Using Consistency to Defeat Confusion

Click. Click. Huh?

Browsing a website to read articles by clicking on links is a fairly standardized interaction. A user sees something of interest, clicks on a link, and is directed to another part of the same website that displays whatever he or she desires to read. This simple interaction is consistent throughout most of the internet.

But sometimes websites do not follow this convention creating moments of confusion that sound like ‘Click. Click. Huh?’.

For example, on Time’s website it is seemingly straightforward to browse the homepage to find an article.

Link to Article

A user might click on an article title to read it and expect that they would see the full text of that article on the Time website. However, when a user clicks on certain articles they are redirected to one of Time’s sister publications.

Article Format

In this case, the user is abruptly redirected away from Time’s website to The URL shows that the article is part of Time’s website, but the relationship between the two publications is not immediately visible to the user.

Article URL

This breaks the conventional model of how reading an article on a website should work.

Another Time publication website has a similar issue.

Look at the styling of Fortune’s homepage:

Fortune Home Page

When a user clicks to read an article, the article’s text is shown within a strikingly different page layout:

Fortune Article Style

The change in styling is surprising and could cause a user to think that they were redirected to a different website.

On Time’s website, users are sometimes redirected without warning to another website and Fortune displays articles using a different format than their homepage. Those designs and others like them can create confusion, but many usability experts have addressed similar consistency issues in the past.

Heuristics are general guidelines for user interactions. Jakob Nielsen created a list of 10 usability heuristics that are commonly cited and implemented in successful interfaces. Although the heuristics are not strict requirements, they provide important reminders of design best practices.

One of Nielsen’s usability heuristics is consistency. He notes that users should not have to wonder whether different actions, words, or situations mean the same thing. Also, the design should match platform standards.

Heuristics do not always have to be replicated, but if the Time and Fortune websites followed platform standards and made sure that a user does not have to wonder what will happen after clicking on an article link the websites would be more consistent and user-friendly. In other words, users should be presented with the same article reading experience consistent with the website’s styling regardless of the article they choose.

Consistency is a powerful way to avoid confusion and empower users. The next time you experience a ‘Click. Click. Huh?’ moment consider how a consistent interface may have prevented the odd interaction.

More Articles About Design Heuristics:
Jakob Nielsen’s 10 heuristics
Heuristics explained with examples

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