This week I thought I would try and tackle a question from Peter in Italy…
Good question! Why do we will fill our footers with all of this stuff? I suspect the truthful answers is three fold:
- that we are lemmings, blindly following what others have done before.
- that the only reason the footer exists at all is as a way of “finishing off” the bottom of the page.
- that the footer is a dumping ground for information which doesn’t fit neatly anywhere else in the site.
This somewhat reactionary approach cannot be healthy so lets take a step back and look at what is commonly found in footers and what better solutions might be out there.
What is often found in the footer
To start with let’s examine the list of footer items that Peter proposed:
- accessibility statement
First up, disclaimer and copyright. These two links are often joined by various other forms of legal talk. Generally speaking, these are a waste of time from the users perspective, but often have to appear for legal reasons. Exact legislation varies from country to country (for example in the UK you have to display certain company registration information), however few people actually care about this stuff.
If nobody cares about this information why are we linking to it from every single page of the site (as footers tend to be universal)? What is more, why do we separate them out into numerous links? Why don’t we simply have a single link marked “legal information”?
Peter in his question asked what should be included in this information and to be honest I dare not try and answer that. I am no lawyer and as I have already said the answer will depend on your location. However, I would suggest that where possible this information is written in plain english rather than the legal jargon used on many sites. Take a leaf out of the creative commons book.
The users rights
Unlike the legal ramblings, depending on the type of site, many users may actually be interested in this information. On ecommerce sites in particular users want to know these kinds of things and having that information gives them the confidence to buy.
If you are selling stuff or if you are collecting personal data then consider including this kind of information in your footer.
Finally, the last item Peter identified is the accessibility statement. I have to say I like seeing an accessibility statement link in the footer. It tells me that the website owner has at least considered accessibility and thinks it is important enough to justify a link on every page. However, although I appreciate the sentiment I feel that there are better ways of going about it.
The trouble with an “accessibility statement” is that it smacks of more ass covering. The emphasis is on defending the site against those that might criticize it rather than helping those users with accessibility needs.
If you are having trouble using a site because of a disability you do not immediately think “what I need is an accessibility statement”! What you actually think is “I need help”. Accessibility should sit under a help section and should be written within that context. “What help can you provide people with disabilities” rather than how do you defend the fact that your site doesn’t scale.
Of course it could be argued that people only look for help as a last resort. Perhaps it should be sold as a “guided tour” instead ;)
Whether this help section (or whatever you call it) should be on the footer at all is another matter. In my opinion it is too important to leave in the graveyard of your average footer. However maybe if the footer becomes something more, it might be the right place. That leads us nicely on to asking what role the footer should actually fulfill.
What role the footer should fulfill
So if the footer is not a dumping ground for rogue links, what is it for? Well for a start, I would suggest it has a lot more power than we give it credit. Think about it for a moment…
- We know most users are now comfortable with scrolling and reach the bottom of the page.
- The footer appears at the end of the body content when users are looking for their next action (after scanning the page).
- It appears on virtually every page of your site.
The problem is that historically footers have been limited to a single line consisting of a few unattractive text links. However, there is absolutely no reason why they cannot be more. A growing number of sites demonstrate that if we free the footer from our artificial constraints it can be a powerful navigational aid. It can provide quick links to killer content and even be used for up selling and cross selling on ecommerce sites.
When next you design a website I would encourage you to seriously consider how you can make the footer more than a place where unloved links go to die. Take a look around at how others are beginning to use the footer in more innovative ways.