Do Links Need Underlines?
During our recent Virtual Seminar on home page design, several people asked about whether it makes a difference if links are underlined or not. It’s a good question and one we get frequently.
Let’s look at some examples. The folks over at BLS.gov have decided to underline all of their links:
Whereas the folks over at John Deere decided to display them without underlines:
Are users less likely to find what they are looking for at Deere.com, just because the links aren’t underlined? Probably not. People are pretty adaptable and figure things out fairly fast.
But users are trained to click on underlined things. (Did you move your mouse over the underlined text in the previous sentence to see if it was a link? Don’t be concerned — so did I and I knew it wasn’t a link.)
Many people who use the web for a long time start to become conditioned to look for underlines. If you watch them with an eye tracker, you can see their focus dart from underlined-text to underlined-text when they first see a page.
In the case of the Deere page, where virtually nothing is underlined, the users would adapt quickly and find the links, often by waving their mouse around the screen, looking to see where the browser gives them “the finger.”
But what happens when you mix the visual style of links with text that isn’t a link.
This is what happened over at Analog.com:
Here some of the text is a link, but the headers are not. Users were a bit baffled by this, especially since headers in a very similar style elsewhere on the page are links. This puts the burden on the user to seek out every possible link with their mouse, adding more to their cognitive workload for no particular reason.
We can see this more clearly over at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center home page. Here, all on the same page, we have a set of links with underlines:
Some without underlines:
Resulting in some users wondering if the bullet text are or are not links:
When the designers switch back and forth, between having some links underlined but others not be underlined, that makes even more work for users. Work that doesn’t add any real value. We think the visual design element of the underline is not required, but it is cruel to make users work extra hard because you can’t decide.