Single Page Site Designs

I’m a zealot when it comes to making things as easy to learn and use as possible. But I’m also practical and know that “usability” is not the only driver for a business. Time and deadlines are often factors that can trump usability issues. But an additional factor seems to be marketing. This has fueled many listserv discussions over the years. “Why doesn’t eBay/Google/some-other-site fix its usability problems?” someone will ask on a listserv of usability oriented people. “Because they make so much money with what they have that they don’t feel they have to spend money to fix it” is the typical answer.

I recall a discussion with a client about pop-up ads that annoyed first-time site visitors, but sales people swore it was a major driver of initial sales. I recall a discussion with a client about disputes between their UX team and marketing, about designing for productivity versus the need to advertise additional services to registered users. I recall a discussion about a website that had a drag-and-drop trick to get into with no instructions. People objected to the lack of intuitive design as well as the lack of accessibility. But the site was advertising creative software methods (and the group was discussing them). I, myself, arranged clients on our website by length of their name. I thought it was eye catching and would encourage people to notice names better (though one of my staff took it upon herself to put them back in alphabetical order without telling me).

I’m going to assume marketing is the reason behind a trend in some site designs to use the “single page design.” The entire site is on one page with anchor links serving as the traditional navigation menu. Here’s an example:

These designs, though not extremely prevalent, have been popping up for a while. What’s surprising is that these sometimes come from people in the design industry, because these designs present a number of usability issues.

When you first click on a link, you expect it to go to a page but it doesn’t—-it scrolls. This is a violation of what Richard Rubenstein and Harry Hersh in their book The Human Factor called “the principle of least astonishment.” This behavior is unexpected and distracts you for a moment. Worse, suddenly you have two conceptual models in your head. Do you use the navigation (which is really a phantom) or do you scroll because you know it’s just a single page? Why would someone want the user to even have to think about this?

When you are on a page like this, and you’ve arrived at a part of the page from clicking on a link in the “menu,” and then you scroll around a bit, you suddenly pass through other, unread content and page headers. This is also a bit jarring. If you use the navigation, you’re constantly challenged in your conceptual model, and the scrolling action takes time and slows you down a bit. (Obviously it doesn’t slow you down by much, but it comes down to the perception it gives—-that you have to wait). On a more practical level, if anyone in your audience has a slow internet connection, the load time for this page would be longer than individual pages.

I often hear about sites like this from friends and colleagues. It’s not usually discussed in a positive way. A colleague of mine recently told me her company, also in the field of design, recently went to this type of design to “look more modern.” But appearance and behavior are not the same thing.

The Dalai Llama once said: “Know the rules well, so you break them appropriately.” Hopefully, the desire to develop single page websites is a case of this. And they say that there is no such thing as bad press. I don’t know how true that is, but I did just advertise someone, even if it was in the context of violations of good usability. Let’s hope that advertising, or being noticed, was the point. It’s certainly not good usability.