Published during: January 2013

Don’t Confuse Your Semantics

I was reading an article on Foreign Policy, and encountered a lovely little design decision that I thought I’d highlight as something not to do. Their visual cuing for links sets a different color for the text (quite normal) and bolds it (not so normal). This latter change, in my view, breaks the user’s expectations on semantics in some really unfortunate ways.

Here’s what I mean: we expect bold text to indicate increased importance, and with a few decades of experience we expect altered color to indicate a link. The problem here is that both are in play. You can occasionally get away with breaking the user’s expectations, but in this case the result is that every time there’s a link I interpreted the text as being emphasized. It wasn’t; it was just bolded because it was a link.

The lesson here is simple: keep your semantics clean and distinct. If you have a reason to override the user’s normal expectations, that’s okay, but you should have a very good reason for it. The rest of the time, don’t use bold when you really mean link. Similarly, you shouldn’t normally use color or underlines for emphasis; those have established semantic meaning on the web; when you use them to other purposes it’s just confusing.