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"It's Pretty, But..." Why People Complain about Websites
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"It's Pretty but I Can't Use It"
Why People Complain About Web Sites 

Copyright 1999 by Susan Fowler, Victor Stanwick


"It's pretty but I can't use it." Have you heard someone say this about your site?

People also say things like, "This website loads too slowly!" or "I get lost in this site!" or "There's nothing here I'm interested in!"

Web design is not like page design or even like GUI design....

In this article, we will tell you things that you already know from experience--you already know what the problems are. But you may not know why they're problems or you may not know what to do about them.

We intend to give you the information you need to create usable pages and, if necessary, to defend your choices in design and client meetings.

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Standards and Defaults


Color theory and much research have shown that red is a very poor background color. There was a certain web site that we were going to use as an example of what not to do, but fortunately (or for the purposes of this web site, unfortunately), they fixed the problem since this page went into production. They violated the following standard: they had a red background with blue text. Look at the table below for an example of what this does to your eyes.

Red background, blue text...

Your eyeballs are probably wiggling around inside your head as you read this. Imagine if you had to stare at this color combination for an extended period of time?

The reason the color combination above hurts is because of the way the human eye focuses color wavelengths:


  • Red wavelengths come into focus a little behind the retina, so reds appear to pop out of the background and come at you.
  • Yellow and green wavelengths (as well as black and white) come into focus at the retina and require the least accommodation.
  • Blue wave lengths come into focus a little in front of the retina, so blue appears to fade into the background, away from the eye.

For these reasons, blue makes a great background color. You can use red if you want something to jump out at the viewer. However, too much red text on a blue background (or vice versa) will still cause your eyeballs to wiggle. For foregrounds and text, yellow, green, black and white are best--they're as visible on the periphery of your vision as in the center of the visual field.

Color Confusion

One very important thing to consider when working with color: Eight percent of males (that's every twelfth male) are red-green color-blind.

The term "color-blind" is a little misleading. Many men who are color-blind can actually see the colors red and green when they are used separately. However, when the two colors are next to each other, they have a tendency to "melt" together and become indistinguishable. The key to avoiding this problem is using more than color to carry information. For example, on a chart, use a dashed line and a solid line; they can be red and green if you like, but the difference between them is reinforced by the style of line.

For one of the best articles anywhere on color confusion, see Color Vision, Color Deficiency by Diane Wilson.

Color blind

Wilson's TRICHI logo works even if you're color-blind because the colors have enough contrast to stand out from one another.

Printing Colors

The web site for the First International Software Assurance Certification Conference, held in 1999 at the Marriott hotel in Dulles, Virginia, had a greenish background with white text. The page contained important information, and it is likely that many people printed it out. Or tried to.

However, depending on the web browser they were using, when they printed the page they may have ended up with only the ISACC'99 logo and the title graphic at the top of the page. Why is the rest of the printed page blank? Because they asked their printers to print the text, and the text on the web page is white!

Both Netscape and Internet Explorer have print settings window where you can set an option to print text in black or print background colors and images. However, most users don't know about that window and wouldn't think to look for it.

Nicholas Zvegintzov alerted us to this particular problem. And the color problem wasn't the only thing he found wrong. Once Zvegintzov changed his print settings and finally got the page to print, he discovered that the top page had a WIDTH command in the HTML code, so it wouldn't fit either on the screen or on the printed page. Did the person who coded this page take lessons on how not to be understood? By hardcoding the table width to that of a high resolution monitor, the table cannot be resized to fit the paper or the screen. 

Suggestion: Offer your users a CSS for printing, a "printable" version of the page (just an HTML file reformatted for printing), or a PDF, especially if you feel you really need to create hard-coded tables and especially if your web document spans more than one web page (if a web article is on more than one page, the reader has to print each page separately).


Accessibility means access for everyone. For instance, if you add alternate text (tool tips) to the graphics on your web site, screen-reading applications can read them aloud for blind or partially-sighted users. What is alternate text? It's what you see if you place the cursor over any of the graphics on this page (such as the "Top of Page" pointer above). A small yellow box appears with the description of the graphic in it (you have to write these for each graphic).

Making pages accessible also means accommodating different web browsers. For example, FireFox doesn't recognize ALT tags. If you are designing and testing web pages using Microsoft's Internet Explorer, also check them against FireFox, Safari, and Opera. Chances are that some of these users will have difficulties with your pages.

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Navigation is Everything

Splash Screen Overload

Some web sites use "splash" screens as their first pages. While some of these splash screens are lovely to look at, such as the Panama Canal Web Site, they require significant amounts of time to load.

Splash screens were invented for desktop applications. Software programmers realized that they could stop people from complaining about long load times by giving them something interesting to look at. In other words, splash screens were used to mask a loading-time problem. But by putting a splash screen on a web page, web programmers create a loading-time problem. So don't do it--instead, open your site with your real home page.

To Scroll or Not to Scroll

Newspapers originally coined the phrase "below the fold" to indicate news items that were important enough to appear on the front page, but not important enough to show up at the top. These articles appeared below the fold (where the paper was folded in half).

Web sites work much the same way. The information that appears at the top of the home page is the information that people are going to read first. However, Jared Spool found that people didn't mind scrolling down a web page as long as they could tell that there was something interesting below the fold. (His research is described in Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide.) What he also found, though, was that if readers didn't know there was something below the bottom, they didn't scroll down.

Where Do the Navigation Buttons Go?

Jared Spool discovered that, even when a command button was in the middle of a page and the reader was staring right at it, she sometimes dropped down to the bottom of the page and used the buttons there when she was ready to buy. He didn't have an explanation, except to guess that the reader had been trained to do so by Windows dialog boxes, but the moral of the story is: Always repeat your buttons at the bottom of the page.

Spool also found another reason to put navigational aids at the bottom of pages--what he calls the "seducible moment." Only after the reader has read the entire article or review will she pay attention to advertising. At this point, she's ready for more--ready to buy the advertised product or book. See Seductive Design for Web Sites for more information.

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Raise the Data to Ink Ratio

Restricted View

Looking at a web page versus a printed page is like looking through a telescope versus looking with the naked eye. With a telescope, you can only see one piece of the sky at a time—a small piece of a much larger picture.

The resolution on most computer monitors is about 50 dpi (dots per inch). The best monitor resolution is only about 72 dpi. However, the resolution of type on a printed page is usually 1200 to 2400 dpi.

50 pixels100 pixels2500 pixels

50 dpi, 100 dpi, 2400 dpi. Which one holds  more data?

For the level of detail you can get on an 8 1/2" x 11" piece of paper, you need screen after screen on the computer. What you can't see all at once, you must see over time...

Raise the Ratio: Comparison Shopping

Jared Spool asked his usability test participants to compare two things. He said they usually ended up printing out pages, writing down notes, and using the Back and Forward buttons on the browser. Only one person thought to open two browser windows at the same time.

Companies with products that are able to fill more than one need may want to make it easy for users to compare those products. For example, Hewlett Packard makes several different kinds of printers, many of which are capable of performing more than one function. There's a pretty big difference between functionality and pricing among their line of printers. HP made it easy for their customers to compare their products on most of their product web pages (for example, look at the business laptop comparison pages). uses this same comparison technique to help users buy airline tickets at the lowest possible price.

Raise the Ratio: Wrapped Links

One of the biggest mistakes web designers make is creating long columns of hypertext links that "wrap" to a second (or even third) line. If there is no spacing or bullet points to separate the links, readers have no clear idea of where one link ends and the next begins. It's pretty easy to fix this problem, though--just look at Fidelity Investment's home page. The left navigation is a column of hypertext links, but they're separated by bullet points. It makes for a neat and easy to understand site.

While we're on the subject of hypertext links, let's look at the Disney web site. At Disney Travel, the links don't give you a clear idea of where they'll take you. In the case of Disney, maybe this doesn't matter--DisneyWorld and DisneyLand are supposed to be magical places that you enjoy exploring.

But if you're trying to buy a car, you don't want to explore. In contrast, the hyperlinks at tell you exactly what you will find when you click the link. They are clearly labeled and easy to use.

Raise the Ratio: Internet vs. Intranet vs. Extranet

On an Internet site, you must provide obvious navigational strategies like bright colors for important information and arrows or supersized buttons to indicate what readers should do next. Most readers generally don't visit Internet site for long periods of time--they find what they are looking for and move on. Since they are in "uncharted" territory, they will need more help up front than they would while using a familiar application.

Intranet sites, on the other hand, can be more subdued. People will be using an intranet site every day, and after a while they will notice every little detail.

If you have an extranet site, such as the FedEx tracking site where authorized users log on to the system, consider mimicking the customer's branding instead of displaying your own branding.

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Elegant by Design

Citibank's Original Americans with Disabilities ATM Design

Note: The ATM design described in this 1990s article (adapted from ID magazine) no longer exists. Many banks have switched to talking ATMs instead, and online banking makes it easier for blind and partially-sighted users to do most of their banking using their own computers and screenreaders. So although the solution described below was a good solution, it wasn't the only solution. Adapt as needed. --Susan Fowler, 2008

Most American banks had no problem making their ATM machines accessible to their vision-impaired customers. In most cases, all the banks had to do was stick Braille labels on the already existing machines. Many banks didn't have to change any hardware at all.

Everyone in the industry was waiting to see what would happen to Citibank, with their touch-screen ATMs. They would either have to make some machines available with standard buttons (and Braille labels), or remove all of their existing ATMs and replace them with something new. A great expense any way you look at it.

However, instead of replacing all of their ATMs with some different model, Citibank asked its vision-impaired customers what they would like to see. With their customers, a team of Citibank programmers in California and a usability engineer in New York, plus designers at Two Twelve Associates in New York, Citibank came up with a brilliant solution to the problem. This solution not only made the ATMs accessible to the largest possible number of users, but it was a much better solution than simply pasting Braille labels on button pads.

Here's what they did.

The problem...

Citibank's ATM machines use a touch-screen to perform transactions (there are no physical buttons on the ATM). A person with vision problems may not be able to read the screen well enough to use the ATM. Citibank did some research and found out that many (in fact  most) Americans with vision problems do not read Braille. The totally blind may read Braille, but the majority of vision-impaired people still have some vision. Therefore, the Braille labels on most bank's ATM machines are not doing these customers much good.

As you know from reading the information presented in other sections of this web site, the best possible contrast is black and white. The folks working on the Citibank ATM problem knew this and used it to their advantage.

The solution...

Citibank designed new interfaces for their touch-screen ATMs. They designed interfaces with black backgrounds and large white text buttons (a white background with black text would have been too bright, their sources said--it was like trying to read the label on a burning light bulb).

The basic look of the touch screens is completely different from the "normal" screens that most users see when they visit an ATM:

Citibank screen

Citibank's ADA ATM touch-screen.

The vision-impaired user taps the words on the screen to run through transactions. The ATM responds with tones appropriate to the interaction--for example, one note for OK, a short falling tune for errors. (Citibank sends a pamphlet to its vision-impaired users explaining how to use the ATM and there is in-bank training as well.)

If the user taps CASH or DEPOSIT on the screen above, a new screen appears on which the user can specify the amount to deposit or withdraw (see the screenshot below).

Citibank screen

The deposit/withdraw touch-screen.

Tapping the large dollar sign in the lower right corner increments each digit by one. "Enter" means "zero" in this context. For example, to withdraw $210.00, you would tap the following sequence:


The ATM lets you know that it's processing the transaction by showing you a clock and playing a ticking noise.

Citibank screen

The transaction is being processed.

When the ATM is ready to dispense the cash, you hear a three-part tone and the screen tells you to take the cash (below).

Citibank screen

The ATM has finished the transaction.

After you have completed all of your banking transactions and signed off, the ATM thanks you by playing a 7-note (major triad) tune (below). Vision-impaired users who were employed to test the ATMs said at this point, "Oh, it's saying 'Good-bye!'"

Citibank screen

Citibank ATMs are nothing if not polite.

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