lines of Flash fits the bill. However, looking at webpages now, there are far too many moving objects when a static object would suffice. Moving objects are harder to see than static objects, and reduce accessibility for several groups, such as the visually impaired.

Larger sites seem to be especially guilty of this: a navigation menu that moves and changes shape. Things That Move are generally bad, but this is so bad that it has its own paragraph. Many sites have headings, such as Articles, which is fine. The problem occurs when you hover over them, and a new list of links appears. Often, this doesn't work properly. This can manifest itself in the form of the list not closing once I've stopped hovering the right part, or closing when I'm trying to click on one the links. On occasion, I find a site where I have to try and move my mouse fast enough before the menu closes, along with the link I want. Furthermore, it means that I can't see all the options available to me - I have to go through the tedium over hovering over anything that might produce more links just to see what is on offer - some clearer headings wouldn't go amiss sometimes.

Of course, that is just the problem I have with moving navigation. Some people find this confusing, especially those not experienced with computers or the Internet. In some instances, the menu just doesn't work. For example, Javascript is regularly used for menus, yet not all browsers have Javascript support, and not all people have Javascript turned on. Another example is a reader program for the blind. It might not be able to read Javascript, so the blind user would be completely oblivious to the navigation, or parts of it - yet this is an absolutely essential part of any website.

9. Code Quality

Validation of code is very useful, and helps to ensure that your code is alright. However, as pleasant as it would be, I'm not going to ask everybody to make sure that their code is valid (X)HTML and CSS. Getting everybody to do that is an impossible task, but what be nice is better code. There is an abundance of tag soup, with pages displaying differently in different browsers because of this. There are even pages that don't work in some browsers, normally because they don't follow the proper standards. If everybody wrote proper code, we could have a consistent Internet across browsers, so that people can choose their browsers freely.

Besides standards, one particular area pointed out was forms. It is quite usual to stop the user proceeding if not all the right fields have been entered. However, some seem to have been told to fill in a field that does not even exist!

10. Intros

Bringing up the rear (sort of) is introductions to web pages. These generally take the form of a Flash movie. There are a number of reasons not to like them:

My attitude to introductions is just to click any available skip button or, failing that, to leave the site.

11. Accessibility

Yes, that's right, there's a number eleven. Why? Because this is something that was rarely brought up in the replies I got, but an aspect that I feel deserves some notice. It is important that the vast resource of the Internet can be used easily - and that includes the disabled. There are dozens of things a website can do to make itself more accessible. There are also dozens of things that websites do wrong.

For example, many of the blind use software to read out websites to them. When sites use excessive punctuation, this can cause problems. Take a look at this example of a navigation menu:

.:Home:..:Articles:..:Contact:..:About:.

To you, that might look quite nice, and cuts down on bandwidth since it does not use pictures. But, to a blind person, that might be read out as:

dot colon home colon dot dot colon articles colon dot dot colon contact colon dot dot colon about colon dot

Which makes a bit less sense. There are various things you can do to make your website more accessible - a good place to start would be Dive Into Accessiblity, which gives some excellent tips to improve your website. The next place could be the actual guidelines set out by the W3C - the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 - of particular interest might be one of the two checklists, that allow you to quickly go through the various points.

Interestingly, there was very little comment on fonts - looking at some other surveys, fonts, particularly small fonts, seem to aggravate people, as well as fonts that do not contrast with the background well. The answer to small fonts is fairly obvious - make them bigger! But even then, you should use relative units - this allows more browsers to resize the text. For example, instead of 24pt, use 2em. As for colours - just take a good look at the text colour and the background colour, and make sure that you can read it easily.

Final Words

Most of the points raised here are about things that are useful in their own right, but are used in completely the wrong way. Remember, whether it is Flash, Java, animation or anything else: just because we can use something, it does not mean we must use that thing.

Looking at the issues raised, there seems to be a very definate trend - most, if not all, points are essentially being able to read text and content. Obscure navigation, intros, Flash, Java - these can all stop people from being able to view content. If you write decent articles, and make them easily accessible, then anything after that is just an addition. After all: Content is King.

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