Attack of the killer conventions
By David Walker (Google profile)
Great designers everywhere work within the essential conventions of their subject. Pininfarina's Ferraris all steer via a wheel set straight in front of the driver. Edward Tufte's self-crafted books have tables of contents and page numbers like every other book. Edna Walling's gardens use lawns, trees and perennial plantings.
And in 2002, Web site design conventions are emerging too. Just as early carmakers discarded the tiller, so sites are focussing on an ever smaller set of design solutions. They're fulfilling the predictions of usability expert Jakob Nielsen, enemy of budding Picassos throughout the world of Web design. Nielsen notes that users spend most of their time on other sites - "so users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know".
Dutch software engineer Martijn van Welie has picked up this idea in his collection of effective site "patterns". (Welie models them after the design patterns of architect Christopher Alexander.) Welie's patterns take a stab at describing how users want elements like shopping carts and search results presented, and at describing the necessary compromises inherent in different patterns. He uses examples from heavily-trafficked sites like eBay, Amazon and Google.
A bloke called Michael Bernard, from the Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University in the US, has taken this approach one step further. During 2000 Bernard took 346 novice and experienced Web users and asked them where they'd expect to find various function on a Web page. His rules of thumb for Web design appeared in a paper titled "Examining User Expectations of the Location of Web Objects".
For instance, where do you put a link to your site's home page? Close to 30 per cent of Bernard's users put it in the top left-hand corner - but around 15 per cent put in at the centre of the page's bottom line. If you're not putting a link to the home page in these locations, you should be prepared to explain why.
Where else did Bernard find conventions?
- Links to other pages of your site are expected to be on the left-hand side of the page, though not at the extreme top or bottom.
- Links to other sites are expected to be on the right or the lower left.
- The site's internal search engine is expected to be centred near the top of the page, or in the top right-hand corner.
- Shopping-cart links and help buttons are also expected to appear in the top right-hand corner.
Some of these locations will move over time. For instance, Bernard's users expected banner ads to appear at the top centre of the page; new ad standards mean ads now appear quite often in the middle of the page. Steve Krug asserts in his book "Don't Make Me Think" that by convention section listings should run across the top of the page and local navigation - pages at the same level as the one you're on - should run down the left-hand side (Bernard didn't test for this).
Many designers will feel you can't design as Bernard and Welie suggest, that a designer's job is to find the best creative solution rather than the one people expect. Usability experts like Krug and Nielsen, meanwhile, take the scientific view that a designer's job is to hypothesise and then test with real users to see what suits them. They, too, have their doubts about adopting conventions.
But designers have to start somewhere, especially in the low-margin environment of the Web. They can neither assume the far-out design will do the job, nor test every possible design solution to find out which one works best. They have to assume certain truths about their audience. They have to adopt conventions. The debates are over how early and how strictly conventions should be adopted.