Just Because You Can…

There’s a saying that goes “just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.” It’s a good maxim and well enough known that a simple “just because you can…” is enough to get the point across to most people. It means that actions aren’t worth taking unless you’re sure you want to take them. To be sure requires thinking and reflection.

I blog a lot about best practices on the web and I recently realized that this phrase gets to the heart of so many issues I run into when helping people use tools like WordPress to build accessible and usable websites. Just because it’s an option… Just because that feature exists… Just because another website does it…

Despite what you may think or wish was true, the tools we use to build websites are not perfect. They include features built by people who don’t think through all the uses. They allow users to do things that are appropriate in specific use-cases but not others. They even sometimes include features that really shouldn’t exist at all. Misconceptions and worst practices thrive across the web, even among technically adept developers who may have excellent technical skills but little-to-no design and usability experience.

This is all to say that you, as a website administrator, must look out for yourself and your users to make sure that when you use a feature or option it’s appropriate.

Here are three examples—some old and some new—of features that I think squarely fall into the “doesn’t mean you should” category.

WordPress Add/Edit Link Tool

Whenever you want to insert a link into a WordPress post, the default interface gives you three options, two of which you should never ((For advanced users, you may be aware that the “new window/tab” option is appropriate for use on pages that contain form data or other “processes” that could be interrupted by loading a new page in that same tab or window. However, this is a rare enough and advanced enough edge-case that I think “never” is generally the right advice to give.)) use!

The "Add/Edit Link" Window in WordPress

I’ve blogged about both offending features in the past.

  1. The title attribute is practically useless. It’s unavailable to touch device users and either invisible or redundant to screen reader users. All it does is clutter up your code. If you think you need to use the title attribute, try to improve your link text instead!
  2. The “Open link in a new window/tab” is my primary example of what I’ve dubbed the “worst practice cycle,” and I’ve written not one but two different blog posts about why the feature should not be used. A lot of people love this feature but I  strongly believe that it decreases the usability of your site.

Gravity Forms New Fields

Our next example comes from the upcoming Gravity Forms 1.9 plugin (affiliate link). I love Gravity Forms but I’m disappointed they’ve added one of the new features in this version.

The Gravity Forms Name field creates a nice unified field capable of separately capturing first, middle, and last name as necessary, but in the new v1.9, the name field comes with a new option to ask for a “salutation” (they call it a “prefix”): ((Luckily, even if the Name field is required, the prefix field can be left blank by the user submitting the form.))

The Gravity Forms Default Salutation Options

I’m a little surprised as it’s a new field because it seems like a rather outdated idea to me. As I’ve mentioned in the past, “Salutation,” “Gender,” and “Sex” fields all force a site visitor into a socially-constructed binary that not all people ascribe to. Worse yet,  a salutation field is often used to try to infer gender or sex rather than coming out and asking directly. It’s often possible to just simply not use it and that’s what I would recommend. Unless your site audience consists of various levels of royalty, please don’t use a salutation field.

Flags for Translations

The final example comes from the world of translations. Coincidentally, I covered why you shouldn’t use flags to represent countries in the same brief post about not asking for gender in forms.

List of Flags to Select Translation Language

The above interface seems to solve the problem of how to display a huge number of languages in a small area, but ends up reinforcing inappropriate associations between nationality and language. How would a person from Mexico feel having to click a Spanish flag or a person from Brazil having to click a Portuguese flag to read content in their own first language.?

The feature was an interesting idea but one that’s now become unfortunately common. Many translation services offer it as an option or even the default. You shouldn’t use it!

Do Your Best

I’ve closed posts with this message before, and I’ll do it again here.

It’s impossible to know the absolute-best-#1-perfect option for everything everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to follow as many best practices as possible. Whenever you can, find the time to slow down and make sure you understand the full ramifications of a checkbox you mindlessly checked or a plugin you quickly activated. Question your assumptions, research best practices, ask for help, and follow to the experts. A lot of small improvements by a lot of site owners over time can lead to a drastically better web for everyone

Got an Example?

What’s you’re favorite example of a “just because you can” website feature?

6 thoughts on “Just Because You Can…”

  1. The picture with all the flags cracks me up! How many US flags do we need?!?!

    And an observation on the “Title” attribute: it allows the browser to pop up a tooltip with a different text than the link text. In fact, it seems WordPress uses it behind the scenes, too: if you hover the mouse pointer on the link “title attribute is practically useless” under the picture of the insert/edit link dialog, the tooltip shows the actual title of the page. Knowing that, I’m not sure I agree that it’s completely useless.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Fulvio!

      re: the flags, you should see what languages those extra US flags represent! Popular US languages such as…Hausa! It would appear that their CSS uses a sprite of flags and just left the US flag as the default. That’s even worse than the issues I was getting at.

      My problem with the title attribute is that support for the tooltips is spotty particularly when considering at touch devices and screen readers. Especially because of the accessibility issue, if there’s information that’s critical to display, it needs to be done in a way that *all* users have access to. There are lots of much better tooltip techniques that are both accessible and have better browser support. In fact, that flag widget site shouldn’t be using titles for tooltips!

      And in terms of WordPress, they know it’s an issue and there’s a bajillion tickets to remove them over time. Here’s the master ticket. It drives me crazy that they still have it in the link tool.

      1. After I hit Post Comment, I had one more thought. I think what I’m really trying to say is this: WordPress is irresponsibly giving its users the impression that title attributes are an effective, modern technique for including information on websites since it is not in fact available to all users.

  2. Great post as usual my friend. And I saw your question on Twitter.

    There are two tools in the editor that I wish they would just do away with. Full Justification is one… sites look horrid with that and are so hard to read. The other is Underline . I think we have we have trained ourselves to think underline = link. In fact, I had one person ask me if they should quite using them because people kept emailing her and telling her that all the links on a couple of her pages were broken.

    1. Two great examples, Bob. Great ones at that!

      I completely agree and use a custom plugin I wrote on nearly every client site to remove about half of the editor buttons and get everything onto a single line. You can see a screenshot and even try out the plugin!

      If I get enough good examples, I’ll write a followup post with them all. Your two might just lead the way :)

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