How Browsers Provide Everything Users Need
Kip Williams, professor of psychology sciences at Purdue University, conducted a fascinating experiment called “cyberball.” In his experiment, a test subject and two other participants played a computer game of catch. At a predetermined time, the test subject was excluded from the game, forcing them to only observe as the clock ran down.
The experience showed increases in self-reported levels of anger and sadness, as well as lowering levels of the four needs. The digital version of the experiment created results that matched the results of the original physical one, meaning that these feelings occurred regardless of context.
After the game was concluded, the test subject was told that the other participants were robots, not other human participants. Interestingly, the reveal of automated competitors did not lessen the negative feelings reported. In fact, it increased feelings of anger, while also decreasing participants’ sense of willpower and/or self-regulation.
In other words: people who feel they are rejected by a digital system will feel hurt and have their sense of autonomy reduced, even when they believe there isn’t another human directly responsible.
So, what does this have to with browsers?
Every adjustment to the appearance and behavior of the features browsers let you manipulate is a roll of the dice, gambling on the delight of some at the expense of alienating others.
When using a browser to navigate the web, there’s a lot of sameness, until there isn’t. Most of the time we’re hopping from page-to-page and site-to-site, clicking links, pressing buttons, watching videos, filling out forms, writing messages, etc. But every once in awhile we stumble across something new and novel that makes us pause to figure out what’s going on.
Every website and web app is its own self-contained experience, with its own ideas of how things should look and behave. Some are closer to others, but each one requires learning how to operate the interface to a certain degree.
Some browsers can also have parts of their functionality and appearance altered, meaning that as with websites, there can be unexpected discrepancies. We’ll unpack some of the nuance behind some of these features, and more importantly, why most of them are better off left alone.
All the major desktop browsers allow you to hit the Home key on the keyboard to jump to the top of the page. Some scrollbar implementations allow you to click on the top of the scrollbar area to do the same. Some browsers allow you to type Command+Up (macOS) / Ctrl+Up (Windows), as well. People who use assistive technology like screen readers can use things like banner landmarks to navigate the same way (provided they are correctly declared in the site’s HTML).
However, not every device has an easily discoverable way to invoke this functionality: many laptops don’t have a Home key on their keyboard. The tap-the-clock-to-jump-to-the-top functionality on iOS is difficult to discover, and can be surprising and frustrating if accidentally activated. You need specialized browser extensions to recreate screen reader landmark navigation techniques.
One commonly implemented UI solution for longer pages is the scroll-to-top button. It’s often fixed to the bottom-right corner of the screen. Activating this control will take the user to the top of the page, regardless of how far down they’ve scrolled.
If your site features a large amount of content per page, it may be worth investigating this UI pattern. Try looking at analytics and/or conducting user tests to see where and how often this feature is used. The caveat being if it’s used too often, it might be worth taking a long, hard look at your information architecture and content strategy.
Three things I like about the scroll-to-top pattern are:
- Its functionality is pretty obvious (especially if properly labeled).
- Provided it is designed well, it can provide a decent-sized touch target in a thumb-friendly area. For motor control considerations, its touch target can be superior to narrow scroll or status bars, which can make for frustratingly small targets to hit.
- It does not alter or remove existing scroll behavior, augmenting it instead. If somebody is used to one way of scrolling to the top, you’re not overriding it or interrupting it.
If you’re implementing this sort of functionality, I have four requests to help make the experience work for everyone (I find the Smooth Scroll library to be a helpful starting place):
- Honor user requests for reduced motion. The dramatic scrolling effect of whipping from the bottom of the page to the top may be a vestibular trigger, a situation where the system that controls your body’s sense of physical position and orientation in the world is disrupted, causing things like headaches, nausea, vertigo, migraines, and hearing loss.
- Ensure keyboard focus is moved to the top of the document, mirroring what occurs visually. Applying this practice will improve all users’ experiences. Otherwise, hitting Tab after scrolling to the top would send the user down to the first interactive element that follows where the focus had been before they activated the scroll button.
- Ensure the button does not make other content unusable by obscuring it. Be sure to account for when the browser is in a zoomed-in state, not just in its default state.
- Be mindful of other fixed-position elements. I’ve seen my fair share of websites that also have a chatbot or floating action button competing to live in the same space.
If you’re old enough to remember, it was once considered fashionable to style your website scrollbars. Internet Explorer allowed this customization via a series of vendor-specific properties. At best, they looked great! If the designer and developer were both skilled and detail-oriented, you’d get something that looked like a natural extension of the rest of the website.
However, the stakes for a quality design were pretty high: scrollbars are part of an application’s interface, not a website’s. In inclusive design, it’s part of what we call external consistency. External consistency is the idea that an object’s functionality is informed and reinforced by similar implementations elsewhere. It’s why you can flip a wall switch in most houses and be guaranteed the lights come on instead of flushing the toilet.
While scrollbars have some minor visual differences between operating systems (and operating system versions), they’re consistent externally in function. Scrollbars are also consistent internally, in that every window and program on the OS that requires scrolling has the same scrollbar treatment.
If you customize your website’s scrollbar colors, for less technologically literate people, yet another aspect of the interface has changed without warning or instruction on how to change it back. If the user is already confused about how things on the screen work, it’s one less familiar thing for them to cling to as stable and reliable.
You might be rolling your eyes reading this, but I’d ask you to check out this incredible article by Jennifer Morrow instead. In it, she describes conducting a guerilla user test at a mall, only to have the session completely derailed when she discovers someone who has never used a computer before.
What she discovers is as important as it is shocking. The gist of it is that some people (even those who have used a computer before) don’t understand the nuance of the various “layers” you navigate through to operate a computer: the hardware, the OS, the browser installed on the OS, the website the browser is displaying, the website’s modals and disclosure statements, etc. To them, the experience is flat.
We should not expect these users to juggle this kind of cognitive overhead. These kinds of abstractions are crafted to be analogous to real-world objects, specifically so people can get what they want from a digital system without having to be programmers. Adding unnecessary complexity weakens these metaphors and gives users one less reference point to rely on.
Remember the cyberball experiment. When a user is already in a distressed emotional state, our poorly-designed custom scrollbar might be the death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts moment where they give up on trying to get what they want and reject the system entirely.
While Morrow’s article was written in 2011, it’s just as relevant now as it was then. More and more people are using the internet globally, and more and more services integral to living daily life are getting digitized. It’s up to us as responsible designers and developers to be sure we make everyone, regardless of device, circumstance, or ability feel welcome.
In addition to unnecessarily abandoning external consistency, there is the issue of custom scrollbar styling potentially not having sufficient color contrast. The too-light colors can create a situation where a person experiencing low-vision conditions won’t be able to perceive, and therefore operate, a website’s scrolling mechanism.
In my opinion? Don’t alter the default appearance of an OS’s scrollbars. Use that time to work on something else instead, say, checking for and fixing color contrast problems.
The main concern about altering scrolling behavior is one of consent: it’s taking an externally consistent, system-wide behavior and suddenly altering it without permission. The term scrolljacking has been coined to describe this practice. It is not to be confused with scrollytelling, a more considerate treatment of scrolling behavior that honors the OS’s scrolling settings.
Altering the scrolling behavior on your website or web app can fly in the face of someone’s specific, expressed preferences. For some people, it’s simply an annoyance. For people with motor control concerns, it could make moving through a site difficult. In some extreme cases, the unannounced discrepancy between the amount of scrolling and the distance traveled can also be vestibular triggers. Another consideration is if your modified scrolling behavior accidentally locks out people who don’t use mice, touch, or trackpads to scroll.
All in all, I think Robin Rendle said it best:
Another OS feature we’re permitted to style in the browser is highlighted text. Much like scrollbars, this is an interface element that is shared by all apps on the OS, not just the browser.
Breaking the external consistency of the OS’s highlighting color has a lot of the same concerns as styled scrollbars, namely altering the expected behavior of something that functions reliably everywhere else. It’s potentially disorienting and alienating, and may deny someone’s expressed preferences.
Some people highlight text as they read. If your custom highlight style has a low contrast ratio between the highlighted text color and the highlighted text’s background color, the person reading your website or web app may be unable to perceive the text they’re highlighting. The effect will cause the text to seemingly disappear as they try to read.
Other people just may not care for your aesthetic sensibilities. Both macOS and Windows allow you to specify a custom highlight color. In a scenario where someone has deliberately set a preference other than the system default, a styled highlight color may override their stated specifications.
For me, the potential risks far outweigh the vanity of a bespoke highlight style—better to just leave it be.
Lots of people change text size to suit their needs. And that’s a good thing. We want people to be able to read our content and act upon it, regardless of whatever circumstances they may be experiencing.
For the problem of too-small text, some designers turn to text resizing widgets, a custom UI pattern that lets a person cycle through a number of preset CSS
font-size values. Commonly found in places with heavy text content, text resizing widgets are often paired with complex, multicolumn designs. News sites are a common example.
Before I dive into my concerns with text resizing widgets, I want to ask: if you find that your site needs a specialized widget to manage your text size, why not just take the simpler route and increase your base text size?
Like many accessibility concerns, a request for a larger font size isn’t necessarily indicative of a permanent disability condition. It’s often circumstantial, such as a situation where you’re showing a website on your office’s crappy projector.
Browsers allow users to change their preferred default font size, resizing text across websites accordingly. Browsers excel at handling this setting when you write CSS that takes advantage of unitless
line-height values and relative
Some designers may feel that granting this liberty to users somehow detracts from their intended branding. Good designers understand that there’s more to branding than just how something looks. It’s about implementing the initial design in the browser, then working with the browser’s capabilities to best serve the person using it. Even if things like the font size are adjusted, a strong brand will still shine through with the ease of your user flows, quality of your typography and palette, strength of your copywriting, etc.
Unfortunately, custom browser text resizing widgets lack a universal approach. If you rely on browser text settings, it just works—consistently, with the same controls, gestures, and keyboard shortcuts, for every page on every website, even in less-than-ideal conditions. You don’t have to write and maintain extra code, test for regressions, or write copy instructing the user on where to find your site’s text resizing widget and how to use it.
Behavioral consistency is incredibly important. Browser text resizing is applied to all text on the page proportionately every time the setting is changed. These settings are also retained for the next time you visit. Not every custom text resizing widget does this, nor will it resize all content to the degree stipulated by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.
When I say high-contrast themes, I’m not talking about things like a dark mode. I’m talking about a response to people reporting that they need to change your website or web app’s colors to be more visually accessible to them.
Much like text resizing controls, themes that are designed to provide higher contrast color values are perplexing: if you’re taking the time to make one, why not just fix the insufficient contrast values in your regular CSS? Effectively managing themes in CSS is a complicated, resource-intensive affair, even under ideal situations.
Most site-provided high-contrast themes are static in that the designer or developer made decisions about which color values to use, which can be a problem. Too much contrast has been known to be a trigger for things like migraines, as well as potentially making it difficult to focus for users with some forms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The contrast conundrum leads us to a difficult thing to come to terms with when it comes to accessibility: what works for one person may actually inhibit another. Because of this, it’s important to make things open and interoperable. Leave ultimate control up to the end user so they may decide how to best interact with content.
If you are going to follow through on providing this kind of feature, some advice: model it after the Windows High Contrast mode. It’s a specialized Windows feature that allows a person to force a high color palette onto all aspects of the OS’s UI, including anything the browser displays. It offers four themes out of the box but also allows a user to suit their individual needs by specifying their own colors.
Your high contrast mode feature should do the same. Offer a range of themes with different palettes, and let the user pick colors that work best for them—it will guarantee that if your offerings fail, people still have the ability to self-select.
Keyboard focus is how people who rely on input such as keyboards, switch controls, voice inputs, eye tracking, and other forms of assistive technology navigate and operate digital interfaces. While you can do things like use the
autofocus attribute to move keyboard focus to the first input on a page after it loads, it is not recommended.
For people experiencing low- and no-vision conditions, it is equivalent to being abruptly and instantaneously moved to a new location. It’s a confusing and disorienting experience—there’s a reason why there’s a trope in sci-fi movies of people vomiting after being teleported for the first time.
For people with motor control concerns, moving focus without their permission means they may be transported to a place where they didn’t intend to go. Digging themselves out of this location becomes annoying at best and effort-intensive at worst. Websites without heading elements or document landmarks to serve as navigational aids can worsen this effect.
This is all about consent. Moving focus is fine so long as a person deliberately initiates an action that requires it (shifting focus to an opened modal, for example). I don’t come to your house and force you to click on things, so don’t move my keyboard focus unless I specifically ask you to.
Let the browser handle keyboard focus. Provided you use semantic markup, browsers do this well. Some tips:
The clipboard and browser history
The clipboard is sacred space. Don’t prevent people from copying things to it, and don’t append extra content to what they copy. The same goes for browser history and back and forward buttons. Don’t mess around with time travel, and just let the browser do its job.
In the game part of cyberball, the fun comes from being able to participate with others, passing the ball back and forth. With the web, fun comes from being able to navigate through it. In both situations, fun stops when people get locked out, forced to watch passively from the sidelines.
Fortunately, the web doesn’t have to be one long cyberball experiment. While altering the powerful, assistive technology-friendly features of browsers can enhance the experience for some users, it carries a great risk of alienating others if changes are made with ignorance about exactly how much will be affected.
Remember that this is all in the service of what ultimately matters: creating robust experiences that allow people to successfully use your website or web app regardless of their ability or circumstance. Sometimes the best strategy is to let things be.