Underlining to denote links?

Subject: Underlining to denote links?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 2 Apr 2001 14:26:34 -0400

Bryan Westbrook, responding to Tom Murrell's question about how colorblind
users detect hyperlinks that aren't denoted by underlining, observes: <<The
mouse pointer changes from an arrow to that little Mickey Mouse hand when
you pass over a hyperlink.>>

Although it's true that the cursor changes shape, this is not a reliable
means of cueing people to the existence of a hyperlink (for example, see the
discussion in Jef Raskin's 2000 book, "The Humane Interface"). Moreover,
it's unfair to ask our users to scrub the mouse back and forth across the
screen in the vain hope that they'll stumble across a hyperlink by watching
for the cursor to change; I know that's not your suggestion, but the point
still needs to be made. The reason why underlining works (and works well) is
that it's been a standard long enough for people to use underlining
unconsciously as a cue that they've found a link. See the underline, click
the link: no thought required.

It's hard to recommend something that violates this standard unless you can
demonstrate that it's (a) sufficiently intuitive that you won't be fooling
users or forcing them to learn new tricks and (b) sufficiently easy to spot
that you're not reducing their productivity by making them search for links.
"Click here" icons (with real labels, not "click here") might be that
alternative, but they're time-consuming to create, and thus underused.
Moreover, you can litter a screen with icons as badly as with underlines if
you're not careful, and considerable anecdotal evidence plus a fair bit of
reading in cognitive psych tells me that icons are visually distracting (and
can make the layout suffer badly by changing the line spacing where they
appear within a line of text) if they're not used skillfully. I've had
particular problems including icons of buttons in WinHelp without either
shrinking the icons into illegibility or creating huge gaps between the line
with the icon and the lines above and below it. Last time I checked, nobody
on techwr-l had a good workaround that solved this problem.

The main objection to underlining probably arises from the very
understandable reflex to underline the entire phrase that denotes the link,
or a large part of the phrase. That can turn a link-heavy page into
something resembling a help file written on lined foolscap paper. The
solution lies in underlining less of the linking phrase (probably just the
few key words) and in writing better text in such a way as to make the
hyperlinks either less frequent, more organized (e.g., into a bulleted
list), or more integral to the text. That's a difficult rule to generalize.

<<There can also be variations in the shades of gray, as long as red is not
used for the link color. People who are color blind see in grayscale, not

This is a broadly useful suggestion, but it doesn't tell the full story. For
instance, the rule about not using red for a hyperlink arises from the fact
that red-green colorblindness is by far the most common form, and it's true
that most people who can't distinguish red and green _can often_ distinguish
different shades of grey. But what this means is that you shouldn't use red
and green to denote _different_ kinds of links (because those with red-green
colorblindness won't be able to detect the difference between the two types
of links), _not_ that you shouldn't use red. The trick is to use a specific
color of red that has a different "value" (black content) from that of the
surrounding text so that it looks different from the text when seen in
greyscale. (You can test this easily in most graphics programs.) But even
then, you're not solving the problem, since the inability to distinguish
shades of grey is another (albeit less common) form of colorblindness.
Underlines work for _any_ audience because they rely on the same cues as the
text does: if you can see and read the text, you can see and identify the
underline. Moreover, I'd speculate (though I haven't confirmed this) that
most screen-reader software looks for underline tags to identify links
(since WinHelp links lack the "http://"; that denotes HTML links), and
choosing another standard will make the links truly invisible for the blind
and others with very serious visual impairments.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"The most likely way for the world to be destroyed, most experts agree, is
by accident. That's where we come in; we're computer professionals. We cause
accidents."-- Nathaniel Borenstein


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