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Top-10 design mistakes in web applications

According to Jakob Nielsen, these are the 10 most common usability violations found in web applications:

1. Non-standard interface controls, such as home-grown scrollbars
2. Inconsistency in the way things work, appear and are labelled across the app
3. No providing proper affordances that give people visual clues about what they can do with an object (e.g. that they can drag-and-drop an object)
4. Not giving proper feedback about what is happening
5. Bad error messages that don't tell what went wrong and how to fix it
6. Asking for the same information twice
7. Not providing defaults (e.g. in a list of radio buttons)
8. Dumping users into the app without giving them an idea of how it works
9. Not indicating how collected information will be used
10. Offering system-centric features that reflect the system's internal view rather than the users

And generous as Jakob is, he also has a bonus mistake: Reset buttons on web forms.


  • Top-10 Application-Design Mistakes Open link in new window

Henrik Olsen - February 20, 2008

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See also: Web applications (6)  Guidelines and Standards (15) 



Use transparent messages instead of monolog dialogs

Aza Raskin condemn the use of monolog boxes - dialog boxes where there's nothing one can do but click "OK". Instead, she suggests the use of transparent messages:

"Transparent messages are the brainchild of Jef Raskin. It's simply a large and translucent message that's displayed over the contents of your screen. They fade away when the user takes any action (like typing or moving the mouse). In practice, the message is both noticeable yet unobtrusive. And because the message is transparent, you can see what's beneath it. It's just humane."


  • Monolog Boxes and Transparent Messages Open link in new window

Henrik Olsen - September 14, 2006 - via Usernomics

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See also: Tips and guidelines (95)  Web page design (41) 



Error message guidelines

According to Jakob Nielsen good error messages should:
- Clearly indicate that something has gone wrong
- Be in a human-readable language
- Be polite and not blame the users
- Describe the problem
- Give constructive advice on how to fix the problem
- Be visible and highly noticeable, both in terms of the message and how it indicates where things went wrong
- Preserve as much of the user's work as possible so that they don't have to do everything over again
- If possible, guess the correct action and let users pick it form a list of fixes
- Educate users by providing links to pages with an explanation of the problem


  • The article Error Message Guidelines Open link in new window

Henrik Olsen - June 13, 2005

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See also: Tips and guidelines (95) 



Guidelines for helping people when things go wrong

A white paper by 37signals lists 20 rules for improving contingency design - design for when things go wrong.

1. Use language your customers understand
2. Be polite
3. Offer an escape route
4. Offer customized "Page Not Found" error pages
5. Make sure the browser's "Back" button works
6. Reduce the need for constant back-and forth between different pages to fix errors
7. Use highly visible color, icons, and directions to highlight the problem
8. Don't make customers guess
9. Briefly and clearly explain what's happening
10. Don't block content with ads
11. Use smart search technology that understands common mistakes
12. Don't offer too many or inaccurate search results
13. Help log-in with tips or by emailing information
14. Offer contextual FAQs
15. Answer e-mails quickly and effectively
16. Don't force registration in order to assist customers
17. Solicit feedback on contingency design
18. Provide a fallback plan
19. Learn from mistakes
20. Plan for failure


  • The white paper Contingency Design: Maximizing Online Profitability By Helping People When Things Go Wrong Open link in new window

Henrik Olsen - April 17, 2005

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See also: Tips and guidelines (95) 



Server side usability - How to make web servers behave

Most usability professionals don't have a driver's licence to servers and are not aware of the step that can be taken to make them behave in a user-friendly way. The GUUUI Q4 2004 issue takes a look at how to avoid that server technology becomes an obstacle to usability.

The article suggests that we should:

- Make the "www" prefix optional
- Support "www" prefix typos
- Support domain name typos and spelling errors
- Support erroneous country codes
- Use tidy URLs
- Don't leave users in a dead end when a page cannot be found
- Alert users when a server error occurs
- Have a "We are updating" page ready


Henrik Olsen - October 01, 2004

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See also: GUUUI articles (11)  Tips and guidelines (95)  URLs (3) 



How to handle the Page Not Found error

Every site should handle the page not found error gracefully. Two quite similar articles have the following tips:
- Do not redirect people to the home page
- Let the visitor know that something unexpected is going on at first glance
- Do not call it "Error 404"
- Don't assume it's the visitor's fault
- Offer a site map
- Offer a search form
- Fix broken links
- Redirect outdated links to the new page locations

It's also possible to make 404 pages more intelligent by:
- Checking whether the link is an outdated bookmark and redirect to the new location
- Check whether it's a broken link in the site and notify the webmaster
- Check whether the link is from a search engine and use the search phrases to suggest relevant content (e.g. by doing an internal search)
- Add spell checking to catch minor typos in the URL


  • 'Not Found' Is Not An Option: Error Handling and User Experience Open link in new window
  • The Perfect 404 Open link in new window

Henrik Olsen - September 15, 2004

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See also: Tips and guidelines (95) 



Defensive Design for the Web (By 37signals)

How To Improve Error Messages, Help, Forms, and Other Crisis Points.

Learn 40 guidelines to prevent errors and rescue customers if a breakdown occurs. See hundreds of real-world examples from companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo that show the right (and wrong) ways to handle crisis points. Evaluate your own site's defensive design with an easy-to-perform test and find out how to improve it over the long term.

This is the first book from the innovative 37signals web design and usability experts Jason Fried and Matthew Linderman.

Their publication is praised by other web design and usability authorities such as Jeffrey Zeldman, Mark Hurst, and Steve Krug.


  • The book description at (Option to buy there) Open link in new window

Pieter-Jan Pruuost - March 17, 2004

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See also: Books (47) 


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