Menu Search
Jump to the content X X
Smashing Conf Barcelona 2016

We use ad-blockers as well, you know. We gotta keep those servers running though. Did you know that we publish useful books and run friendly conferences — crafted for pros like yourself? E.g. upcoming SmashingConf Barcelona, dedicated to smart front-end techniques and design patterns.

Giving Users Some Credit

Websites are designed to be used by people of varying backgrounds, educations and technical levels. One of the challenges we face when designing for the Web is finding a way to create sites and applications that can be accessed by a widely disparate audience while avoiding the pitfall of sacrificing the quality of our work to cater to the dreaded ‘lowest common denominator.’

Users are Not Idiots Link

Even though it happens to me with some frequency, being told by a client that one of the requirements for their project is that it must be ‘idiot proof’ never fails to give me pause. The sentiment itself is offensive enough, but the concept also seems somewhat misguided to me. Do we really want to begin a project by assuming our site’s users are idiots?

Websites for Dummies

Creating designs that are intuitive and easy to use is something we should continually strive for if we want our sites and applications to be visited and used by as many people as possible. Ultimately, making those sites easy, as well as enjoyable, to use is a critical part of helping them be successful and it starts by abandoning outdated opinions on what users can, and cannot, understand. It starts by giving our users some credit and realizing that they are not ‘idiots.’

When Best Practices Go Bad Link

Anyone who has designed for the Web for a period of time has amassed a bank of best practices and favored solutions that they use in their work. In and of itself, this is a good thing, but the ever-changing nature of the Internet means that we have to continually evaluate these best practices to ensure they are still relevant. As Web users’ proficiency and technical comfort levels grow, we must abandon solutions that no longer help visitors use our sites, but instead may actually start to hinder their experience.

As a communication medium, the Web may still be the ‘new kid on the block,’ but let’s face it – the Internet isn’t new anymore. Web users are more advanced today then they were even a few years ago. This is great news for those of us who work on the Web! It means that we can continually push our work forward, but it also means that we not only have to be willing to embrace change, but that we need to be proactive in identifying when that change is necessary.

User Testing is Not Always the Answer Link

User Testing

There is no question that user testing is an invaluable part of the web design process, but any user testing we do for a project has limitations. Oftentimes, those limitations are due to budgetary and time constraints. This being the case, we focus our tests on key aspects of our projects where user input will help shape our decisions and positively impact the success of our design.

Since we often can’t evaluate and test every aspect of our project, some decisions will inevitably be driven by our best practices and favored solutions. If those practices are up to date and relevant, this isn’t a problem, but if they are outdated – well, I’m sure you can follow the line of reasoning here.

Out with the Old Link

While every Web designer’s collection of favored solutions will be different, here are a few examples of solutions whose time of relevancy has passed.

Are these relevant?

These specific examples were chosen because they are ones that I personally have purged from my own toolbox in the not so distant past, but also because they are practices I still see implemented on many newly-launched sites today. It makes me wonder if they were put in place as a conscious choice or if they are instead the product of once relevant best practices left unchecked for too long?

The Web Does Not Fold Link

Taken from newspapers’ practice of ensuring that lead stories and catchy headlines appear on the top half of the paper’s front page, this preoccupation with requiring Web content to appear ‘above the fold’ for all site visitors has been the enemy of whitespace and well organized layouts for far too long. Do not fear the scroll bar, browsers have them for a reason.

Life Below 600px1
Paddy Donnelly’s article entitled Life Below 600px battles and debunks the long time web design myth that there is such thing as “above the fold.”

Content is king on the Web. The quality and usefulness of our site’s content will determine the success of our site, but the way we visually lay out that content and present it to our users also plays a major role in its effectiveness. Cramming lots of content into a too-small space, solely to ensure that users on even the smallest resolutions can see it without scrolling, damages not only the visual integrity of our design, but also our users’ ability to easily consume and process our site’s content. Would you rather be on a site whose content is well laid out with appropriate whitespace and formatting, but which requires you to scroll down to access some of that content, or would you choose a site that eliminates the need to scroll at the expense of readability and appropriate spacing?

We would never force the entire text of a book onto a single page just to eliminate the need to flip pages, so why do we worry about users having to scroll to access content that appears lower on our Web pages? Books have pages that must be turned in order to read the story and Web sites have content that must be scrolled to be seen. This is how these mediums work; let’s give our users some credit and realize that even if content doesn’t appear ‘above the fold,’ they will still be able to find it.

Look Here to Read This Message Link

In my office, we have a Keuring coffee machine. Right on the front of the machine is a shiny, silver button that says ‘Brew.’ It doesn’t say ‘Press Here to Brew a Cup of Coffee,’ yet despite this lack of incredibly specific directions, it’s pretty easy to figure out what that button does and what I need to do to get myself a cup of Joe in the morning.

Keuring Coffee Machine

This same principal applies to the phrasing we use on anchors and buttons in our projects. At the end of a short teaser for a blog article or a news item, there is no need to have anchor text that reads: ‘Click here to read this full blog article.’ Something as simple as ‘Read more’ or perhaps, if you’re really in the mood to edit aggressively, just the word ‘More’ would be just as effective.

There are times where giving users some extra instruction on our site is necessary, but realizing when that level of instruction is required, and when it is simply overkill, is important. Give users some credit, the concept of hyperlinks is one they understand. Just like the nice, shiny button on the coffee machine makes it obvious that you need to press it to get your coffee, so can we visually style anchors and buttons so that even if we opt for text as simple as ‘More’, our users will understand what to do to access the additional content.

Open in a New Window Link

A common fear I hear from clients is that their customers will be unable to find their way back to their site if links to external sites or resources are clicked on. This fear inevitably prompts clients to request that those links be ‘popped in new windows.’

Thinking of the browsing experience as a linear timeline is a very simple concept to grasp. You start on one page, you click to another, and another and another. The ‘back’ and ‘forward’ buttons allow you to go in those respective directions on that linear timeline. You want to go back to the page you started from? Just click the back button until you get there!

Back Button
Most users know about the “Forward” and “Back” buttons. Take advantage of them!

The belief that this linear browsing experience is more difficult for users to understand than the ability to manage multiple windows or tabs is misguided. I’ve sat and watched users who are fairly comfortable with the Web struggle to understand multiple windows. I’ve seen them use the ‘back’ button, only to hit a wall when they get to the initial page that was opened in that new window/tab. What do they do next? In most cases, they type the original site’s URL into the address bar, opening up a second instance of the site, completely unaware that the original instance is still open in another window/tab.

Give users some credit. If they want to return to your website, they’ll find their way back to it and the easiest way for them to do that is to use the ‘back’ button.

Treat Others Like You Would Want to be Treated Link

This bit of advice is something that parents have been telling their children for many years and this piece of parental wisdom is perfectly relevant to how we deal with our site’s visitors.

No one wants to be treated like an ‘idiot,’ our site’s users included. The minute those users visit our site, our relationship with them begins. Let’s start that relationship off on the right note by designing sites and applications that make the user experience enjoyable. Let’s do this, in part, by treating those users with the respect they are due and giving them the credit they deserve. Their user experience, and the projects we design and develop, will be the better off for it.


The End

Footnotes Link

  1. 1
SmashingConf Barcelona 2016

Hold on, Tiger! Thank you for reading the article. Did you know that we also publish printed books and run friendly conferences – crafted for pros like you? Like SmashingConf Barcelona, on October 25–26, with smart design patterns and front-end techniques.

↑ Back to top Tweet itShare on Facebook


Jeremy Girard was born with six toes on each foot. The extra toes were removed before he was a year old, robbing him of any super-powers and ending his crime-fighting career before it even began. Unable to battle the forces of evil, he instead works as the Director of Marketing and Head of Web Design/Development for the Providence, Rhode Island based Envision Technology Advisors. He also teaches website design and front-end development at the University of Rhode Island. His portfolio and blog, at, is where he writes about all things Web design.

  1. 1

    Very informative article! I just can’t get enough of these single page post designs, they are out standing! Great design, great info 5/5!

  2. 4

    When I was taking my programming course we were told that when coding a user information form you had to ask for city, state AND zip code. I asked why, since the zip code IS the city and state, do you need to get it all. Can’t you just ask for the zip and have a lookup table to fill-in the rest? No, I was told that there are people who don’t know their zip codes and you have to allow for the ignorant. Really? Do we really want to make the 99% of the people who DO know where they live do extra work to allow for the stupid? I don’t think so.

    • 5

      Great example Ed! This article was really an eye-opener for me. It really drives the point home that we shouldn’t automatically treat our website users as idiots and that we should really think about some of the old best practices that may no longer be best anymore.

    • 6

      I agree that you shouldn’t ‘dumb down’ your site to accommodate the most basic of users if it will be detrimental to other users – unless, of course, those basic users are your core market!

      No matter how ‘easy’ you make a site, there will always be those who find it confusing or are unable to use it. Oftentimes, we can compound this problem by trying to make is easy for everyone to use. By trying to accommodate everyone, we create a good experience for no one.

  3. 7

    You raise good points, treating users like idiots is the completely wrong mindset to have when designing a website… especially the user experience of the site. I have always been surprised when doing usability testing though, non-savvy users (most users) have a hard time figuring out their computer in general much less all sorts of different web pages.

    I don’t think making sites “idiot proof” is the right approach, but understanding that users are on the web despite the fact that they barely understand how to operate it is important. The facebook login debacle with Read Write Web is a perfect example. Those people are not idiots, they are just on unfamiliar territory.

    • 8

      Great point Ross. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’ve been a long time reader of your blog now and I just want to say that you are doing a great job! Keep up the good work. :D

      • 9

        Thanks Jad, I greatly appreciate it. I look forward to your future article here on Di and getting some time to read through the archives.

  4. 10

    Well done. This is a great article I could use as a reference for my next clients ;)

  5. 13

    Very smart post Jeremy! The “open in a new window” part I like the best, as I am asked to do that often.

    Also, nice design Jad; simple, yet effective.


    • 14

      Don’t you just hate that when browsing and you click a link that it opens in a new tab or window? If I wanted to open a link in a new tab or window, I could have done it myself.

      Oh, and thanks for the compliment on the design. That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish.

    • 15

      Thanks – happy you enjoyed it.

  6. 16

    Hi everyone,

    Very good points, interesting take on the topic.

    Ref: “When good practices go bad”
    I think it’s our desire to choose the safe way that makes good practices go bad. Reiteration, choosing what seems to work for everybody all the time, scratching the surface of implementing excellent design principles in your work… That’s the problem.

    Ref: “Idiot proof design”
    I hope this is not the underlying assumption for choosing a simple and clear structure/ message. It could work well, if you assume that focusing on what’s essential to the user. But it will work against you if you think you design for people who don’t really get what you’re doing.

    This is a post that can actually ignite some controversial debates…


    • 17

      Thanks for your comments.

      I agree that choosing the ‘safe way’ is often what makes our Best Practice go bad. If it has worked in the past, it’s easy to take it for granted and assume that is how it should be done. We just keep doing it rather than trying to innovate or find a better way.

      In terms of ‘Idiot Proof Design’ – this is far different than making something easy to use. Something that is simple and clear is well designed, my point is actually about making something LESS simple and elegant because we feel the need to add unnecessary instructions and such, simply because we think our users are not advanced enough to understand how to use our site.

  7. 18

    Random Passer-by

    August 18, 2010 2:11 am

    I hate to say this, but easy for you to say.

    My last job was with a “social network” set up by a guy in his 60s. _Every_ link had a ‘Click here to’ attached to it. Every check-box had a ‘click within the box.’

    What really got to me was the ‘Invite a friend’ feature. This got extended to friends and family. And then he realized that it wasn’t inclusive enough. So, the invite page had a paragraph on the lines of ‘Invite your friends, family, relatives, parents, grandparents, co-workers, colleagues…’

    His target user-base? People in the 15 to 25 age-group.

    • 19

      It’s actually not easy for me to say at all. I struggle with the same type of clients and comments that you describe in your comment above. When clients ask me for these things, I explain to them why they may not be in the best interest of the site or the user experience. I try to offer alternatives that will meet the clients needs without sacrificing the quality of the site or the user experience.

      Do I always succeed? Of course not! But the first step in being able to explain to your clients why every link doesn’t need to say ‘Click here to’ is to identify and accept those reasons yourself and apply those best practices to your other work.

      If you are able to logically explain the situation to a client and show them examples of where your alternative suggestion is working for someone else, you will find that all but the most stubborn, pig-headed clients will accept your expertise.

      • 20

        Random Passer-by

        August 18, 2010 12:45 pm

        Ah yes… the stubborn, pig-headed one. Describes him perfectly, if you add daft to the mix.

        It took an entire day for us to convince him that trying a viral campaign was not the same as installing a virus on people’s computers. And after we thought he’d understood the concept, he pestered us for a week asking us when we’d be setting the virus loose.

        Oh, well… there was a recession on. Had to hold on to the job as long as possible.

      • 21

        He thought viral campaign meant sending a virus, ouch. I never heard that one before.

  8. 22

    Well said!!! It all seems like such common sense, but it really can be a struggle to convince people. In my work I’ve mostly conquered the fold issue and can usually keep them from throwing everything in their warehouse on the front page. I tackled “click here” by writing Don’t say “click here.” Include your links in context. Most people seem to understand that when it’s explained to them. But the “opening links in new tabs” issue is still a battle. I wrote a post about that as well and the debate continued in the comments.

    I think unwieldy drop-down menus would be next on my list. All too often it seems that people cram massive lists of links into drop-downs as a substitute for bad site organization. Cheers!

    • 23
    • 24

      Yes, drop down lists are another best practices that we may be able to purge!

      I often find that clients want their users to be able to access EVERY page on the site from the top level navigation – hence the need for drop down or fly-out menus, some with multiple levels of sub-links.

      The reality is that site users rarely spend enough time to make the ‘perfect decision’ and drill down to find the exact page they need. They instead make a series of small decisions, clicking what feels right and looking to make another click and another and another until they get what they need. A well organized information structure and easy to use/find links on subpages/categories of the site can prove far more effective than an unwieldy drop down menu.

      This is often how I explain this to clients and how I have been able to purge this from my own toolbox.

      Thanks for the great feedback and for bringing up another ‘best practices’ who time has come!

      • 25

        Jeremy, yes, that’s exactly the problem. Someone once told them that every page should be only one click away from the home page. But what you describe is what I’ve found to be true as well. If they have too many choices it is harder to tell what page they really want so they end up making more clicks. So I use a strategy like yours and explain that I like to create clear sections for the site that users can easily distinguish from one another. Then these sections can have secondary menus that guide/funnel them down to the info they really want. This is also helpful if people land on an internal page first, because then they can clearly see where they are in the site.

  9. 26

    Nice Article. Thanks

    Best Regards
    Rupam (@xhobdo)

  10. 27

    Ok, I don’t mean to sound like a cynic here but does anyone remember the RWW and Facebook episode that happened a couple of months back (

    Well designing for the smart asses is simple, and it is very easy to assume that the “idiots” or “dumbs” as you like to say are very little in your user base. However, I would assume people reading RWW and using Facebook are web literates and even they ended up being so confused when googling “Facebook Login” landed them on RWW they did not have the slightest idea of what hit them.

    I would recall another incident. Remember how many sites especially Microsoft Help sites have real pictures of dialog boxes that will open when you are to install something. Often they have words like Run, Save As (action clicks) and the image is complete without any roughing the edges and all. Now I as a user and designer know that it is an image but I swear I have seen even PhD graduates who use computers all day clicking on that image stupidly thinking it is the actual dialog box. Would you call them Idiots?

    Designing with such a huge assumption is not really going into the complexities of design. Once again not starting a flame war, but that is what I honestly feel.

    • 28

      Thanks for your comments.

      No matter how ‘easy’ you make something, there will always be users who find it confusing and have trouble with it. The point is to understand your user base and give them some credit if it is due to them!

      If you assess your user base and come to the determination that they need the extra direction or instructions and hand-holding, that is fine! At least you did some research and made a conscious decision, instead of falling back on a best practice simply because it’s how you ‘always do it.’

      Are there times when it is appropriate to pop a new window for a link (personally, I still pop PDFs in new windows/tabs) or add additional anchor text? Of course there is, but making that decision based on the individual situation and not as a global one-size-fits-all solution is what I am arguing for.

      And in all fairness, using sites like Facebook and Microsoft Help as examples is a little too easy. Those are HUGE sites with massive user bases, so of course they will include large numbers of those ‘lowest common denominator’ users. What may be necessary for sites of that size with a user base as varied as they have is a whole different ballgame. Most of us are not designing sites whose primary, or even secondary, audience is comprised of such varied levels of Web knowledge – and even if you are working on a site like that, the argument to assess your user’s abilities, give them credit and make decisions based on those findings is still is a valid one.

      Thanks again for expressing your point of view and adding to this discussion!

    • 29

      Yes, hundreds of people commented on RWW’s post asking for login help, but that shouldn’t indicate that all users of either Facebook or RWW thought that RWW’s post was an official Facebook post. In fact, I think it’s safe to assume that for each user who commented on the post, there were dozens, if not hundreds, who did understand. And that’s the key: if you’re designing based on the assumption that your users are idiots, you’re doing a disservice to the majority of your users who aren’t. (Not only are you making them feel like you think they’re idiots, but in many cases the “idiot-proof” designs are actually harder to navigate for sophisticated users.

      The other factor here is the Pareto principle. There is not a direct correlation between input and output when you “idiot-proof” a design: like Pareto says, you’re putting 80% of your work into 20% of your output. By cutting out the 20% output – the appeal to the lowest common denominator – you’re reducing your workload by a huge chunk, which is time that you can spend doing other things. (If you’re selling this to a client, it’s time that you can spend Implementing Awesome Features.)

      There’s a common misconception among clients that you want to capture everybody. You really don’t. You want to capture the best people for your content, and make everybody else want to be the best people for your content. The people who don’t meet all of your criteria will latch onto the criteria they do meet anyway. Spending active effort to capture anybody else is disproportionately expensive in time, effort, and capital.

      • 30

        “There’s a common misconception among clients that you want to capture everybody. You really don’t. You want to capture the best people for your content, and make everybody else want to be the best people for your content. ”

        Wonderfully well said.

        Excellent comment!

  11. 31

    Great article!

    But I do have a question about the Open in a new Window issue. First of all, there should be a “Open in new Tab” feature instead of new window. Most browsers use tabs these days.

    But in my browsing experience I find more comfortable to navigate in a new tab (or window) when I go to a external site. Most of the time when I navigate to external pages in, for example, a blog post, the external page is related or in context with the “original” read. So I want to come back to the original post easily.

    I say easily because it happens far to often that a page is redirected and when you use the back button, you get to the “redirect page” witch redirects you to the one you just came from.

    So to conclude, use target=”_self” for internal pages, and target=”_blank” for external pages. But maybe it’s just me being a intensive browser user?

    Peter Goes

    • 32

      Yes, that redirect issue is annoying. If the link needs to use a redirect, that is a good argument for using a new tab/window. Similarly, I use a new tab/window for PDFs.

      • 33

        Problem with the redirected pages is that this is often handled by the external website. So as post writer you don’t know about the redirect.

  12. 34

    Excellent response!

    “Users are becoming more aware of design, and designers are becoming more aware of the user’s needs”


  13. 35

    I love this article and the way it’s laid out – great job guys :)

    I would say that scrolling down a page and turning a page in a book aren’t comparable at all. Turning a page would be equivalent to clicking a link to go to another page, surely? If anything that analogy invalidates your argument because books tend to be standard sizes, rather than being massive in height/length – broadsheet newspapers would be a better example.

    I worked in ecommerce for quite a while and heat mapping software tended to show that the most clicked areas were above the fold – but since most people think that all the most important stuff should be above the fold, then it could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Would like to see some studies on this!

    • 36

      Your suggestion is well taken. My point wasn’t to say that books and Web sites are exactly the same, but more to suggest that in order to enjoy the story told in a book, pages must be turned and in order to enjoy the story/content on a Web page, the page may have to be scrolled. The mediums are certainly different, but they each has a way of being consumed and we shouldn’t shy away from using the scrollbar any more than a book publisher would shy away from adding the necessary number of pages.

  14. 37

    Fantastic article …

  15. 38

    Hi, very good article. I have to say that your argument about not to open the external links in new window is that I’ve been missing. I always say to my client, that the user who want to open link in new tab or window will just do it. We don’t and shouldn’t do it for them.

  16. 39

    I see this in a different way. Idiots are ones who cannot think.

    I assume my users should not think twice about their navigation in my website. You are allowed to intrigue them with the content but not with your website design. I assume that’s what they mean by ‘idiot proof’.

    Reg the back button, the user has to remember the web address which may not be easy for most of them if the website has a complex name.

  17. 40

    Robb Nardecchia

    August 18, 2010 8:58 pm

    Opening in a New Window.

    A lot of users dedicate one of their “extra” mouse buttons to a “open in new tab” button so that they can click on a link and open that in a new tab, thus eliminating the need to specify a link to open in a new window.

    That or they can right click the link and specify it to do just this. All “modern” browsers have this functionality. Let users browse your site and the web, the way THEY want to.

    • 41

      I agree 100%. Unfortunately, most users don’t know that they have the ability to right click and choose the destination on the link they are accessing. This functionality is known to more advanced users – those who tend to get annoyed when you take the browsing experience out of their hands and, as you said, refuse all them to “browse your site and the web, they way THEY want to.”

      So my argument was that opening in new tabs/windows can confuse users – but the other argument against this practice is that for the users it doesn’t confuse (advanced users), it may instead just piss them off!

      Either way – not a good user experience!

    • 42

      Hmm working with my Wacom tablet and MacbookPro trackpad don’t supply my with spare buttons. So I stick with right clicking :)
      But you are right, everybody have his/her own way of surfing the web.

  18. 43

    Very happy to have helped and thankful for the opportunity to contribute to DesignInformer!

    If you enjoyed my writing on this article, be sure to check out my own site at for more of my thoughts on Web design.

  19. 44

    I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has contributed to this discussion so far. The quality of the comments I have been reading have been incredible and I can’t wait to read some more!

  20. 45

    Nice article – great principles, including the usability version of the “Golden Rule!”



↑ Back to top