But then us designers decided this was silly, and ugly, and not good enough. So we fixed it. And, for the last 20 or so years we’ve been creating headaches and fussing over pixels for reasons we essentially created. We think we know best, and we think that we know the web, as it was meant to be, is not good enough.
But Tim Berners-Lee a designer was not
True, he was not and is not. But, just because he wasn’t a deisnger, and just because the original iteration of the web was not as aesthetically pleasing as it could be does not mean the original authors got much wrong. Dare I say it: not all original design paradigms for the web are problems for designers to solve (I know, crazy that I would suggest this!). By this I mean that the web was built for information consumption and sharing. It was not built for pixel perfection, media query sniffing, parallax scrolljacking, retina jargon, etc… As Information Architects quipped so eloquently, the web is 95% typography, and that means first and foremost content consumption needs to remain the paramount goal.
So why does it feel like we designers are pushing our users away from tried and true web design paradigms that worked from the get go?
Underline all the links
Yes, you are correct here too. Text hyperlinks are not sexy. But, they are instantly, even annoyingly so, recognizable as exactly what they are: hyperlinks. By removing these underlines, the web-old paradigm of exactly what is text and exactly what is a link is lost. We are then asking, nay, forcing our users to re-learn this for our website. Sure, some sites that get an insane amount of traffic might be able to get away with this (thinkgoogle.com), but their users go to their site thousands upon thousands of times in their lives, and I’ll just give them a pass.
However, google.com you are not, and google.com I am not. So, every time we re-style our hyperlinks in some clever way, we are, digitally, flipping our users the bird. By removing these base styles we not only force our user to figure out that links are not underlined, we force them to learn a new way that we’ve styled them, and then we also force them to spend mental energy on figuring out what is a link and what is not a link. Unless your users efforts, time, and money mean nothing to you, then I hope you can see the error of our ways here.
Disabled and/or less privileged users of the web do exist
First, there’s the accessibility issues. We know today that not everyone who uses the web has great vision. So what do we as designers do? We lower content contrast to look sleeker. And it might look sleek, but it also means it’s a nightmare for a user who is visully impaired. High contrast ratio on your text and your hyperlinks makes it easier for all users to navigate your site, especially those of us who don’t have 20/20. Also, google.comtakes accessibility factors into account when building their search rankings, so easily understandable hyperlinks truly, truly do matter.
Secondly, as the web continues to expand into the third world, older/less advanced technology plays a huge role in how people connect to the internet. And what does this mean for designers? A LOT. It means we are the gatekeepers as well as the keymasters. It means we hold all the power in terms of whether a user succeeds in what they want to do, or whether they get frustrated and give up on us, ne’er to return again. 4G retina screens may be popular in urban areas of some first world countries, but by and large, the way users connect to the internet they are not seeing five thousand pixels crammed into a shiny new Mac. So, when we remove our text underlines, for users with less than stellar eye site, or users on crummy computers/devices, we make it even harder to do whatever they came to us to do.
Give a shit
So, please, for the webs sake; give a shit about your users. They don’t need that overzealous parallax effect, or that 4MB image, and they certainly don’t need to spend energy to figure out what is a link and what is not. Also remember; unlimited data plans are dying, and we need to care about what we take from our users, not just what we give to them.
For further reading
Don’t even get me started
On shit like Taco Bell & only on the app. Yes, it’s a clever marketing stunt, and you & I know that; but the average non-techy doesn’t see the danger in appifying the web. But that’s for another time…
Gotchas and exceptions
Top level site navigation is excluded from this rant. Will update other notes here as feedback rolls in.