Keep It Simple, Stupid!
A web usability parable from the e-commerce world
Ian Lurie, Portent, Inc., Seattle, WA
May 10, 2003
Web usability and graphic design don’t always mesh. One of the best examples of this? Screen widths. If you design a web site to fill the widest possible monitor, it looks great, right? Yes, but it effectively eliminates 80% of your audience.
I have argued with clients, competitors and colleagues about screen widths sooooooo many times, I’ve lost count. Usually, the conversation goes like this:
Me: We need to design your site to work at no more than 640 pixels wide.
Them: But, that leaves so much of the screen empty on my computer.
Me: Yes, but your computer is set to display 1024 pixels across the screen. At most, the average user is looking for 800 pixels.
Them: OK, but my designer friend says it looks the same way on his screen, too….
Me: (sound of grinding teeth) OK, but their computer’s likely set to an even higher resolution, like 1200 pixels across the screen.
Them: Well, I think we should go with a wider design.
And so on. If you’re reading this and feeling uncomfortable, don’t feel bad. I can’t remember a time when I’ve not had to have this conversation.
Good news, though. You don’t have to believe me any more. Here’s a true story that makes it crystal clear why designing for the lowest common denominator is important.
A friend of mine, who lives in Canada (this is important, later on), went to purchase a product on the Internet. She navigated to the site, selected the product, completed her order, and then sat back in shock. The product only cost $60, but she’d just been charged $160.
A little research revealed why: When she clicked ‘back’, she noticed that the order confirmation screen was about 50% wider than her monitor. What she couldn’t see, then, was the $100 shipping charge for shipping to Canada from the US. Why? Because the note about the shipping surcharge was hidden on the far-right hand side of the page, and out of view. If the visitor didn’t think to scroll all the way to the right, they wouldn’t see the surcharge until it was too late.
My friend’s computer was set to display 640 pixels across. She was using an older laptop, on a dial up connection. Because of that, she was charged almost twice what she expected.
The end result? She reversed the charge and sent back the product. The company lost the sale, the transaction costs and a customer, forever.
Design your site for the lowest common denominator, because most of your visitors’ computers are the lowest common denominator.