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Design for Usability

Noise Impairs Usability


Color appears in many places on a web site; this section focuses on color and text. Netscape has made it possible for web designers to change not only the background color but also the color of text and links. Adding color to text is not a new technique for communicators. However:

"The often scant benefits derived from coloring data indicate that even putting a good color in a good place is a complex matter. Indeed, so difficult and subtle that avoiding catastrophe becomes the first principle in bringing color to information: Above all, do no harm. (emphasis native)
Edward Tufte, Envisioning Information

For good or bad (David Seigel thinks bad), the first web browser creators set the default hypertext link colors to a bluish tone for not-visited links and a purplish tone for visited links. (I describe the colors as "-ish" as their hues and values differ depending upon platform and monitor.)

Seigel makes a very good point that unvisited links should stand-out from visited ones, drawing the visitors eye to as yet undiscovered information. Although these default colors do that to some degree, he advocates a brighter colors (such as reds) for links which have not been visited. Those points notwithstanding, tampering with the default link colors poses the following impediments to web site usability.

Whether the visitor is using default browser colors or has customized the colors (perhaps to account for color-blindness or because the user find's Seigel's theory compelling), one fact is clear: The user brings a familiar navigation interface a personalized interface to the web site. This is one arena - ultimate user customization - which differentiates the Web from print and traditional one-way electronic media. The power truly lies with the user.

Thus, specifying link colors in the body tag can led to initial confusion on the part of the visitor. Where am I? Where have I been? Where haven't I been?

In addition, although there are documented associative meanings for colors (warm colors like red, orange and yellow are stimulating and cool colors like blue, purple and green are soothing), there are also culturally-determined responses to color. For web sites which expect traffic from many nations and cultures, selecting culturally-neutral spot colors can be a challenge (or a headache).

Consequently, for maximum usability, I emphatically recommend that designers NOT specify link colors which forces a new navigation schema onto the unsuspecting visitor, with particular attention given to not changing the "visited link" color. (An unsuspecting visitor is one who hasn't yet learned that the general controls tab on the browser allows the user to specify background and link colors that override the designer's preferences.)

There are cases where changing not-yet-visited link colors can actually increase usability, for example, if different colors are used to take visitors to specific types of information.

Web site examples:

  • Weyerhaeuser
    The site designer has changed link colors; it is very hard to differentiate visited links from unvisited links.

  • Boise Cascade
    The site designer has changed link colors; many corporate sites change not visited links to green in order to appear environmentally-friendly. However in this site, the spec for visited links is a blue that closely resembles the default for not-visited links. In addition, the icons are ambiguous.

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    Copyright Kathy E. Gill, 1996 and 1997. Comments?

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