Web 'greying' a triumph of taste over usability, claims guru

But we spend our time reading and using websites, not looking at them, says Gerry McGovern

Respected web consultant Gerry McGovern complains in his most recent email newsletter about the “greying” of the web.

The use of grey text rather than straightforward black is an outstanding example of the way some site creators seem to value the appearance of their website more highly than its functionality, usefulness or usability, he says.

“Few would dispute that it is harder to read text on a screen than in print,” McGovern says. “Most would agree that black text on a slightly off-white background is easiest to read. It could also be argued that font size for web pages should be slightly larger than font sizes chosen for print.

“So, why do an increasing number of websites today use small font sizes and grey text? The answer is simple: small fonts and grey text look better. They blend into the overall design of the page. They are more elegant and visually appealing.

“The problem with larger font sizes and black text is that they stand out. They can dominate the page. This is exactly what makes them easier to read.”

The look of a website may act as an initial attractor, but the first impression is very transitory, McGovern says. “The fact is we don’t spend our time looking at websites. We spend our time reading and using them.”

Respondents on the giraffeforum.com site, where McGovern has posted the same comment, argue for a more moderate view of the appeal of web design. “Web design is moving away from art and moving toward a science,” one commentator, calling himself “Web Design Dave” suggests. “It’s no longer about having the coolest looking site; it’s about implementing the design features that will convert the most traffic into leads.” This is by no means inimical to usability, he says.

“In order for people to inquire about your products they have to be able to use your site without getting frustrated,” says “Dave”.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development website, for one, presents a good deal of text in grey, particularly in headers and navigational links. The site was designed by award-winning Wellington firm Shift, which is currently working on a new version.

Matthew Wright, senior business analyst and information architect at Shift, says rules applying to fonts designed for print do not necessarily apply to the web. “There are rules that absolutely cannot be broken, but others that you can bend for this very different medium.”

Wright agrees with the principle of good contrast between text and background, “but this need not mean black on white.” The choice of font also plays a huge role in visibility, he says.

Web design is maturing, and this means using colour tones in ways not possible on the printed page, Wright says. The BBC site, for example, varies contrast with time and usage, allowing newer and more popular items to stand out, while older and less popular content fades a little into the background, he says.

Other prominent NZ sites using grey text include Air New Zealand (www.airnz.co.nz), the State Services Commission’s e-government site, (www.e.govt.nz) and the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (www.eeotrust.org.nz).

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