Northwestern University's Associated Student Government (ASG) has launched a new website today. Unfortunately, it features poor usability and is a semantic disaster. Let's break it down.
The new website, NU Link, appears to be primarily designed to disseminate information to the student body. To that end, they've tried to include a number of features that would make the page useful enough to serve as a homepage for students.
There are several key features:
- Links to important Northwestern websites
- Links to popular external websites, such as GMail and Facebook
- Calendar of Northwestern events
- Built-in feed reader (links only)
- Miscellaneous items, such as local weather and search features
These features together probably address most students' needs. As a portal, NU Link seems to be fairly useful.
Most everything on the page is a link. Absolutely nothing looks like a link, however. Worse, there is absolutely no consistency to link behavior. It is the most confusing mess of links and link behavior I've seen in a long time. Most links are not underlined by default. One is! Most links are underlined when you hover your mouse over them. Some aren't! Most links are black text. Some are displayed in purple or white!
What happens when you click on a link is equally confusing. Some links open in a new window. One of the ads was a link to a PDF file of a JPEG image of an ad!
Let's get some standardization of both the link appearance, and link behavior.
The feed "reader" is a series of links to the latest stories from various news agencies, such as the Daily Northwestern and the New York Times. The feeds are organized by news agency into various tabs. The behavior of the tabs is quite vexing, however.
The very same moment your mouse moves over the tab, that tab is selected, and its associated links displayed. What I found was that I constantly switched tabs by accident when trying to click on news story links. I recommend that, in order to change from one tab to another, the student must click on the tab they're interested in. This will bring NU Link's tab behavior in line with established tab behavior.
I cannot express how frustrating the search forms at Northwestern are, and for exactly one reason: they violate Fitts' Law with a vengeance. The search form on NU Link can be used to search the Northwestern Directory, the Northwestern website, or Google. In order to change search providers, however, you have to click on the appropriate radio control, which on my computer is rendered as a 10x10 pixel area. Clicking on the text next to the controls...hang on, they're links!
The point is, the text next to the radio controls should be enclosed with
<label> tags that link them with the appropriate radio control. This gives
the user a much larger area to click on. (Incidentally, it is due to Fitts'
Law that the feed reader's tabs are so frustrating.)
Oh yes, and one last thing about search: go ahead and make Google the default search provider. Seriously.
NU Link is not a web-friendly place, and I mean that in the same way I would refer to a Geocities webpage from 1997.
Many of the images (particularly those that are secretly links!) do not have
alt attributes. What this means is that users with impaired vision who are
using screen readers need not apply.
Similarly, most of the content is organized in a bunch of tables. This has no meaning because the data is not tabular in nature. A better organization would involve ordered or unordered lists, particularly for the feed reader and link lists. These lists could then be styled appropriately.
href attribute can point to actual content,
but the click can be intercepted using the
onclick attribute of the the
Sorry, but these links are just atrocious, and I have to revisit them from a technical perspective.
The majority of the links on the page are redirection links. That is, they
don't take you straight to the page you're after; they take you to a page that
knows where to find the page you're after. The problem is that redirect links
are confusing, because they hide where the user is being directed to. No
longer is the user able to look at the status bar and know where he or she is
going. As an example, the link to GMail isn't to
mail.google.com. The link
The second major problem is in how they've been implemented. In particular, NU
Link issues temporary redirects (HTTP 302). This
is a problem because GMail is not temporarily available at
If NU Link must redirect, at least use a permanent redirect (HTTP 301). A
better solution would be to cut out the redirection entirely.
I think that covers the majority of my immediate thoughts. I wish ASG the best as they improve the site.