Reader as User: Applying Interface Design Techniques to the Web


People react strongly to color. From an evolutionary perspective, our ancestors with better color vision were the ancestors who survived and reproduced. From a cultural perspective, colors have powerful metaphorical meanings. Users of computer systems invariably prefer the use of color on screens. Unfortunately, it is easier to use color badly than to use color appropriately.

When used effectively, color can draw the user's attention to important information, show relationships between ideas or objects, and enhance the comprehension, retention, and appeal of the information provided. Because of its power, when used inappropriately color can fatigue the user's vision, cause confusion, and overwhelm and distract the user. Use color wisely if at all.

Colors on computer monitors are produced differently than for print media. We see color on the printed page because light is reflected off its surface. On the computer screen, we see colors in emitted light. Every frequent user of computer systems has experienced the bleary, tired eyes that result from extensive reading from computer monitors. Fatigue is an important human factors issue in screen design, and writers for the WWW should try to minimize visual fatigue. Using a limited number of colors, especially in backgrounds, will prevent the user from becoming overloaded.

Do not allow extraneous colors to compete with the text. Color should be used to encode and highlight information. Unfortunately, many designers use brightly colored backgrounds, bullets, and separator bars which attract the user's eye but provide no meaning. If the most visually compelling item on the page is a rainbow separator bar, it will overwhelm the text and distract or confuse the reader. Limit the number of colors to 5±2 to avoid overloading the user's short-term memory.

Use bright colors to attract the user's eye to links. Use color in backgrounds to minimize visual fatigue or encode different sections of a document. Be aware of users' cultural sensitivities to color and use color as a metaphoric device when possible.

People enjoy color and find reading documents which use color effectively to be enjoyable and more meaningful than documents printed in black and white. People also find that the use of images and effective layout enhances the information value of a document.

With color display quality increasing and cost decreasing, designers are tempted to use color in system designs. There are undoubtedly benefits of increased user satisfaction and often increased performance; however, there are real dangers in misusing color. Care should be taken to make appropriate designs and to conduct thorough evaluations. (Shneiderman 1992)

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