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Friday, November 11, 2005

Web Usability Books [2]

Today I am continuing my review of Web Usability books, from the perspective (described here) of someone who believes that Performance Matters:

2. Designing Web Usability : The Practice of Simplicity by Jakob Nielsen

Designing Web Usability (book cover)Jakob Nielsen is a famous usability guru. He writes, speaks, and consults on Web site design and usability, and his 1999 book is a classic. It is surely the best-seller on this subject, having been translated into 21 languages. According to the New Riders Press publisher's introduction over 250,000 Internet professionals around the world have turned to this landmark book. Nielsen's site lists plenty of good reviews, this one from BusinessWeek being just one example:
KEEP IT SIMPLE. Nielsen ... is a usability engineer and Web-design consultant given to strongly held ideas and sweeping statements, like fast response times are the most important criterion for Web pages. His certitude might be insufferable if he weren't right so much of the time.

The basic principles of good design, according to Nielsen, are very simple: If your pages don't load quickly, your customers won't wait. If customers can't find what they want, they won't buy it. If your pages are confusing or hard to read, customers will look elsewhere.

But while easy to state, such general principles are very hard to implement. Here Designing Web Usability shines, with hundreds of screen shots of actual Web pages, successful and unsuccessful, with a narrative that highlights just what their designers did right or wrong. You'll probably find plenty to disagree with in Nielsen's conclusions. But you whether you're a designer or someone with responsibility for your company's online presence, you'll come away from the book with a much deeper understanding of how to use the Web as an effective sales and communications tool.
Yet, as BusinessWeek hinted, Jakob and his book generate strong opinions both pro and con. The book's subtitle, The Practice of Simplicity, sums up his world view, and also accounts for much of the controversy. Jakob writes in his book's preface:
I wrote this book with two clear goals. The highest-level goal was to improve quality of life by reasserting humanity's mastery of technology. On a day-to-day basis, you may think of usability as a way to increase sales (for public websites) or productivity (for intranets), but in the aggregate, if we make websites and intranets easy to use, we will increase users' quality of life by eliminating a lot of frustration and the feeling of inadequacy that follows every time you are stumped by a computer.

My more immediate goal was to promote a new philosophy of web design: simplicity. When the book was originally published, this was a controversial goal and I was often in the distinct minority at industry conferences. Eyeballs ruled the day and it didn't matter much whether users could actually accomplish anything. I am now happy to declare victory. Usability has become accepted as an important component of almost all professional web design projects, partly as a result of the success of this book, but mainly because it works.
On the second page of Chapter 1, Jakob writes:
Art Versus Engineering: There are essentially two basic approaches to design: the artistic ideal of expressing yourself and the engineering ideal of solving a problem for a customer. This book is firmly on the side of engineering. While I acknowledge that there is a need for art, fun, and a general good time on the Web, I believe that the main goal of most Web projects should be to make it easy for customers to perform useful tasks.
As you can imagine, I am in violent agreement with this viewpoint! However, Jakob's approach to Usability comes in for plenty of criticism from his own profession. To see why, you need only browse Jakob's web site. People like me who use the Web primarily to find information, and who value responsiveness, don't mind the way it looks, as long we can find what we are looking for. But most designers and graphic artists, who value aesthetics, hate the rather primitive appearance of Jakob's site -- and as a result probably feel justified in ignoring his advice.

For examples of their views, scan the Amazon book reviews. A blog post, on How Usable is Jakob Nielsen? by usability professional Frank Spillers, which is referenced in Jakob's Wikipedia entry, provides a good summary of the anti-Nielsen viewpoint. And Spillers' company, Experience Dynamics, has a simple, responsive, and nicer-looking site, too!

Having said that, this is a book review and not an assessment of Jakob Nielsen's place in the pantheon of Web designers -- if there were an actual Pantheon for these modern-day gods, he would surely have a place.

Jakob makes no pretense of offering advice on how to construct a site, saying ... this is not a book about HTML or how to draw an icon or other Web implementation technology. But he does devote 9 pages of his chapter on Page Design to discussions of the importance of fast and predictable response times, quoting Robert B. Miller's classic 1968 research paper on Human-Computer Interaction, which I wrote about previously. So I recommend this book, not just because of its classic status, but for the emphasis Jakob places on the Responsiveness dimension of Usability.

[Next book review: The Design of Sites ...]

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