The Highway Principle: Give Your Visitors What They Want

The Highway Principle: Give Your Visitors What They Want

A good website design takes into account what visitors will do when they come to your site. But what do visitors do?

Dad, I’ve gotta go,” says little Joey. There you are, driving down the highway on the way to Disney World, and your kid has got to use the bathroom. So what do you do? If you’re like most people, you carefully pull by the side of the road, pull out a map and start calculating the most fuel-efficient route to a rest stop.


That’s not what you do. If it’s like the last family vacation, you know what Joey will do if you don’t get to the rest stop in time. So you keep your eyes peeled for a big sign labeled “Rest Area.” As Joey keeps hollering, your wife notices there’s a sign that says, “Rest Stop, ten more miles.” 

Notice what you did

#1: You scanned around for the solution to your problem. (Rest stop, anyone?)

#2: You chose the first reasonable option, not necessarily the best one. (The bushes will have to do…)

#3: You muddled through the situation. (Um, Joey has never peed in the bushes before…)

The scenario above is the Highway Principle

Let’s call this behavior the 3 Laws of the Highway Principle

Law #1: Visitors don’t read; they scan. Your visitors are trying to get little Joey where he needs to go, not admire the scenery along the way.

Law #2: Your visitors will choose the first reasonable option. They won’t necessarily slow down and make sure they’ve considered everything.

Law #3: Your visitors will muddle through your site doing the best they can, not try and conclude all the features of how your site is put together.

A website interface design that helps people find what they are looking for using the Laws of the Highway Principle is the best kind of design. To engage potential customers, your website should be designed with their behavior in mind. They’ll stick around longer. And it just might translate into more subscribers and higher profits for you.

But how do we know website users behave like this?

Perhaps you think you’re an exception because you’re very thorough and always read everything. Maybe. But not all your visitors will be. It’s a documented fact that people scan web pages looking for words that catch their eye (think “Rest Stop”) rather than reading them. And I’d be willing to bet the first time you used, you didn’t look for the Help section but instead started clicking on the link that looked the most reasonable to you and muddled your way through until you found what you were looking for.

The pure of the story when it occurs to website design

Be considerate of your visitors. Pretend they’ve got a little Joey in the backseat, and the only thing they can do is scanchoose, and muddle their way through. The Highway Principle works just as well for bathroom emergencies as it does for website design.




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