The WD-40 of Web Design

Force has no place in design. This statement popped in my head after a recent confrontation with a bike lock that just wouldn’t budge. I loaned my lock to a friend who called a few hours later to explain that it was stuck. The lock had been set at a weird angle, and my friend’s well-intentioned attempt at forcing it open only fastened it tighter. So what did I do? I showed up with a can of WD-40, gave a quick spritz, and voila: open.

Now I’m not advocating the use of penetrating oil sprays on anyone’s website, but when that lock swung open, the design nerd in me thought “how often do I see this same thing happening on a website?” How often do we visit websites that we automatically give up on because of something they force upon us?

For example, I’ve visited dozens of sites that don’t let you enter the main page until you’ve signed up for their mailing list? Click, I’m gone. Just as irritating are the mailing list forms that require way too much information, like phone numbers or even home addresses.

The rules of the web changing, but that doesn’t allow designers to force certain elements on their users. If there’s a video on your site, don’t set it to play automatically. Not only is it rude and mildly invasive, it’s a surefire way to slow traffic and interrupt the natural flow of browsing.

Designing for the web means understanding—and pre-empting—people’s online habits. The best type of “online WD-40” is the power of subtle suggestion. If you’re trying to build up a mailing list, make the link to the form prominent, but don’t make signing up a requisite for using the site. Similarly, how many times have you cancelled an order on an e-commerce site because they wouldn’t allow you to check out without registering? Don’t make me register! If I like it, I’ll be back.

The obvious solution would be to ask yourself, “is this annoying?” Alas, if that were true you’d expect to see a lot less popups and demands than currently exist. Don’t worry though; if you’ve got any doubt, we’d be glad to point it out. And fix it, too, because that’s what we do.