I've noticed many sites throughout the web from SBNation to smaller sites not having an 'active' (selected) style for their links. Sites like USAToday do have active states highlighted. My assumption was the best practice is to highlight or indicate an active link depending on what view the user is on. Has this changed or is there any positive in not indicating the active page/view?

  • When you say active do you mean that it changes color/style as it's being clicked (on mouse down) or that the style is different if you are on the page the link leads to (such as in a nav bar)?
    – Drew Beck
    Feb 10, 2014 at 22:42
  • 1
    Active as in 'currently selected' - pattern similarly to how navbar indicates which page you currently are on. For example the nav bar state for the tech section of [USAToday] (usatoday.com/tech) is styled with a solid orange block instead of the default black/gray
    – master
    Feb 10, 2014 at 22:46

3 Answers 3


Jakob Nielsen is a guru in User Experience. He has made ten heuristics for usability. They've been developed in 1990, but can still be used today. They still count as guidelines (well more rules of thumbs as Jakob says himself) for developing good usability on your website.

One heuristic is Recognition rather than recall. You can also call it reducing cognitive load or helping the user think as little as possible.

In this case, making clear where the user is at that moment and where they come from, helps reduce cognitive load. It's not a major crime not having an active state on links as these heuristics are rules of thumb and not actual rules. But there is nothing positive in decisively not implementing an active state.


Personally, I would use active link styling if it was one link out of a long list, e.g. articles, so when I return (by means of back button) to that page, I will know where I came from. In webapps, however, I wouldn't do that, mainly because now I'm into AJAX and clicking links on lists of items rarely takes users off the page. I'm indicating changes on a page with e.g. a fade from yellow to background, like stackoverflow does.


From my personal experience, frontend developers not always pay enough attention to such details, simply forgetting to define the style for active and visited links. So it's not intentional loss of functionality. And it's definitely a loss: as Paul already said, it breaks one of the Nielsen usability heuristics.

  • This isn't really a useful answer. Your first part of the paragraph just sounds like you've never worked with a front-end developer who knows what they're doing - the front-end devs I've worked with always pay attention to details - that is their job, they wouldn't last long in the profession if they repeatedly 'forgot' to include such things. The second part of your answer just reiterates what Paul has said.
    – JonW
    Feb 11, 2014 at 10:08
  • I have 15 years of experience in web, mostly on large enterprise projects. People significantly vary in skills and attitude and definitely there are good guys who do care about UX. But it's not the case quite often. If your experience contradicts my observations, it does not mean I'm wrong. It just means that you haven't seen all front-end developers in the world. Feb 12, 2014 at 10:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.