designing web usability

There are mouse pads with that question written on them, to keep it eternally before the eyes and in the consciousness of web designers. Who is this Jakob anyway, and why should they want to follow his example?

Jakob Nielsen is the world’s leading proselytizer for usability. He is a prophet and revolutionary, in the business of “breaking the chains of oppression,” as well as a practical man who tells us exactly how to do it the right way, faster and cheaper than doing it the wrong way. He believes that when a web user punches in http://www., that person isn’t looking for a magical mystery tour, but for a straight-ahead, logical and ultimately productive trip to useful information.

I love authors who grant me vindication. See, I feel the same about the web as I do about a car. It’s not supposed to make my life harder, but easier. It’s not meant to add more labor to my load, but to relieve me of some of the grunt work. Its purpose is not to plunge me into a labyrinth of confusion, but to free me for higher things. The machine is supposed to be my slave, dammit, not the other way around.

All along, in dealing with the Internet, I’ve been grumbling “It doesn’t have to be so difficult.” I look at senseless site maps, and needlessly complicated interfaces, and dead-end pages, and all that stuff, and gripe. More technologically-oriented friends have indicted me as a crank, a fogey who just doesn’t understand these new-fangled things.

Yet here is Jakob, putting his foot down: “In general, a flow chart layout should only be used when the information space is in fact structured as an ordered sequence.” Amen, brother! Then he puts the other foot down, and stomps all over the time-wasting posers: “Gratuitous graphics simply have to go, including all instances of text rendered as images.” As in so many other areas of life, Less Is More.

He’s right about tiny search boxes. He’s right about outdated information. He’s right about query reformulation, which to my mind is the single most necessary survival skill in cyberspace. He is extremely literate. He cares about the misuse of a hyphen. He cares about the difference between affect and effect! I think I’m in love!

Because he makes so much clear and persuasive sense, I enjoyed reading parts of Designing Web Usability that will never have any applicability to my own life. For example, how to conduct a cost-benefit analysis when contemplating expenditure on usability engineering for a company’s intranet.

I intuit that Nielsen loves books, and that’s precisely why he’s such a great web theorist. There’s a reason why books have been around so long, and their best features need to be carried over, while the things that aren’t appropriate to the new medium need to be left behind.

When D.W. Griffith started to make movies, people at the time didn’t understand things like jump cuts and parallel editing – it took a while for the human brain to catch on. Now we comfortably watch stuff with several cuts per second, hundreds per minute. We follow multiple story lines, and perform all sorts of sophisticated mental gymnastics without even being aware that we’re doing it. This is why I believe Nielsen when he says the ability of the human race to effectively use the web will improve.

I want to say it’s like the “hundredth-monkey” phenomenon, where the monkeys on one island started washing their potatoes and the monkeys on the next island somehow began to do it too. Supposedly, after a certain critical mass is reached, the behavior magically becomes part of the collective consciousness – even when the individual hasn’t directly observed it or been taught. Unfortunately, I remember reading that the hundred monkeys example was a fabrication.

Still, something like it does apparently occur even in the lowest lifeforms. One of the mysteries of medicine is how bacteria communicate with each other and tell their cohorts who have never been exposed to an antibiotic, how to neutralize it. And humans running the four-minute mile. After one person had finally accomplished it, suddenly dozens were able to. Then there’s Teilhard de Chardin, cosmic evolution, and the noosphere.

All this is a big digression from Nielsen. My point is: however brilliantly humankind as a whole may evolve into synergy with computers and the noosphere-like construct called the World Wide Web, it won’t happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, there’s nothing to gain by making the thing more complicated, and nothing to lose by taking a little extra time and care to give people an experience that’s pleasant rather than nerve-wracking.

This is what Nielsen is talking about. He admits, as few technophiles will, that reading from a screen is no fun. “Hard” and “unpleasant” and “painful” are words that occur again and again in Designing Web Usability.

He doesn’t mention this, but part of the misery of reading from a monitor is the ungodly noise computers make. The whine of their innards can be maddening. A Walkman with a music tape is essential equipment if sanity is to be maintained, and that doesn’t always mix well with the reading experience.

Anyone with half a teaspoon of awareness knows that most Americans loathe reading. Yet web authors seem to think the average American will sit still to read a lot of pointless verbiage just because it’s displayed on a monitor.

Sixties guru Stephen Gaskin has preached for years on the value of “your solid gold attention,” the most precious thing you can bestow on another person, on a concept, or even on the mundane tasks of chopping wood and carrying water. Esther Dyson, whose seminars are the hottest ticket in the technical realm, goes on about what a valuable commodity attention is. Nielsen explores the “attention economy” in a sidebar on page 160.

The “attention economy” is what it’s all about. If you want my attention, Mr. or Ms. Web Designer, don’t hijack it with the thousand and one tricks your tribe have already managed to invent. I want to be wooed, not raped. I want value, not horse manure. And Jakob Nielsen says I’m perfectly within my rights to feel this way.

Now I get it. This book is only nominally for web designers. It’s really for users. He wants to make sure we know what we’re entitled to. He encourages us to demand the respect and consideration we deserve from the people who want to grab a handful of our solid gold attention.

The man cares about whether things make sense. When confronted with a page about United States Products, illustrated with a picture of the very famous and unique Sydney Opera House, Nielsen does not shrug and say, “So what?” He says (with admirable restraint) it would be smarter not to.

Nielsen believes form should follow function. If you talk the talk you gotta walk the walk. One of his examples: a site that brags the company pays the “strictiest attention to detail.” Nielsen doesn’t come right out and say it, but he might as well: God is in the details.

He wants to stem the tide of illiteracy that started with zines and pervades so much of the web. I don’t know yet if he brings up this issue somewhere, but for me there’s importance in accuracy because the young have a tendency to take as gospel what they see on the screen. So there’s a moral obligation here, to spell Cincinnati correctly, for instance, which comes to mind because as a copy editor I had a hassle with a teenage writer over that very question. Of his misspelling the kid said, with total conviction, “I got it straight off the Internet.” End of discussion.

Then there’s accessibility, which is usability for people who find it difficult to “use traditional computer input and output devices in the way they were intended” – a number he puts at 30 million. That is, he points out, too large a market segment for web designers to cavalierly disregard.

In a nutshell, Nielsen’s genius lies in how he works both sides of the street, advocating usability not only for the humanitarian reasons, but for the enlightened self-interest reasons so dear to the hearts of profit-seekers. “Every single user votes with every single mouseclick.” With one of those What would Jakob do? mousepads on every desk, the world of cyberspace would be a better place.

“Information space is n-dimensional, where n is a very big number.” Jakob Nielsen

(This was originally published April 28, 2002)