Site Features Overload

Posted September 4th, 2006 by Mike Cherim

I sometimes see features on websites that, for a few moments, make me think wow, that’s cool. Then, upon using the site for a bit, I start thinking wow, that’s pretty damn annoying. Initially I feel the site’s developer or webmaster might be onto a good thing, but then the old usability angle comes into play and changes my mind. You may have experienced the same thing. It’s perhaps just a subjective thing. After all I am just a single user with my own tastes and preferences. I mean no disrespect to anyone, and some of the things I have grown to dislike most certainly have their place in world of the web. They can be neat tricks that, if used at the right time and in the right place, can make a site really shine and come to life. Okay, I suppose you want an example. All right, here goes, here’s one: CSS pop-ups; the kind used for tool tips. They often bug me.

First of all, let’s look at the tool tip itself. You know, the title="" attribute. If the site’s content is well written and well presented, regular tool tips are seldom necessary. Let’s say, for example, you’re reading an article about a new technique called The Foo Method and in the article the author explains that this technique was developed a Mr. James Foo. In that mention the author of the article offers a link to Mr. Foo’s website. The link in this case may be offered like this: To learn more about The Foo Method, go to Do you really need a tool tip on this link? Is it in any way helpful? Not really, I say. I mean you know the discussion is about The Foo Method and the link text clearly states the target of the link and why you might want to go there. So what’s the title="" attribute or tool-tip even applied for? For the sake of redundancy? To get in the way if you happen to hover over the link while reading? In my opinion it serves no real purpose.

Now, offering the attribute in enhanced form, as a CSS pop-up, increases the same unnecessary thing more significantly. If you hover over the link you get a large box restating the link, often explaining it in detail, and sometimes even offering you the URL to go along with it. But why? Developers really need to take care when employing the latest craze and really think through the effects of offering such things.

So, this is one that gets in my way in terms of site usability. What’s yours? Do you know of a well-meaning yet particularly annoying site enhancement that you run into more often than you’d like? Spawning new windows got you down? Unneeded alt attributes getting in the way (or sounding strange out of order or out of context)? Animations making you crazy? Fixed font sizes or low contrast making you strain? Please lend me your thoughts. Your responses may help well-meaning developers avoid making simple usability mistakes.

18 Responses to: “Site Features Overload”

  1. Rob O'Rourke responds:
    Posted: September 4th, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Nice article, I think I’m one of those well-meaning web developers and I’ve definitely made some usability no-nos. In fact I’m pretty sure that’s the case with all my recent projects because I’ve been teaching myself all the cutting edge stuff and invariably ending up in fadsville.moo.fx for example. Gotta love those accordion effects =]

    I find that sticking to the basic functionality a site requires and modifying and building on that based on user feedback is the way forward. It’s easy to love everything you do in your own little web developing world.

  2. felix miata responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 1:05 am

    Some things besides useless titletips that annoy me:
    1-sites that fail the test(s) here

    2-sites with this CSS rule: ‘body {font-size: 62.5%}’, which come out looking like (rendering P text at 28px with my normal browser default size set to 20px) with this basic user stylesheet rule ‘body {font-size: medium !important}’ to undo the damage from more typical author rules like ‘body {font-size: 76%}’, ‘body {font-size: small}’, ‘body {font-size: 12px}’, and ‘body {font-size: 10pt}’. I have no words suitable to publicly describe my opinion of Clagnut’s widely copied 62.5% body styling methodology.

    3-excessive leading

    4-class and ID litter that make it impossible for a generic user stylesheet to override rude author styles

    5-textareas wide enough, as here, to hold only about 7 words

    6-horizontal scrollbars in textareas bounded by more whitespace than the width of the textarea

    Of course, being mere annoyances, most are easily dealt with by another annoyance, Firefox’s ‘view -> page style -> no style’, which can’t be made to stick, unlike Opera and Konqueror.

    Don’t take the above as a personal attack, because this page is far less annoying than most web pages.

  3. Matthijs responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 3:22 am

    @felix: what’s wrong exactly with the 62% rule? Is it too small? Isn’t the 62% rule just used to start with an easy to calculate base-size of around 10px after which you can set the elements bigger (p font-size 1.2em, h2 font-size 2em, etc).

    Or is it too big? (looking at the gif it seems like that)

  4. Georg responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 4:53 am

    @Matthijs: what’s basically wrong with the 62.5% rule is that all following text is sized up from it. So, in most browsers, when the ‘minimum font size’ is set higher than 10px, or the font-size on body is altered by a User stylesheet, all successive font-sizes inherit this new base-value and become unnecessary, and sometimes ridiculously, large. The smaller the base - the larger the resulting font-size. Probably not the effect the creator wanted, and many pages/sites break under such stress. A bit more on the subject here:

    Mike, I can read your blog at 6 meters distance from my screens, so you can calculate the effect of that 62.5% base font. Suits me just fine, but not all sites out here survive as well as your blog :-)

    The one “overload” thing I dislike is the opening of new windows or tabs for links. Some go unnoticed because I’m blocking target, and some passes by because I have to request opening of script-targeted links - which I rarely do.

  5. felix miata responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 8:16 am

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that 28px P text is too big when the default is 20px. I have no problem calculating in 1/16 or 1/12 or 1/10 of an em, and neither should anyone else that didn’t routinely flunk decimal arithmetic.

    The 62.5% body styling method just perpetuates the myth that there is any justification to size anything on any web page in px. You only know how big a px is on your own configuration.

    There’s no good reason to set body to 62.5% and then follow with P at 1.2em other than just another way to impose a 43.75% size reduction from the default (12px is 56.25% the size of 16px, because size is a function of area, height times width, not just the nominal so-called CSS “size”). A 12px character typically has a 72px rectangle to work in, while a 16px character typically has a 128px. that 43.75% smaller px count for 12px means the the 16px letter form can be vastly superior in quality, and the difference escalates as screen resolution and nominal default size are increases.

    With px sizing, you know how well the pieces fit together, but not what size they will be in relation to the viewing environment (except your own). When you size in em, you also know how well the pieces fit together, and you also don’t know what size they will be in relation to the viewing environment. The difference is with em you can expect that that unknown size will bear a reasonable relationship to the viewing environment, something impossible with px due to the wide variation in viewport size and screen resolution combinations. Try these 3 examples of pages built entirely without using px at a wide range of viewport, font default, and screen resolution settings, and you should see that px is easy only for web authors:

  6. Mike Jolley responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Lightboxes. I love them really, however what really annoys me is when they are used for stupidly large files so it either a)swamps my whole screen b)takes forever to load. Even worse when the developer makes the thumbnail resized in html….
    Overuse is bad, but subtle lightboxes is always ok with me.

    The other thing i hate is the old popups. Popups are uncommon you say? Try the godaddy hosting control panel, does my nut in.

  7. Matthijs responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 8:28 am

    Thanks for the link Georg. Learned something new. Most often I use small or 79% as a base, followed by % or ems for the elements.

    One overload thing for me is sites or parts of a site depending on javascript. Since I browse with the no-script extension it’s very strange to arrive on a blank, white page. Only after allowing js will I see something ..

  8. Rich Pedley responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 5:02 pm

    As Mike is possibly aware I used to assess sites for the Guild of Accessible Web Designers (I no longer do so for many reasons). When assessing so many sites you come across too many that have sloppy coding that cause weird and wonderful errors that can easily be fixed! A missing </em> for example can really mess up a page for no reason. Makes you wonder whether any of them even view the finished article!

    But perhaps the most annoying thing is tabbing through links on a page. This falls into two categories:
    1. Using a tab order, but not making it logical and you end up jumping all over the place and unable to figure out where you are, or where you will end up next.
    2. Tabbing through hidden drop down(fly out) menus. Because the mouse isn’t being used you can’t see the link text as the menu does not expand, and you really don’t want to have to go through each and everyone when you can’t see what they are!
    2a. Not being able to use the first menu item to go to a section of these drop down(fly out) menus.

  9. Ted Drake responds:
    Posted: September 5th, 2006 at 5:12 pm

    I put my mouse over your link for “alt attributes” hoping it had a title attribute without thinking about what your post was about. I was hoping you were defining what this alt attribute link was… alas no title attribute. Perhaps it isn’t so overused afterall.

  10. Andrew Ingram responds:
    Posted: September 7th, 2006 at 7:02 pm

    (Haven’t read the comments)

    I agree with you about being cautious when it comes to embracing new features. Quite frequently I encounter features being added to projects on the basis that they’re cool or seem like a good idea without it really being thought through. I consider myself being fairly good at taking a step back and seeing how well a feature will actually work, but I lack the ability to explain clearly why these things are bad ideas. I’ve getting a bit of reputation for being negative to the point of being offensive because I very rarely support new features being added. I can appreciate the “wow, pretty” or “wow, cool” value of things like pretty tooltips but I strive for the simple solutions so always ask “do we really need this?” or “have you really considered the negative impact of what you’re about to do?”.

    It’s difficult telling people that their baby that they’ve spent so much time on actually isn’t very good, it’s even worse when you can’t think of any ways for them to keep the essence of what they’ve done whilst removing some of the negatives.

    You seem to share some similar views regarding accessibility and usability as me, so it’s nice to find your blog

  11. Scott Carpenter responds:
    Posted: September 25th, 2006 at 10:32 pm

    Hi, Mike. First time visitor and commenter here.

    Interesting. I try to create a decent-looking layout with some attention to design but without being hung up too much on what I’m supposed to do. I’m not a web developer by trade. If my site validates as transitional XHTML 1.0, I’m happy. I try to avoid usability gaffes, although I don’t worry about my CSS that much. I’m just learning how to use it and I’m not going to worry about “class and ID litter” very much right now. I’m mostly worried about making my site look the way I want it to look. (I see there are some serious design people here; I hope I don’t offend anyone with my insolence. :-)

    I do care about usability, and I know I have much to learn, but I was surprised by your negativity about the title attribute and its habit of spawning tooltips. I’ve been using it all the time on my (new) blog, mostly to try to provide extra information to readers and to search engines. I wasn’t aware it was considered a faux pas by some people. I think this is the first time I’ve seen anyone complain about it. (Although granted I don’t spend a lot of time in design forums and discussions.) I wouldn’t think it would be such a problem because you have to hold the mouse over the link for a few moments in order to experience the annoyance you feel. And if you are sitting there with the mouse hovering, is it so terrible to learn a little more about the link?

    Not to make it in to an argument — if it bothers you, it bothers you. I don’t want to judge another’s peeves. I have plenty of my own. Again, I was just surprised that I was so egregiously violating some usability principle. You must realize that WordPress puts the title attribute in a lot of places. I think an example of where it can be helpful is in the link list. The tool tip can give some added info about the site being linked to. Your site does this, although I imagine that you wouldn’t object as strongly to this use, where there isn’t as much contextual information to help us out.

Sorry. Comments are closed.

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