Information Today
Volume 17, Number 4 • April 2000
• Internet Waves •
Trapped in a Web of Bad Design
Recognizing Web page flaws can be frustrating—and often amusing 
by Shirley Duglin Kennedy

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)—Cliches, French Language, (

Reflect for a few moments on those things that really make you grind your teeth when you’re surfing the Web:

Jakob Nielsen—identified by no less an authoritative source than The New York Times as “the guru of Web page usability” (—feels your pain. As a matter of fact, he’s been feeling your pain since at least May 1996, when his classic Alertbox column, “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design ( made its initial appearance on the Net. Nielsen, a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer until 1998, is currently “User Advocate” and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group (, a company he co-founded with Donald A. Norman, former vice president of research at Apple Computer. Although Nielsen’s involvement with user interface design predates personal and commercial use of the Internet, his professional career went into orbit as a result of the navigational and aesthetic atrocities that are currently overwhelming the World Wide Web.

Any idiot can create a Web page … and most of them already have.—A bit of Web folk wisdom that is generally accepted as the truth

In his 1996 column, Nielsen identified the following sins as the “Top Ten Mistakes in Web Page Design”:

  1. Using Frames—“All of a sudden, you cannot bookmark the current page and return to it—the bookmark points to another version of the frameset—URLs stop working, and printouts become difficult.”
  2. Gratuitous Use of Bleeding Edge Technology—“Using the latest and greatest before it is even out of beta is a sure way to discourage users: If their system crashes while visiting your site, you can bet that many of them will not be back.”
  3. Scrolling Text, Marquees, and Constantly Running Animations—“A Web page should not emulate Times Square in … its constant attack on the human senses: Give your user some peace and quiet to actually read the text!”
  4. Complex URLs—“… users sometimes need to type in a URL, so try to minimize the risk of typos by using short names with all lowercase characters and no special characters …”
  5. Orphan Pages—“… every page should have a link up to your home page as well as some indication of where they fit within the structure of your information space.”
  6. Long Scrolling Pages—Back in May 1996, Nielsen claimed, “Only 10 percent of users scroll beyond the information that is visible on the screen when a page comes up.” However, in December 1997, he said studies showed “that more users are willing to scroll now.” Nonetheless, he still recommends “minimizing scrolling on navigation pages.”
  7. Lack of Navigation Support—“Don’t assume that users know as much about your site as you do. They always have difficulty finding information, so they need support in the form of a strong sense of structure and place.”
  8. Nonstandard Link Colors—“Links to pages that have not been seen by the user are blue; links to previously seen pages are purple or red. Don’t mess with these colors since the ability to understand what links have been followed is one of the few navigational aids that is standard in most Web browsers.”
  9. Outdated Information—“You need somebody to root out the weeds and replant the flowers as the Web site changes, but most people would rather spend their time creating new content than on maintenance.”
  10. Overly Long Download Times—“Traditional human factors guidelines indicate 10 seconds as the maximum response time before users lose interest. On the Web, users have been trained to endure so much suffering that it may be acceptable to increase this limit to 15 seconds for a few pages.”
Mind you, Nielsen identified these Web design mistakes way back in May 1996, and this particular column of his has been referenced, reprinted, and excerpted time and time again in the 4 years since. So why the heck is there still so much downright awful Web site design? Virtually every single time we browse, we are assaulted—aesthetically and cognitively. And we all know that bad design is not restricted to “personal” home pages—the teenage rants, the scanned-in beer can collections, the photo albums dedicated to pet cats or lizards. And it really, really bugs us when we are searching the Web for information rather than surfing the Web for entertainment.

The late, lamented Mirsky’s Worst of the Web was the first site I can remember that offered daily finger-pointing at content and design atrocities that were usually well deserving of the ridicule and abuse that they received. Anthony’s Most Annoying of the Web is still around (, but it is no Mirsky’s, and it is badly in need of updating (as per Nielsen’s Mistake # 9). The following are some other arbiters of bad design and stupid/useless content—many of which, it must be noted, commit any number of design mistakes themselves. What is it with all these gut-wrenching background patterns and textures?

Heck, even Yahoo! has gotten into the act (
Not_really_the_best), as has (

Currently, the most well-written albeit somewhat over-the-top site on bad design is Vincent Flanders’ Web Pages That Suck (, which provides explicit advice as to what works, what doesn’t work, and why. Flanders offers “The Daily Sucker”—sometimes there is more than one—and an enlightening tour of egregious design errors (—yes, it’s framed). He tackles many of the same subjects that Nielsen does, but in a much more, uh … colorful manner. Don’t miss the discussion of “Mystery Meat Navigation” ( And then there are the “Chrome Pages,” which Flanders defines as “sucky pages from large corporations and organizations who should really know better.” There’s also a vetted, nicely organized collection of links to Web page design information and resources that deserves a bookmark if you’re involved in this sort of thing (

Flanders, who does occasional site reviews for CNet’s (, has written a book that expands and elaborates upon the contents of his Web site—Web Pages That Suck (Sybex, 1998, $39). You can read excerpts from the book online at

Content Hints
Design issues aside, content still reigns as king on the Internet. And many would-be content providers are still learning that writing for the Web is different than writing for print. For one thing, according to a study done by Jakob Nielsen when he was still an engineer at Sun Microsystems (, people don’t actually read on the Web; they scan. As a result, says Nielsen, Web pages have to employ scannable text, using highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others); meaningful subheadings (not clever ones); bulleted lists; one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph); the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion; and half the word count (or less) than conventional writing.

Nielsen’s Writing for the Web paper (, with its links to a number of excellent style guides and instructional resources, is a mandatory bookmark for anyone involved in producing content for the Web—either directly or indirectly.

And check the following Web design resources and style manuals specific to libraries:

For those of us creating Web sites for the general public, it’s critical to learn about Web design issues relevant to accessibility. (See “The Internet Lawyer: Is Your Site ADA-Compliant … or a Lawsuit in Waiting” at Usable Web maintains a comprehensive collection of links to accessibility resources at If you think your existing site has no problems in this area, you might be in for a surprise if you run your pages through Bobby (, a free “Web-based tool that analyzes Web pages for their accessibility to people with disabilities” from the Center for Applied Special Technologies.

New Books
Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia by David L. Farquhar (O’Reilly & Associates, $24.95). Don’t let the title put you off if you don’t deal in such “frivolities.” This book offers many useful tips for squeezing every last ounce of performance out of aging machines running Windows 95/98 (

Crossing Platforms: A Macintosh/Windows Phrasebook by Adam Engst and David Pogue (O’Reilly & Associates, $29.95). Let the operating system zealots duke it out in endless flame wars on the Net. Some of us work with both Macs and PCs, and we strive to be Zen about it. This book caters to our need to transfer skills and knowledge from one platform to the other (

Strange Sites
Strange—The RPI Albino Squirrel Page ( is an online shrine to an albino squirrel that lives on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. This guy looks pretty robust; apparently he is much cherished by many of those who share the campus with him. And well he should be, as he is being exploited by the sale of T-shirts bearing his image.

Stranger—The Museum of Questionable Medical Devices Online ( I dunno … there are days when something like The MacGregor Rejuvenator starts looking pretty good.

Strangest—AskJeeves Peek Through the Keyhole for Researchers ( See what people are Asking Jeeves right-now-this-minute. My 17-year-old son, the intellectual snob, says this is “like watching the decline of Western civilization right before your eyes.” The page auto-refreshes every 30 seconds. Mesmerizing.

Shirl Kennedy is Webmaster for the City of Clearwater, Florida. Her e-mail address is

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