Screening against the top ten design mistakes of 2005

Jakob Nielsen has updated his now famous Top Ten Web Design Mistakes for 2005. Since I (foolishly) promised to write more about our recent redesign, I'll use it to benchmark how we performed:

1. Legibility Problems

We're using flexible font size, thanks to the CSS design, so anyone can resize the font provided they use a modern browser. Note how the texts in the headers resize on top of the background images (the image height will adapt to the text). We've also increased the line-height to make content-heavy pages even more legible.

2. Non-Standard Links

We use standard blue, underlined text links, differentiate visited/unvisited links, provide visual clues when a PDF is behind a link, don't open pages in new windows and avoid "click here" (though I still have to fight against bad habits for those last two, I have to remind content contributors Why "Click here" is bad linking practice on a regular basis). Although our site is almost entirely dynamic, we've gone the extra mile to provide cruft-free, readable URLs for everything.

3. Flash

Always my favorite:

If your content is boring, rewrite text to make it more compelling and hire a professional photographer to shoot better photos. Don't make your pages move. It doesn't increase users' attention, it drives them away; most people equate animated content with useless content.

When I'll get fed up of chanting that one for the zillionth time to people who confuse interactivity with a Christmas tree, I'll just page-slap them with this one :-P. We got it right but I had to strongly resist, until the last minute before launch, against throwing a Flash animation right in the middle of the home page. Last month I killed a Flash site in the egg in just two minutes with the usual killer questions about what our visitors, and us, are really expecting from a business site (you guessed it, certainly not a fancy Flash animation getting in the way). I'm not an anti-Flash at all, but I reckon that 90% of the time, money we spend on Flash is simply wasted on eye-catchy but content-free decoration that provide no value whatsoever for our visitors. May be it's because I don't speak their language. Let's try for a second...

Message to marketing: Flash is so web 1.0! :-P

4. Content That's Not Written for the Web

Apart from being a constant quest (i.e. not just a redesign issue) this is something I placed very high on our design agenda from day one and we're doing an ongoing, serious work on it. I reckoned that it would represent 80% of the total work, and some people didn't believe me, now they do! Not that we did an awful job previously, our sites are recognized for the quality and depth of their content, but in a jargon-prone industry that's not a reason for not trying to do better. More on that later. (I won't commit to definitely get rid of the dreaded S-word or leverage though!)

5. Bad Search

We brought a simple, one field search form on top of every page in the site. And we changed our search technology to further improve results. I agree with Nielsen on the fact that it requires considerable work and a significant investment.

6. Browser Incompatibility

I've never, ever, tolerated Windows IE-only designs for an external web site. I find this utterly insulting for the visitors and a proof of ignorance (I completely disagree with Nielsen's stance about ROI, it's not more costly to produce a cross-browser site, it just requires competent people who know better than the Microsoft monoculture). And now that we are doing a better job with web standards, more power and choice to anyone using a modern web browser!

7. Cumbersome Forms

We could debatably do better about this one, but we reduced the pain (I hope) to a minimum. I'll always resent filling-in a 10 questions registration form before downloading documents, I'd rather have on any document an easy way to contact the right person after I've read its content, found it valuable and want to action it.

8. No Contact Information or Other Company Info

"Contact us" link on all pages (with pre-filled context for business pages), list of all offices, pretty extensive background information... looks like we're OK. By the way, not making the basic contact information available on a site is simply illegal in France!

9. Frozen Layouts with Fixed Page Widths

I feel slightly guilty about this one, though I continue to find fixed layouts better for content-heavy sites because they are easier to read (there is a good reason why newspapers have columns with limited width: readability). But we have an elastic-width variation of our layout on the intranet, we'll see how it flies.

10. Inadequate Photo Enlargement

This point is relevant for e-commerce sites, but irrelevant for a site like

I reckon we score 7 out of 9 applicable points in Nielsen's 2005 cuvée, not bad for a design orchestrated early 2004!

One more thing -- and a provocative one, I know -- we would never have achieved this had we done a design by committee. Not even close. For sure, it would have been much, much easier for me, had I done it the traditional way. One needs a thick skin to be able to challenge a corporation from the inside, and mine has grown significantly thicker after this particular redesign. But massaging corporate egos was not in the design brief ;-).



Could us tell me a few words about these committees? What kind of people do gather in such committee (head management? marketing? people who managed the current website?)? What kind of decision do they take? And then: what's wrong with that?


All sorts of people love to gather into such committee, because everybody think they're a designer and can have a say at how a site looks or is structured. So you'll find managers (usually middle management), marketing, communication, hopefully a few web folks, and people who invite themselves. They will endlessly talk and argue about taste, layout and colors ("It's sexy!", "It doesn't knock me out."), but not so much about content and goals. The #1 trap is to try the "politics as usual" corporate way of finding a middle ground to please everybody. It doesn't work because exactly as a building has only one lobby/main entrance, a company has one main home page (in a country at least), and you don't get all departments to architecture the entrance as it pleases them.

Unless you like to have a frankenstein's creature, of course.

Someone has to do a strong analysis of what the field needs through interviews (that starts with the heads of operational depts who can have a stake at the site), then a strong job of information architecture, then has to make a decision about the look and feel. In that last part, I strongly feels that an enlightened dictate is better than a committee :-). Believe it or not but I didn't show the design to the CEO, even a glimpse, before the site was ready to launch. The corporate communications director didn't get a say either. I asked everybody who tried to focus on the design rather than goals and content if they had a greater expertise than Doug and Jeffrey in web design, which quickly calmed them all.

Thank you a lot for taking time to write all these explanations, it makes it clear for me who never stepped a foot in such situation (but I'm interested how to handle that).

Thank you a lot for taking time to write all these explanations, it makes it clear for me who never stepped a foot in such situation (but I'm interested how to handle that).

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