Last week I spent a good deal of my time at Mindfly trying not to die from the heat wave that hit Bellingham. Tucked along the coast in northwest Washington, Bellingham is usually a rainy, temperate place. When the sun came out for a week straight and cooked the town into the 80′s, our studio’s air conditioner was hard pressed to compensate.
(For those of you from hotter climes, I’m aware how weak this must seem. My town of origin, Redding, CA, easily tops 110 during the height of summer. However, it’s really hot compared to the local average.)
So perhaps I was suffering from heat stroke when I thought I heard a co-worker championing in conversation the use of blue, underlined text for all hyperlinks on all web sites. Anything else, they assured, was difficult, if not impossible, for your average Internet user to see or use. Without the vibrant blue (always backed up by purple for visited links) and the noble underline, these commoners of the web would be lost, incapable of navigating from page to page.
Balderdash. Poppy cock. Bullcrap. Etc.
Somewhere near the dawn of time, when the World Wide Web was a mewling infant homunculus suckling at the breast of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, I’m sure all twelve people capable of browsing the twenty pages available on the web were barely able to comprehend the idea of a hyperlink. Blue, underlined text on a stark white background was likely the only thing saving their minds from imploding in horror at the thought of some elder gods prowling the phone lines and dragging their souls through the 14.4k modems they’d spent hundreds of dollars to purchase.
I’m positive, however, that in the years since then that the average netizen has come to expect a richer media experience. They may have even “tweeted” (and giggled when it first happened) about a funny thing they saw, and uploaded a picture from their phone of this very event. They’ve watched cats play on pianos via YouTube and wept in silent awe as they realized that they lived in the best of possible worlds.
If a hyperlink had the audacity to be a shade of orange, I think they might just be able to pick it out of the surrounding text enough to click on it. If, instead, the bright blue links were bold instead of underlined (on a page where only links received such treatment) users of the web just might posses the ability to tell that clicking on aforementioned text would result in them navigating to a new page instead of providing them with a can of tuna.
I choose to believe this because I have the honesty to admit that most people are in fact not total idiots. Yes, we wail and gnash our teeth at trying to help clients understand what a paragraph tag is. Sure, we’re hard-pressed to not swallow our own tongues when explaining for the fifth time to our grandparents how to send email. But to claim that there is only one way to mark a hyperlink in a way that a peer of the web is capable of recognizing is exactly like saying that every non-developer is a complete moron who is incapable of telling that a peach is a fruit because it doesn’t look exactly like an apple.
Today’s comic places Jakob Nielsen in a hypothetical scenario that illustrates my disdain of the position that he’s advocated in the past on this issue: If you want it to be usable, it needs to be blue (or purple if visited) and underlined. Period.
There’s a special kind of hubris associated with this sort of statement. I’ll accept that blue, underlined hyperlinks are easy to spot. I’m also going to say that green, underlined hyperlinks (on a page that lacks green, underlined text elsewhere) would also work as effectively. Or perhaps blue, bold text. I’m guessing that underlines generally help, but I think ultimately any combination of highly visible traits that exist only on the link text and stand out from the non-link text is going to do the job.
Why does this issue rile me up so badly? Because I’m tired of old wives tales of Internet wisdom on how a page must be made. Especially when these limit our ability to explore the cornucopia of designs or features that we can make on the modern web. Such wives tales that annoy me include:
“Your site’s content? Well, it’d better be short, because people won’t read long texts on a screen.” Tell that Amazon as they laugh like madmen while they sell Kindles like hotcakes.
“Text needs to be near-black on a white background.” Right, except when the opposite is easier on the eyes for certain applications (like Mozilla’s online editor Bespin.)
Someone’s going to be a wit and jump on the fact that this site’s links are blue and underlined. I chose the color because it matches the sky in the header, and I liked the feel I got from tying that color into the rest of the site. But take a look at Twitter or YouTube and tell me that you can’t find the links even though they lack underlines. Go to Apple’s site and tell me the menu isn’t clearly a menu even though it’s not blue. A well conceived design can communicate to the “average” person without having to assume it’s being used by idiots.
The web has grown up. Its users are growing with it. Let’s put aside the juice boxes and start treating them like adults.