Top 5 Peeves of Bad Web Design

Simon Pascal Klein
Simon Pascal Klein

I guess the longer alternate title for this article is: “or why I’ll most likely leave your website in the first few seconds of the page having rendered… and how to avoid this behavior in your users.”

I’ve covered getting type on the web, legibility & readability, and more niche topics like quotation styling exhaustively so it’s time for something a little lighter before I continue next week in jumping back into the thick of things.

Most seasoned web users have a number of pet peeves that will likely ensure we leave whatever site we’ve stumbled on. While we spend more time dealing with a poor website (and swearing under our breath) the more vital and hard-to-find that information is elsewhere, everyone has a threshold where we throw our hands into the air and give up.

If you’re a veteran of the web you probably know how to avoid or on-the-fly improve the quality of the web page you’re on, but most users — including those who rarely use the web or even a computer in general and may have a higher tolerance for egregious design and usability — will give up, or importantly, go elsewhere.

These peeves can loosely be delineated into two broad categories:

  1. Disempowerment of the user
  2. Inhibiting atrocious design and typography

Let’s get straight into them:

1. Music from the Get-go

(AKA: If I find out where you live…)

I think is probably the worst of the lot, and overly exacerbated when using a tabbed browser.

A screenshot of two Google Chrome browser windows under Mac OS X with lots of tabs open a tab highlighted as an offending music-playing page.

You’re browsing, opening a number of new tabs and suddenly one of the new pages you haven’t even gotten to yet starts emitting sounds. Immediately you scramble in great annoyance trying to locate the offending tab. Of course thanks to the poor design the player controls are either incredibly difficult to locate or just omitted entirely, forcing you to close en masse the recently opened tabs because you can’t figure out which one is the culprit.

I almost always listen to music while working online so this one is right up there as number one for me.

Unless you want people to burn you in effigy, don’t auto-play anything.

2. Interfering With Browser Behavior

Again most annoying when using a tabbed browser, you open a new tab and suddenly your window jolts and everything is resized. Worst of all is when a website or web application does this again and again each time you load a new page within the site after having sized the window back to the dimensions you liked.

A related grievance that still retains popularity is vulgar use of target="_blank" in the automatic opening of a link in a new page. As Jakob Nielsen notes:

“Designers open new browser windows on the theory that it keeps users on their site. But even disregarding the user-hostile message implied in taking over the user’s machine, the strategy is self-defeating since it disables the Back button which is the normal way users return to previous sites. Users often don’t notice that a new window has opened, especially if they are using a small monitor where the windows are maximized to fill up the screen. So a user who tries to return to the origin will be confused by a grayed out Back button.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Anything that disempowers the user from their own environment should be reconsidered with great skepticism; is this really necessary? Will we get a batch of hate mail asking us to not do this? Could this potentially disrupt or confuse users? I’d wager the likely answer is yes, and if it is, don’t do it.

3. A “Launch” Homepage

No. Just no. This is when a website first loads up an entry page with some kind of graphic (often animated) and a number of obscure “continue” or “enter” links which require visual location and pressing to continue to any actual content.

Any website that does this just created an extra step and thus an extra hurdle and barrier for all of its users to get through who enter via the homepage.

Flash websites are absolutely notorious for this, and for the most part I just won’t bother; good-bye; Ctrl + W.

4. Poor Legibility & Readability

Not quite as annoying as the preceding two, but passively frustrating because we can’t read anything — at least not comfortably and at length. Common examples:

  • Too small: probably the most utmost common of all typographic errors — here the text is just too small to read without causing strain. The trend in setting text at stupidly small sizes is thankfully been largely binned, and was worsened back in the earlier days of Internet Explorer as it could not resize the text size of a page if it was set in pixels (which was and is still the prevalent method of sizing on the web).
  • Little or no leading whatsoever: lines seem to melt into another because of meager if not a complete lack of vertical spacing — incredibly difficult to read.
  • Too long or too short measures: either the measure is too long and the eye can’t find the next line or it’s rapidly zig-zagging down the column after just a few words. To overcome this the user has to resize the browser window or up the font size, and that might not do it either depending on how things have been sized.
  • Poor contrast: this is rampant on sites where a designer has decided that light gray text on a stark-white background looks sleek or “modern”; even “better” if at 10 pixels apparently. This is ridiculously troublesome to many users because it isn’t easily remedied by mashing Ctrl and + to up the font-size — changing the font color of a rendered page requires the use of web development plugins.

There is a reason services like Readability exist: there are just simply too many websites whose designers have given little to no consideration to the legibility and readability of their text. As much as I like good services like Readability, in an ideal world the legibility and readability functionality it provides should be made redundant (the quick saving and storing of to-read pieces is of course very nice). Let’s strive to make the text we put online equally as enticing and comfortable to read as the best periodicals and page-turner novels.

But What About Fonts?

You’ll note I’ve omitted mentioning font selection entirely. A site can feature a great range of fonts, each with good and bad aesthetic properties and it can still retain legibility and readability. The above are concerns are far more prevalent and in need of addressing first — as Jeff Croft states: “typography is more than picking a ‘cool’ font.”

5. Poor or Lacking Visible Hierarchy

Continuing with typography—books have title pages, indexes, chapter headings, headings, sub headings, tables and diagrams with labels, emphasis, footers and footnotes, glossaries and so on. This is an information hierarchy supported by good typography and a solid grid, and is very much applicable to web design yet oft forgotten.

An example of relatively plain text to a stytlized typographic hierarchy.

The colors might be on the mark, the text might be legible and the CSS and markup might be valid but the content can still seem dumped with little or no delineation between the various content types on the page; a blockquote looks like its neighboring referencing paragraphs, headings just look like a bolded or italicised single line, and so on.

Good content needs a solid, consistent, — and for extra merit — pleasing visual hierarchy to aid in “scannability”. Most of us aren’t reading complete pages online; we skim and browse, searching for that single section, or paragraph or even line of information that we want (think phone numbers, dates, email addresses, and so on).


There are of course many more annoyances (breaking content up over multiple “pages”, not loading textual content at all unless JavaScript is permitted, a complete lack of whitespace, blatant violation of basic design conventions, Flash-only websites, no context “click here” links, senseless setting of Comic Sans, …), but upon quick reflection the above would probably be my top five.

What are your top five peeves in web design?

Addendum on JavaScript

Years of browsing the web with these annoying design choices haunting me (in addition to security provided) have led me to defacto block all JavaScript (even first-party scripts from the root domain I am visiting).

I do this using a Firefox plugin called NoScript. It allows me to set up whitelists on the go while browsing offering me a simple yet fine-tuned and more secure browsing environment on the web (JavaScript is of course the number one avenue malicious websites use to track and exploit the browser into running malicious code).

If you’re interested in plugins and such, I’ve written on how I browse the web.