The Need for Web Design Standards

by Jakob Nielsen on September 13, 2004

Summary: Users expect 77% of the simpler Web design elements to behave in a certain way. Unfortunately, confusion reigns for many higher-level design issues.

The entire concept of "Web design" is a misnomer. Individual project teams are not designing the Web any more than individual ants are designing an anthill. Site designers build components of a whole, especially now that users are viewing the entirety of the Web as a single, integrated resource.

Unfortunately, much of the Web is like an anthill built by ants on LSD: many sites don't fit into the big picture, and are too difficult to use because they deviate from expected norms.

Several design elements are common enough that users expect them to work in a certain way. Here's my definition of three different standardization levels:

  • Standard: 80% or more of websites use the same design approach. Users strongly expect standard elements to work a certain way when they visit a new site because that's how things always work.
  • Convention: 50-79% of websites use the same design approach. With a convention, users expect elements to work a certain way when they visit a new site because that's how things usually work.
  • Confusion: with these elements, no single design approach dominates, and even the most popular approach is used by at most 49% of websites. For such design elements, users don't know what to expect when they visit a new site.

(These cut-off values are slightly lower than ones I used in 1999. I now believe that a design becomes the expectation when users see it more than half the time.)

Instead of simply counting the number of websites, it would be better to count the percentage of the total user experience accounted for by each design approach. In other words, those sites that people visit frequently would get a higher weight than those sites that people rarely or never visit. Using weighted scores would slightly change my conclusions, deeming more design elements as standardized because bigger sites tend to stick to the basics in their user interface designs.

How Many Design Elements Are Standardized?

To estimate the extent to which Web design complies with interface standards, I compared two studies: my own study of 24 features on 50 corporate homepages, and a University of Washington master's thesis that studied 33 features on 75 e-commerce sites.

Interestingly, despite investigating two different subfields of Web design, the two studies came up with almost identical numbers. I'm thus only reporting the average of the two sets of numbers here.

Following are the extent to which websites have standardized on the 57 design approaches studied:

  • Standard: 37% of design elements were done the same way by at least four-fifths of the sites. Standard design elements included:
    • A logo in the upper left corner of the page
    • A search box on the homepage
    • An absence of splash pages
    • Breadcrumbs listed horizontally (when they were used)
  • Convention: 40% of design elements were done the same way by at least half the sites (but less than four-fifths of the sites). Conventional design elements included:
    • Using the label "site map" for the site map (which is recommended from user research on site map usability)
    • Changing the color of visited links (recommended to help navigation)
    • Placing the shopping cart link in the upper right corner of page
    • Placing links to sibling areas (neighboring topics at the same information architecture level as the current location) in the left-hand column
  • Confusion: 23% of design elements were done in so many ways that no single approach dominated. Confusion reigned in several areas, including:
    • The main navigation schemes, which included left-hand menu, tabs across the top, navbar across the top, Yahoo-style directory in the middle, and so on
    • Placement of the search feature, which included upper right, upper left, middle, and elsewhere on the page
    • The sign-in process
    • Placement of Help

At first glance, it might seem wonderful that only 1/4 of the design issues created confusion. For the vast majority of website design decisions, a convention or standard exists, which means that people will apparently know how to use the site when these conventions or standards are followed.

But look at the design element examples at each standardization level. Unfortunately, the most firmly standardized issues are the simplest and most localized ones, such as where to put the logo or how to display breadcrumb trails.

The confusing design elements are the bigger issues that contribute more strongly to users' ability to master the whole site, as opposed to dealing with individual pages. Navigation is confusing. Search is confusing. Sign-in is confusing. Even Help is confusing, reducing the usability of the user's last resort when all else has failed.

Why Design Standards Help Users

We must eliminate confusing design elements and move as far as possible into the realm of design conventions. Even better, we should establish design standards for every important website task.

Standards ensure that users

  • know what features to expect,
  • know how these features will look in the interface,
  • know where to find these features on the site and on the page,
  • know how to operate each feature to achieve their goal,
  • don't have to ponder the meaning of unknown design elements,
  • don't miss important features because they overlook a non-standard design element, and
  • don't get nasty surprises when something doesn't work as expected.

These benefits increase users' sense of mastery over the website, increase their ability to get things done, and increase their overall satisfaction with the experience.

Why Websites Should Comply With Design Standards

One simple reason:

  • Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience: users spend most of their time on other websites.

In visiting all these other sites, people become accustomed to the prevailing design standards and conventions. Thus, when users arrive at your site, they assume it will work the same way as other sites.

In my recent research into Web-wide user behavior, users left websites after 1 minute and 49 seconds on average, concluding in that time that the website didn't fulfill their needs. (I present more findings from this research in my upcoming tutorial on Fundamental Guidelines for Web Usability.)

With so little time to convince prospects that you're worthy of their business, you shouldn't waste even a second making them struggle with a deviant user interface.

Going forward, we must produce and follow widely-used conventions and design patterns for the bigger issues in Web design, including:

  • the structure of product pages,
  • workflow (beyond simplistic shopping carts),
  • the main types of information a corporate site should provide, and
  • the information architecture for that information (where to find what).

Not everything can be standardized, but there is more commonality to user behavior across sites than you might think. For example, research with individual investors and financial analysts resulted in three recommended information architectures for a company's investor relations information. Three different IAs may not sound like much of a standard. However, the three IAs are quite similar and follow an underlying model because investors do pretty much the same things when they visit different companies' IR sites. It should be possible to derive high-level design patterns for other domains as well. Such patterns must both retain sufficient flexibility and give users a sense of consistency and mastery in the things that matter.

Intranet Standards

Design standards are one area in which intranets are better off than public websites. Since intranets suffer in so many other ways, they'd be wise to take advantage of this unique opportunity.

A key distinction between an intranet and the Internet is that the intranet has a single authority in charge. The intranet team can define a design standard and promote it throughout the corporation. The team can also implement a single publishing system that ensures consistency by placing all content into a single set of well-designed templates.

Yes, I am simplifying matters when I say that the intranet team "can" do all this. In most companies, there's still a political battle to be fought before the intranet team can secure a mandate to truly govern the intranet and make it into an employee productivity tool. But most of the really good intranets we have studied do have some form of design standards in place.

Whether you run an intranet or a website, one thing is clear: the more you comply with design conventions and give users what they want, the more success you'll have. It's of course important to differentiate your content, services, and products, but in the interface to this material, your best strategy is to follow everyone else.

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