Strong opinions, weakly held

URL Literacy

Jono from Mozilla makes a great point that most people (including me) have completely overlooked when it comes to the Web — most people don’t really understand URLs:

So what this mess teaches us is that there are lots of people out there who don’t know how to read a URL. The URL in the location bar, if they notice it at all, must appear to them as nothing but a bunch of computer gibberish.

Think about it from their point of view. They knew that Googling “facebook login” and then clicking the first link took them to their Facebook login. I wouldn’t call it the best way of getting to Facebook, but it was obviously working for these poor souls. Until one day, they saw something they didn’t expect. If you don’t know how URLs work, then all you know is that your expected Facebook login page has somehow been replaced with… something else.

The whole blog post is really thought provoking and worth reading for anyone who designs or develops software. For those of us who have completely internalized URLs, it’s hard to empathize with people who see getting to Web sites as a series of steps they follow. At this point it doesn’t matter whether people access all the Web sites they use through Google or some other search engine, other than to figure out how to make things better for people who use the Web that way.

I wonder whether browsers could display URLs in a way that makes things easier for users. The most important thing about a URL, especially in terms of preventing fraud, is the domain name — the real one, not the fake one that’s included to defraud people. Maybe it should be highlighted in some way with the owner of the domain displayed as well.

Via Simon Willison.


  1. Certainly the most worrisome aspect of this issue is these users’ susceptibility to phishing. If you can’t decipher a URL — at least up to the slash after the domain name — then you’re at serious risk, because you never know if the site you’re looking at is legitimate or not.

    I spend about 95% of my browsing time in Firefox and the rest in Safari, but I think this might be a strong argument for web novices to use either Chrome or IE8, since their designs highlight the domain name in the address bar. Sure, if you’ve learned to completely ignore the address bar then it won’t be much help, but it’s better than nothing.

    On the other hand, Firefox (and maybe the other browsers too) does a nice job of emphasizing the certificate owner when you go to an SSL page. But that’s a narrow slice of the web, and if you’re likely to fall for a phishing attack, you probably won’t notice that anyway — and the scammers might as well not even use SSL, bypassing this feature altogether.

    Here’s a possible solution: browsers could have a “WHOIS” (though I wouldn’t call it that) bar just below the address bar, and do a whois lookup on every site you visit, SSL or not, with the name of the domain owner highlighted.

  2. While of course I can’t find it now, there is a Firefox plugin that changes how the url looks. When a user is moused over the url, it looks normal, as we would expect, but when the user is not moused over it, it emphasizes the domain name much like Chrome does by highlighting it, but it also puts white space around the domain name so it stands out even more. It was an effective way to highlight the domain name. When people would look over my shoulder most would asked what had happened to the url.

  3. I really hate the idea of all browsers and similar tools being altered to only assist the biggest idiots among us.

    It makes them really difficult to use for those who know a little bit more, and extremely slow and inconvenient.

    I already have to mod my Firefox enough to remove all the things designed to help regular folks navigate it and the internet. Don’t really want to have to do more.

  4. My intuitions are with Mike, and with the post, that simply designing down to the novices without any attempt at education can be dangerous. But when Google surveyed, only 8% of respondents knew the difference between a browser and a search engine. At this point, education is desirable, but design seems a necessary backup.

    Mike articulates the worry with redesign really well. Too often we trade usability between novices and experts. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Fitt’s law seems to apply to everyone. The power law of practice, generally speaking, applies to all users, great and small. There might be a solution here that doesn’t cripple the experience of the highly proficient user.

    For example, could this particular incident been avoided by tweaking Google’s burstiness?

    Burstiness is a property of search algorithms, it basically pushes new items to the top faster. Good for aggregating breaking news, very bad for reliably getting to that site you use every day. So the solution I’d propose would be to use a significantly less bursty algorithm for I’m Feeling Lucky. If I’m Feeling Lucky has been coopted by address bars, maybe it should be slightly more static, for experts and novices alike.

  5. I think there are a lot of things you can do to help novices that are helpful to experienced users as well. Good design benefits everybody. I also agree that it’s probably time to take a good hard look at the interaction between browsers and search engines and get the two sides to work together to create something that’s better for users who don’t know what they’re doing, and maybe for the rest of us, too.

  6. While I do agree that good design benefits everyone, the problem I’ve found is that when a company/developers think they have found the One True Way(TM) of doing things, they then remove all customization options. Pidgin and other projects are notorious for this.

    I customize my user experience extensively, up to and including DLL hacks and sometimes, if the developers are particularly dogmatic about not allowing changes and the user interface is bad enough, modifying and compiling my own version.

    I’m a bit insane about it, but I don’t understand why so often when someone thinks they have just found the perfect design, they then lock down all customization possibilities.

    At that point, it seems become some kind of religious feeling, rather than the more logical admission that all users are different and benefit from different approaches and designs.

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