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Poor design means terrible websites still haunt the web

There is probably not one of us reading this who has not lost themselves in time and space as they surf the web. So much engaging content, so many interesting lines of enquiry – and so much rubbish too…

Website design shouldn’t elicit this reaction. Flickr/Mylla

There is probably not one of us reading this who has not lost themselves in time and space as they surf the web. So much engaging content, so many interesting lines of enquiry – and so much rubbish too.

As the (revised) saying goes:

Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the internet and they won’t bother you for weeks.

Even though the World Wide Web has come a long way since it was first developed more than 20 years ago, we often come across the “try-too-hard website” where designers mistakenly think that people visit the site for the “experience”. They do not. They come for information. Anything that slows them down in getting that information is just annoying.

Annoying your visitors can hardly be good for business, yet websites that do this are not uncommon – as shown in the latest annual list of 25 worst websites.

Even worse is the website for a James Bond museum in Sweden, picked up by another web critic.

A ‘jarring’ design on the James Bond Museum website.

Despite a growing number of people accessing the web through their smartphones, there are still many websites that have so much busy content, Flash animations and slow-loading graphics that even a desktop computer would have trouble showing them.

No standards of design

Of course there are no enforceable standards for how websites should look, only technical standards for how they operate under the skin.

Accessing the web on a smartphone. Flickr/Mads Madsfoto Johansen

Website designers do what they think will work best in the interests of whoever is paying them.

This might include some downright awful razzle-dazzle websites. It might even include the covert installation of malware (malicious software).

The internet can indeed be a dangerous and dirty place, as the late author Kurt Vonnegut laconically observed back in 2005 during an interview with the ABC’s Phillip Adams.

“(it has) allowed white-collar criminals to do what the mob would have loved to do – put a porn shop and a loan shark in every home.”

When it comes to web design, people do what they think they can get away with.

Bad design

Opinions vary about what good and bad web design looks like, but there are a few points that many seem to agree on. These include:

  1. not being mobile-friendly
  2. overuse of Flash animations
  3. pop-up windows
  4. music or video that plays automatically
  5. too much content, particularly when poorly organised
  6. inappropriate typography
  7. slow to load
  8. installation of adware or malware
  9. too many ads
  10. poor visual contrast
  11. poor navigation aids
  12. irrelevant or self-indulgent content and overuse of stock photos.

The list is not exhaustive, but covers the majority of people’s gripes with websites.

Good design

Describing bad design begs the question, what is good design? Much orthodox opinion parading as fact has been written on the subject, but let us cut straight to the essence.

Look to the basics for good design. Flickr/ Mariano Real Pérez

One of the great designers of the modern era, German industrial designer Dieter Rams, distilled a lifetime of first-class work into ten basic principles of good design.

It is true that Rams designed physical objects rather than websites, but his human-centred design principles capture the essence so well that a good argument can be made for applying them to web design, along with any other artifacts.

Here are Rams' ten principles as I would see them applied to web design.

  1. Innovative – it avoids cliches and tired methods and makes use of current technologies to achieve innovative user interfaces and functionality.

  2. Usefulness/usability – the user has no difficulty finding what they are looking for, the content is concise, high quality and accurate, and the website is usable by the various browsers and search engines etc that interact with it.

  3. Aesthetic – there is a harmonious balance between form and function. The arrangement of colours, spacings and typefaces all work in harmony with each other to make the user feel good when using it.

  4. Easy to understand – the site is self-explanatory and intuitive. The design is fully aligned to the goals of the website.

  5. Unobtrusive – the “less is more” principle. Simple and minimalist to the point where only that which is essential is present, nothing more. The user reaches the information they want quickly. They do not get lost or diverted along the way.

  6. Honest – the website is open and upfront about what is happening. It gives users all of the options they need when they need it so they understand. The design does not get in the way of giving the user what they want.

  7. Longevity – the website remains good and usable over time, not by staying the same but by evolving and staying current. This applies to both content and site layout.

  8. Thorough – nothing has been left out, everything is there that needs to be there.

  9. Environmentally friendly – the website is as efficient as it can be by reducing the amount of data that needs to be downloaded, images that have been optimised for the web and so on. It is true that this will have a negligible effect on the environment, but the principle of lean efficiency is nonetheless important.

  10. As little design as possible – “less but better”. he website has only what is essential and is not burdened with non-essentials. It has the virtue of simplicity.

Some would argue that these principles might have been relevant in the Cold War era but has little to do with good web design today.

That would be to miss the point that the principles of good design will always be true and can be adapted across all disciplines. Enough from me: let Rams and Apple’s senior vice president of design Jonathan Ive explain their ideas in their own words.

Join the conversation

14 Comments sorted by

  1. Robbie Coombs
    Robbie Coombs is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Educational Technologist

    A good article David, but the point that got me was where you wrote "we often come across the 'try-too-hard website' where designers mistakenly think that people visit the site for the 'experience'. They do not. They come for information. Anything that slows them down in getting that information is just annoying."

    I agree that anything that slows down the primary intent of the viewer should be removed. But I think that people do visit websites (at least some) for an experience. They may not…

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  2. David Roth

    Postgrad History Student

    I agree with these principles, but I think you should also mention traditional IT principles, such as ACID (Atomic, Consistent, Isolated, Durable). Atomic means that if part of a transaction fails, the entire transaction fails and the system state is left unchanged. What I see quite often is what can be considered as a kind of failure of this principle. For example, if I enter the wrong password, I get taken out of context to enter the correct password (or get a new one sent to me), then I can't return to the original state after I have entered a correct password, and have to re-navigate.

  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Really good article, my pet peeve is when a page is rediculously long and hence takes so long to load, why? why do this?

    It takes less than 5 seconds for me to close the window unless I really really need to go that page

  4. Rory Cunningham

    Test Analyst

    Flashy, annoying ads are what kills it for me on websites. Auto-redirects also being a huge no-no in webdevelopement. It seems like the urge to have pretty websites over functionality is dying down these few years which is great. Things such as Silverlight never deserve to be on a webpage

    1. Sam Han

      Lawyer; LLM student

      In reply to Rory Cunningham

      You can install ad-blocking extensions like Adblock Plus ( on Firefox and Chrome. That will take care of any annoying ads.

      Agreed about Silverlight (and Java, for that matter). Now just waiting for everyone to get rid of Flash and stick to HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript.

    2. David Roth

      Postgrad History Student

      In reply to Sam Han

      A lot of customers don't use Javascript because they have disabled it for security or performance reasons.

  5. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    I find it interesting to compare the website design of the news and information sites I regularly visit:

    The Conversation is pretty good. It loads fast and is clear. I don't like the different text sizes used by the article and the comments and I sometimes find myself using my browsers zoom to provide consistency. The Conversation is pretty good at letting you easily work out which articles are new since you last looked at their main page. But the readers does need to remember that there are 4…

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    1. David Tuffley

      Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies at Griffith University

      In reply to Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

      Yes, its a challenge for news websites to display lots of interesting content but keeping it simple enough to avoid looking cluttered.

      Some newspaper sites insist on having autoplay videos that can be irritating, particularly when there's a 30 second ad that plays first.

      I quite like The Conversation's layout too - the balance is about right.

  6. Sheena Burnell


    An enjoyable article and having designed my own websites on a couple of occasions I appreciated the discussion. However it may be of interest that much of our perception of what is good or bad in website (or other) design is very culturally-based. In China most websites are much more crowded, text-laden (which in the case of Chinese characters makes for a very busy visual field), favour lots of cute pop-ups, flashing icons and "Can we help you?" boxes that follow you doggedly around the screen and…

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    1. David Tuffley

      Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies at Griffith University

      In reply to Sheena Burnell

      Thanks for mentioning this important point Sheena - yes cultural conditioning does determine what is perceived to be good design. I did some work a while ago into using Hofstede's dimensions of culture to guide user interface design.

      On the physical level, I noticed how the airport in Shanghai has the look of international airports everywhere, while in downtown Shanghai, in the crowded, narrow shopping streets, it was a very complex visual field. Not too surprising, but interesting nonetheless.

  7. Peter Macinkovic

    Project Manager at Web Design / Development

    Good read, David.

    I'm a huge proponent of "less is more" in Web Design, however reading the article on "web design that sucks" struck me with an anecdotal experience:

    My wife is Chinese, and if you've ever visited the web on Asian countries they are very noisy. Japanese websites love Flash and contrasting colours, Chinese websites are full of content dispersed every possible way you can slice and dice it.

    Yet watching her navigate those websites, it's clear to me that there is indeed a…

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    1. David Tuffley

      Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical Studies at Griffith University

      In reply to Peter Macinkovic

      Its interesting to compare equivalent websites, like universities and newspapers) from around the world and see how their interfaces differ. It is a window into their cultural values. The colors, the amount of space, the navigation, the graphics. There's been some interesting work done on this by Aaron Marcus.

  8. Herry Colin

    Web Designer at Rabbit Clone

    I think there are need to make some standards of website design, no standard means lots of spam information.