What Are Edge Cases?

In an ideal world, we would get ideal users who follow ideal user paths and behave ideally on our websites. Unfortunately, the real world is full of unexpected scenarios and aberrations. Users don’t always behave exactly how we expect (or even want) them to behave. A website with any observable traffic will attract users of all types who will use it in every other way. This will inevitably lead to situations where user flow on the website doesn’t follow planned or expected parameters. Such events are known as “edge cases”.

Since edge cases are not ideal, they are also quite rare. But when they do happen, they can quite strongly affect user experience. It is also important to note that negative experiences are registered more strongly than positive ones. A badly handled edge case can very easily undermine an otherwise good website.

Every web design company needs to deal with edge cases sooner or later, and it is always good to plan them beforehand in the design stage. There are two basic ways to take care of edge cases: prevention, or integration.

Prevention, as the name suggests, is the process of designing a website in such a way that edge cases just never happen. This can be achieved by cutting down on unnecessary features and reducing the number and complexity of available user flows. Given a choice, prevention is always the best way to deal with edge cases. However, it may not always be possible to do this without sacrificing useful functionality. Sometimes, these edge cases are just unkillable.

Integration of edge cases involves making design and development choices in such a way that edge cases come out as natural events in the user experience.

Following are some case studies of integration of edge cases into user functionality:

Zero Search Results

Search is one of the most common features found on e-commerce websites. It is a cool, intuitive way to look for specific items in a vast catalogue of millions of products. But a blank page with “0 results found” can be quite frustrating. You can consider the following features in the search option to avoid this from spoiling user experience:

  • Spelling Suggestions: Sometimes the reason for a failed search is a typo in the search query. In those cases, it is quite helpful if the system detects it and provides suggestions accordingly. It isn’t very hard to do either, considering that features like autocorrect detect typos even whilst they are happening.

Here, Amazon understands that we misspelt “Sony PlayStation” in our query

  • Meaningful Alternative Searches: Websites which make “zero results found” pages as a dead-end for the users lose a good opportunity. Smart websites use a failed search page to display featured products or to provide useful alternative results.

We have no idea how Google made sense of that, but it did.

Pexels promoting featured images for empty search results.

Empty Screens

Many screens are designed to display data that is populated as the website or app is used. However, it may just happen that a user navigates to such a screen even when there is no data on it to display. For example, the cart page will be empty when the user has added no products to their cart. It is not advisable to just show a blank screen in such a scenario. A good idea is to display instructions that will help the user populate the page with data.

Indian e-commerce website Snapdeal provides instructions on how to begin shopping on it.

Skeleton Screen Layouts

As internet speeds up, user patience dips. The best way to retain customers is to create websites that are fast and load super quick. However, sometimes slow load times happen despite the best of our efforts to prevent them. A common reason is a limited connectivity. Many new internet users also come from rural areas with inadequate infrastructure to support a proper internet experience. But even if we can’t create a system that truly performs fast, we can always fake one.

Skeleton screen layouts are minimalistic versions of a page that are displayed while content is still being loaded. These screens give a perception of speed that can give you those extra five seconds of user attention. On the internet, five seconds is a lot of time.

An example of LinkedIn featuring its skeleton screen.

Conclusion

Web design is about creating a satisfactory and meaningful web experience for everybody. We at Wish A Cloud strongly believe in attention to detail, because that is what separates great websites from average websites. Edge cases may not spring up at all times and for all users, but it is good to be prepared for the unlikely events. Experimentation and thorough testing can help turn a good website into a great one. And it all begins with web design.