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Top 10 Weather Website Mistakes

I was looking for something on the Internet the other day when I "re" discovered Jacob Nielsen's Alertbox articles on website usability.

Why does Nielsen think usability is important? Jacob says:

On the Web, usability is a necessary condition for survival. If a website is difficult to use, people leave. If the homepage fails to clearly state what it offers and what users can do on the site, people leave. If users get lost on a website, they leave. If a website's information is hard to read or doesn't answer users' key questions, they leave. Note a pattern here? There's no such thing as a user reading a website manual or otherwise spending much time trying to figure out an interface. There are plenty of other websites available; leaving is the first line of defense when users encounter a difficulty.

Nielsen is famous both for his "Top Ten Mistakes of Web Design", and the fact that most of what he's said for the past 10 years is still true and still ignored by web designers.

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I thought I'd take a stab at a list for weather websites:

10. Ignoring other screen resolutions/browsers

I admit that sometimes I even forget this one. I view the web at 1024x768, so I design at 1024x768. Well, 25% web users view the web at 800x600, about 50% view at 1024x768, and everybody else views at higher resolutions. Have you taken a look at your website at all three resolutions?

Same goes for IE versus Firefox. We should all take a look at our websites in both. 1 in 4 users now uses Firefox (great program!) to view the web, and the numbers are growing. Be sure your visitors are seeing what you want them to see. Firefox

Lots of wasted white space

9. Miscellaneous Images

Or maybe just cluttering images. Images that say "I spent the money on a Davis weather station" or "I built the site with Frontpage". Or things like animated flags, rotating email boxes, random cloud/lightning images, animated anemometers - they take up space and distract from why people came to our websites... for the weather. Or as Nielsen says "Use graphics to show real content, not just to decorate your homepage."

Logos belong on productsYeah, yeah, we're all impressed.Dear God, make it stop!

8. Confusing navigation

I saw a post from someone the other day about going to their website and clicking on the history link. Well, 5 minutes of searching finally turned up the link in question. But would the average visitor ever find this link? Keep all navigation on the top or on the left and include a site map if you have more than a few webpages.

Some examples of confusing navigation:

BalloonLand
Fry Steel Company <- Also breaks the BACK button
Tsubi

Examples are from Web Pages That Suck.

7. Contact information

How easy is it for people to send you an email? I find the more I look at weather websites, the less I can find contact information - or if it is listed, it's in a spam and user-resistant form... that's webmasterATcarterlake.org :D

6. Location

A long running joke on the Fox TV show "The Simpsons" is the city they live in - Springfield. There are 34 cities in the United States named Springfield, and the show never tells us where they really live. Many weather websites are just as vague about their location. Always include city, state/providence, and nation. Avoid using abbreviations, at least on the home page. A map on the "about" page would also be a nice touch.

5. Alerts

Amber alerts, missing kid alerts, security alerts, internet traffic alerts, solar flare alerts. What do these have to do with weather? Do we honestly think anyone visits our sites looking for these things? How about highlighting a thunderstorm warning?

Quick. Hit the page reload button and scroll down here. Why isn't the rest of the page displaying? It's waiting on NON-weather related filler. This could be your website, sitting here with nothing to show...

The Internet Traffic Report monitors the flow of data around the world. It then displays a value between zero and 100. Higher values indicate faster and more reliable connections.

Ah, there we go, the page finally loaded. Now, on with the mistakes.

4. Background madness

If I see that cloud background one more time... seriously folks, study after study shows that a continuously colored background is easier to view and read. It also helps with site bloat, since there is no graphic to download.

Wow, you can read this?
You have better eyes than I do.

3. Long pages of content

Adding a wheel to the computer mouse was a solution to the symptom, not the problem. While we all have gotten used to scrolling down, on many weather sites we scroll down... and down... and down... and down. Humans much prefer small chunks of information instead of one big glob.

2. BLINK

Folks reading this with Firefox are in for a special treat.

The <blink> tag is synonymous with groaningly bad web design and many weather websites include their own kinds of <blink> tags in the form of scrolling java (or javascript), animated GIFs, and alert messages.

Look! I do nothing.Dear God, make it stop!I belong in your lawn.

I take partial responsiblity in fostering this with my scrolling alert javascript. But at least my script only appears when there is an alert.

If you insist on animation on the home page, use only one element and not a whole bunch of them. Avoid Java at all costs... it really slows page load time.

Make sure that your browser is Java enabled...


And the No. 1 problem with today's weather websites?

Overly Long Download Times

I've seen weather websites which were slow to load on my cable modem. I can't even imagine trying to view them with a 56k modem. The default webpages generated by either Ambient's VWS or Weather Display are huge - from 250K to over 750K (we're currently working on some help in that area for WD).

Run your website through the services below to see how your site fairs.

Web Page Analyzer

Sloppy - a program to slow your webpage load times down to modem speeds. The page isn't very well designed. You click on the little turtle graphic under the Java graphic.

How to fix the problem? Remove as many graphics as you can from your main page and put them on sub pages. Most people want to know the current conditions anyway, where text information works just fine!

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Still skeptical?

Click here

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But what's Jacob say? See his Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design (circa 1996!)

Now, I'm not saying that I'm a perfect designer. Far from it. There are some features I refuse to change on my site - fixed fonts, for example - even though Jacob says they are usability issues. But I recently devoted some time on:

1) Added a search feature (Easy with Google Search)
2) Added a "visited" link color (change in CSS code)
3) Added better "you are here" navigation and removed link to current page (especially home page) (A List Apart - Keeping Navigation Current With PHP)

I don't want visitors leaving when they visit CarterLake.org. I want them bookmarking!

A few other articles on Jacob's site that I found interesting:

Top Ten Guidelines for Homepage Usability
Improving the Dreaded 404 Error Message
Writing for the Web

Take a look at his site. There's some really interesting information there.

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