The dangers of customisation

In the past few years emerging techniques have allowed web site creators to customise their user’s browsing environment to an increasing extent. Cascading style-sheets have allowed authors to modify form elements and scroll-bars to more closely match the aesthetics of their sites, javascript can be used to alter window size and shape and the behaviour of toolbars, browser buttons and mouse actions.

This amount of control is embraced by traditional designers who enjoy maintaining strict control over every facet of their work, and who in the past have struggled with the unpredictable nature of the Internet as a medium of design, but many web developers are wary of the damage this customisation could be doing for the user experience and the effect it could have on how web sites are currently being used. Is there a point at which you can ‘design’ and control too much of the users browsing environment?

Before the growth of the Internet, users would generally only be exposed to user interface elements that followed their platform developer’s Human Interface Guidelines. These guidelines regulate the behaviour of widgets, buttons, mouse clicks and other interactive elements to achieve a level of consistency across applications, allowing a user to become familiar and efficient when using their computer.

With the growth in usage of the Internet, and web sites that do not follow such specific guidelines, it is important to achieve as much consistency with a users native platform as possible, so that familiar interfaces are present where possible, especially for the more important tasks such as inputting data and navigating information. While it is always important to create a tight and integrated visual style when designing for the web, (or any interactive medium), the demands of the user that the interaction can occur easily and efficiently are equally important. With regards to specific elements or behaviour on the web, the user will have more experience with the elements and behaviour of their own operating system than with your site specific customised controls and mouse actions. If you want them to interact with your site more efficiently, it may be wise to let them use what they know.