September 13, 2004 at 10:32 AM
I am typically not one to reference Jakob Nielsen's AlertBox postings, but this most recent one on The Need for Web Design Standards caught my interest. In this latest edition Jakob identifies standardization, convention and confusion within the location of various web elements. It's interesting that there is no mention of the great studies SURL did on User Expectations for the Location of Common E-Commerce Web Objects which help address some of these issues. For example he cites that 23% of the confusion (or inconsistency) resides in things such as the placement of the search feature. The SURL study suggests that users look to the top center of the page for such a feature (see figure 5). He also mentions that the location of the sign-in process is inconsistent at best. The SURL study suggests users look to the top left corner of the page and slightly below the logo for this feature (see figure 2). Lastly he mentions that the placement of Help is also random. SURL suggest that users expect this functionality to be located in the extreme top right corner of the web page (see figure 3). It's important to note that your mileage with these recommendations may very, so when it doubt, always survey your users.
For balance, I offer Evolution Trumps Usability Guidelines. I was a part of this research, and basically we found that users simply don't care where things are: they'll find them if they look right. If you've ever watched users in a study, you'll note that a failure to find something has much more to do with the visual design of that element than the position of it. Think about finding things at a grocery store. There are tens of thousands of products, but you usually find the gallon of milk you need. You might even recognize the case of milk from 100 feet away. Looking for Parmalat could be interesting, though, if you didn't know it comes in boxes that don't look like the big white gallon blobs that we're so used to. That said, location can be important, it's just secondary. Once you know what it looks like, you have to then scan the area to find it. But without knowing what it looks like, you're dead.