Teaching and doing digital history.

The Golden Triangle

I’m finding that as the weeks go on, I’m thinking more and more about how I want my final project to look. So this week’s readings on usability were slightly overwhelming, if not perfectly timed.

It’s as if every week, with each additional reading, we get one more thing to think about or take into consideration as we’re designing our projects. Then the panic sets in.

This week I read, had my usual panic attack and then took a step back to breathe. After I thought about it, Sasha is right , we’ve seen this before. We’re just getting a bit more detail about what it is we already sorta know about web design. Further more, these readings bring home to me an argument I’ve been having for years in my work life. Specifically, where to put things. Let me explain.

In re: the readings on Rule of Three. At work, we use a term called the “Golden Triangle,” which reflects how users expect to find information when they visit your site. These expectations are based on users’ experiences with Google’s Search Results layout, which love it or hate it, is the dominant way users navigate the web now. The concept of the Golden Triangle was/is based largely on a 2005 eye tracking study done by some fancy web marketing research firm to understand how search was really taking over the world wide web AND changing how users navigate it.

(In another lesson in how blogs typically can stand the test of time, while web sites rarely do, you can get to the blog entry discussing said study, but you can no longer get to the full study – big bummer. You can see the heat map below and the triangle is pretty clear.)

Graphic of the Golden Triangle, lovingly borrowed from seroundtable.com

Let me be clear, I have never designed a site before this class, nor have I ever hand-coded a site by myself. My job in the working world has always been, solely, to represent to the web development and design teams the business requirements for content and advertising on major,high-traffic commercial sites. ie, “I need the content box to appear here and it needs to be at least 5 lines of text with six possible hyperlinks and an image at least ‘this big.'” “The ad needs to be above the fold and adhere to the Internet Ad Bureau’s standards on size and expansions,” blah blah blah.

And then the fight over the Golden Triangle would ensue:

Highly skilled design and usability folks: “No, it can’t go here because you are trying to dominate critical space in the Golden Triangle with your stupid content.”
Me: “Well, I know, but if I can’t recirculate traffic to our internal pages where the big ads are, then the user can’t see the ad, and then we can’t sell the ad and then none of us get paid.” And so on and so forth.

They were all in good fun and we were all representing the camps we were hired to represent. The war between good design and profitability hasn’t subsided, we just have many years of analytics to use in our arguments now.

Which brings me to another web usability study, this one done back in 2006, which addressed where users expected to see common site navigation elements: the home button, search box, internal links, ads, and about us links. It’s an interesting and short read and the visuals make it pretty clear where users expect these elements to go.

I realize that 2006 seems like a long time ago in web ages, but not much has changed. Actually, that’s not true. Years of web experiences and analytics have proven these standards over time and now we no longer really fight about this stuff.

It’s commonly accepted now that your home button should be in the upper left hand corner, your links should be underlined, you cannot hide your search box and that you should point the users’ eyes to the most important elements using the Rule of Three or the “Golden Triangle”, whichever term you use.

Reading the foundations of these “rules” reminds me that I need to not take them for granted and really think through how I apply them. So to my current and former design colleagues: I appreciate you – I’m walking a mile in your shoes now, and I get it. I really get how hard it is!!


  1. I agree Erin. Even as I went over this week’s readings I was thinking, “Yes, of course, I know this.” But then I started thinking about why I “know” this and realized that, even tho I’ve thought of the internet as some kind of free and creative space, there are still clear rules and expectations. I need to pay closer attention to those now.

  2. This is the point where theory (WHY) and practice (HOW) meet. Most theories only make sense after you’ve been using them for a while. I am truly an Elephant’s Child – I have “insatiable curiosity” and I MUST KNOW WHY something works the way it does . If I don’t understand the WHY, the HOW becomes excruciatingly difficult. I think that’s part of the point you’re making – now you understand the WHY of design and usability. Hopefully it will make your HOW easier.

  3. Its true, we’re being beaten over the head on some level with commonsense. But then again, I’ve had more than one highly accomplished supervisor view with suspicion white space or large font on something for distribution to the general public. Just because they can manage the intellectual clutter that is academic writing (and I say that with love given my affection for undiagrammable sentences), doesn’t mean that these materials for the public should reflect that adulation. I almost feel like those folks who call in to sports shows on the radios and say “If I were Tom Lerner I would do X”, not realizing how hard it was to get to Y gracefully….


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