To underline or not to underline: that is the question

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UX is the latest buzz word in the world of tech. For those who haven’t heard, it stands for User Experience and companies are employing specialised UX designers/developers to assess their web presence, mobile apps and internal software to ensure that the user experience is high. The benefits of this are of course significant, so much so that the University of Kent have employed their own UX specialist to assist in the development of future websites and services to ensure that prospective students and their family can find the information that they need, as easily as possible. A very clear example of this is the new Courses pages.

An area of great debate in the world of the web is underlined links. There are 2 very strong but very different arguments that attempt to do the same thing:

  • Make links clear to the user so that they are not missed.
  • Improve the legibility of a webpage.

Whilst there is of course a great deal of variation, the 2 main options I have personally noticed are:

  1. Links should be a different colour and underline on hover.
  2. Links should be underlined always and have some sort of hover effect.

There doesn’t appear to be consistency in the use of these different approaches either. The national website have gone down the road of underlining all links and it does appear to work quite well. That being said, design on this webpage focuses on textual content, data, information, linking similar pieces of information where the user journey is incredibly important. General browsing of the site is not expected as most users are looking for something specific on the website.

Google on the other hand have recently changed their search results page quite significantly by removing the underline on links by default (so it only appears on hover). Everyone knows that the big blue headers on the Google search pages are links and users generally search for something and then browse the results therefore making the page look as clean as possible to ease in the legibility of text.

It seems as if designers, developers and UX specialists are noticing these irregularities and the benefits of both, therefore a whole new range of link styling is being experimented with. Spend 5 minutes on several different websites and you will see a range of variations of underline styles and more embarrassingly, several different styles on the same website (blog post by Evan Knight).

  • UEA: Headers have no hover style, standard links have a permanent underline.
  • Bath: Links are a different colour, background colour change on hover only.
  • Cambridge: Links are a different colour, underline on hover only.
  • Birmingham: Don’t underline at all.

More than anything, this shows that the industry is unable to decide on a specific way of displaying links. Or maybe their research suggests different methods are required for different types of websites. Search, catalogues, news, e-commerce, link repositories, manuals etc. This may be less about the UX but instead about how it appears within the frame of the website.

I must say that I have not noticed a pattern myself but with enough research there may be one.

 [ This post originally featured on the Web Solutions blog which I wrote whilst working for the University of Kent. The words are my own and do not represent the views of the University ] 

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