"Top Ten Mistakes" Revisited Three Years Later

by Jakob Nielsen on May 2, 1999

My article from May 1996, Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design is still surprisingly relevant today, three years later. The article has become a minor Web classic with about 400,000 page views so far. It is still read 17,000 times per month.

Even discounting the possibility that some people have read the article more than once, a readership of 400,000 means that the "top ten mistakes" have been read by less than 10% of the people responsible for the world's five million websites. So most of these mistakes are still being made and I still recommend that new Web designers read my old article.

Are the Mistakes Still Wrong?

The following table scores each of the ten mistakes according to my assessment of the implications for the usability of a website today if the mistake was made frequently on the site.

Mistake Current Analysis Score
1. Frames Frames are no longer the disaster they were in 1995 and early 1996 due to some advances in browser technology: Netscape fixed the Back button with version 3, and since virtually nobody uses version 1 and 2 any more, this means that users can now navigate through frames with fewer problems. Version 4 reduced the problems printing frames (though users still often get a different printout than they expected), and Internet Explorer 5 has finally regained the ability to bookmark pages despite the use of frames. Frames still prevent users from emailing a recommended URL to other users and they also make the page more clumsy to interact with. Medium
2. Bleeding-edge technology If anything, users have less patience for bleeding-edge technology these days as the Web gets dominated by later adopters and the upgrade speeds for new browsers and plug-ins slow down. Users who encounter as much as a single JavaScript error usually leave a site immediately. It's just not worth the time to figure out how to make something work when there are 5 million other sites to go to. Very Severe
3. Scrolling text and looping animations It is as hard as ever to read scrolling text, but aggressive use of distracting animation now causes even more problems than in 1996: users have started equating such designs with advertising which they routinely ignore. These days, it is extremely important for any content and navigation elements to look very different than prevailing advertising designs since users tune out anything that they don't think will be relevant to their task. Very Severe
4. Complex URLs Users pay less attention to URLs these days than they did in the early days of the Web. Since most sites now have navigation support, users are also relying less on the URL to tell them about their location on the site. But long URLs still cause problems when users email page recommendations to each other. Severe
5. Orphan pages Less likely to make users stuck since most people have learned the trick to get to the home page of a site by "hacking" the end off the URL. Still a disaster for novice users; still annoying for experienced users. Medium
6. Scrolling navigation pages 90% of users used to not scroll navigation pages; instead, they simply picked from the visible options. This has changed since most Web users now know that pages scroll and that important links sometimes are not visible "above the fold." Even so, the visible options still dominate and users sometimes overlook alternatives lower down the page. This is particularly bad if the visible part of the page seems to clearly communicate a certain purpose or a certain best approach: users may then happily conclude that they know what to do and not bother spending time on the rest of the page. Smaller Problem
7. Lack of navigation support Rarely seen, but a problem when it occurs. People are now getting used to certain canonical navigation elements such as a site logo in the upper left corner (linked to the home page) or a clear indication of what part of the site the current page belongs to (linked to the main page for that section). So if these elements are missing, users feel lost. Severe
8. Non-standard link colors Continues to be a problem since users rely on the link colors to understand what parts of the site they have visited. I often see users bounce repeatedly among a small set of pages, not knowing that they are going back to the same page again and again. (Also, because non-standard link colors are unpleasantly frequent, users are now getting confused by any underlining of text that is not a link.) Severe
9. Outdated information Worse now since so many other sites on the Web are continuously updated. Also, with the growth in e-commerce, trust is getting increasingly important, and outdated content is a sure way to lose credibility. (Note that archival information and information about old products are plusses and very different from outdated information.) Very Severe
10. Slow download times Contrary to many Internet pundits' pronouncements, the bandwidth problem has not been solved during the last three years; nor will it be solved during the next three years. Not until 2003 will high-end users have sufficient bandwidth for acceptable Web response times. Low-end users have to wait until about 2008. Very Severe

I conclude that:

  • All ten mistakes from 1996 are still mistakes in 1999
  • Nine of the ten mistakes still cause significant usability problems and should be avoided in modern websites
  • Scrolling navigation pages cause fewer usability problems these days and can be allowed if caution is taken in their design (any time you have overly long navigation pages, I would take it as a warning signal and as a requirement for usability testing)

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