Back in August I wrote about the similarity between road signs and web site design (Roads to Usability). In that post I compared an exit sign on a major highway to a button on a web page (the specific example was for Phoenix).
Over the holiday weekend I did a considerable amount of driving and it occurred to me that the exit sign analogy is only half the story. The other half being - What if I don't want to go to Phoenix?
The term "exit" tells the driver (user) that they have a choice to leave their current route and take a new one. What it doesn't tell you is what will happen if you don't exit. The important question being - Where does this road go if I stay on it?
Thus in many cases road signs reconfirm to users the destination of the current road (in this example, Tucson or Flagstaff) next to the exit sign.
But this can be difficult. Certainly there are thousands of destinations a driver can get to by proceeding on a major highway. Should the signs list all of them? Most of them? Some of them? Usually the sign-makers choose the most recognizable destination or something relatively close. They usually limit the sign to 2 or 3 key destinations.
The same situation occurs in web site design. There are "exit" buttons for things like "Search Again" or "Learn More". But there is also the need to tell the user what they get if they don't use the exit.
Thus one of the keystones to web design - the big "Continue" button. How many web sites make use of this classic? It is supposed to convey to the user that by clicking it they will proceed on the course that they have already established. But the same difficulty exists here as for the road signs - there are too many destinations along this road and you can't list all of them.
So the following basic rule has been adopted. You can give a user the "Continue" button so long as they are clearly in-progress on a task with a defined outcome. In other words, the user should always know the answer to the question - Continue to where?
If the user can't answer this question, there is a design problem and the "Continue" button may as well be a brick wall. Sure many will click it because it denotes progress, but if they don't know where they are going how can they be successful? Generally, it is a best practice in web design to try to be a bit more specific - like "Continue to Checkout" or "Continue Shopping".
So, next time you are using a web site keep an eye out for one of the almighty "Continue" buttons. If you see one, ask yourself - do I know where I'm continuing to? If the answer is Yes, then perhaps it was the right design. If the answer is No, then perhaps you'll get a clearer understanding for why you feel like you are going 60 mph down an unknown road and all you want to do is Exit.