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Web Designers: Defaults Are Defaults For a Reason

So I was on an obscure website that I got to by using Million Short, the search engine that takes you straight to the ‘deep web’, and I was baffled when I arrived on the site to notice that I had apparently already clicked on all of the outgoing links from that page.

Of course, it took me almost no time to realize that I was wrong; I hadn’t clicked on any of them. I was assuming that I had because all of the links were purple. Being who I am, I decided to get to the bottom of the mystery. It wasn’t that complicated — a quick look at the CSS sheets for the site (which you can always look at by glancing at the HTML and looking up what the filename of the CSS sheet is) showed me that the webmaster deliberately set his page up so that the links looked ‘clicked on’ by default.

I was baffled: why would anyone ever do this? I still don’t know why they did it, but it led me to be more sensitive about other violations of my expectations over the rest of the week. The conclusion that I came to is that there wasn’t a single time when something didn’t work like I expected to that I was genuinely happy about it.

Now I recognize that there are those times that you expect something to suck and then it doesn’t, but that’s not what I’m on about. I’m talking about when you expect something to do X when you do Y, and then it fails to work like it ‘should.’

Defaults are defaults for a reason. There’s a reason why every webpage in the universe has unclicked links show up in blue, and it’s not because the webmaster couldn’t be arsed to fix it. It’s because people want the world to be predictable in the way things function.

If you’re going to create an interface element that I don’t intuitively understand, you’re doing a bad job as a designer. If you don’t grasp the fact that surfers intuitively assert that unclicked links are blue, you need to spend a significantly larger amount of time on the Internet before you start designing anything intended to appear on that Internet.

I don’t want to sound like a ranting maniac here, but could you imagine what would happen if some municipality decided that within their borders, blue would mean go, yellow stop, and caution would be represented by a rich brown? Or if one car manufacturer decided that it would look better if the brake were on the inside and the gas were on the outside edge of the vehicle?

But it gets even worse than that. Some browsers don’t actually support the changing of a link’s color once you’ve visited it — all links are blue. Some mobile devices don’t read the same amount of color variations that a desktop does — your clever pre-purpled links might, in the extreme, appear black. There are a lot of reasons why messing with the default can screw things up, several of which I guarantee you can’t predict.

TL;DR: Don’t mess with the defaults without a really good reason — and if you think you have a really good reason, run it by a couple of complete novices first and see how they react. If it’s enough to make them twitch and cry out, it’s not a good idea, no matter how clever you think it is.

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