Five old-fashioned Web concepts that need to die

It's time to bring Web sites into the 21st century, says Webware's Rafe Needleman. Here are a handful of user interface disasters.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

Wake up! It's 2008. There are things we've become accustomed to doing and seeing on Web sites for years that really should have vanished by now. Five things come to my mind that are user interface disasters. When I am president I will make sure the Supreme Court outlaws them:

1. Refresh

This whole story came about because I was monitoring the Apple announcement this morning and had to struggle to find a site that didn't need me to press the reload button to see the latest. I just wanted to pull up a blog and see the updates stream in. The only reliable self-updating live blog I found was SlashGear.

I like what the Huffington Post does to highlight news when you're on the home page: It flashes changed items with yellow highlighting, without redrawing the page. CNN redraws the whole page every few minutes--old school, but at least you know what you're seeing is somewhat up to date. Of course, you should be able to turn off autorefresh if you're on a slow link or are a slow reader, but to my mind, news sites should always be new.

Refreshing a page to see what's actually new is an anachronism and needs to die. The world moves fast, and readers want to lean back and watch it. (That's why I continue to be a booster for CoverItLive.)

2. Save

The whole idea of pressing the "save" button on a site or app to lock in your updates is old-fashioned. It also exposes users to data loss from system or connection bugs. Google Docs saves as you type, making it superior to Microsoft Office. Quicken (the software version) saves each transaction as you go. Note-taking apps OneNote and Evernote don't have save buttons because they don't need them (although in a UI flaw, the Web version of Evernote does).

When systems are built correctly, everything you do can be undone and rolled back, and there should be no need for a save button per se (although many apps will still need a way to milepost versions of files).

3. Log-in

I have a password manager (RoboForm) on my system that remembers hundreds of individual log-ins and passwords for the sites I try. I hate this. Why can't I use one log-in that I trust, and then authorize (and, importantly, de-authorize) apps to use it as I wish? OpenID is a solution, although it's conceptually a bit too weird to get mainstream adoption right now. Facebook Connect is another good universal log-in.

Keeping track of passwords for all the sites we visit is becoming unmanageable. There are better solutions.

4. One-size-fits-all site design

Too many beautiful and useful Web sites are hopeless on mobile or non-computer devices (like game consoles and low-resolution TV browsers). The world is mobile, and I find it continually surprising that most Web sites don't recognize when a mobile browser is accessing them so they can automatically display a small-screen, low-bandwidth version. Or at least give users the option for a small-screen view.

Why don't Web designers give mobile devices access to their sites?

5. Blocker ads

You know things are backward when the advertising message is as big as the content. But that's what's happening on a lot of sites right now: You want to watch a 30-second video but there's a 30-second pre-roll ad in front of it. Or you want to spend 15 seconds scanning a favorite site for headlines but a giant blocker ad pops up in your way. What do you do? You go away, or at least you hesitate before you come back. Sites need to make money, but punishing users for viewing content is not just old-fashioned, it's medieval.

The message should fit the medium, and TV-style advertising for the Web is not the right model.

What do you think?