The practice of simplicity
Jakob Nielsen says forget self-expression, put users first
I  N  T  E  R  A  C  T  I  V  E    D  E  S  I  G  N    F  O  R  U  M 
Issue 8    |   February 2000


Reviewed & recommended:

The Interactive Book by Celia Pearce

Interface Culture by Steven Johnson


In association with






Designing Web Usability
Jakob Nielsen,
New Riders Publishing (2000)
Paperback. ISBN 156205810X
[more reviews, info]

As a much-needed antidote to the tidal wave of books describing "killer" sites and "cool" design, every web designer needs to read this book.

Some years from now when everyone has high-bandwidth connections to the Web we may look back on Nielsen's focus on simplicity and download speed as curious, but for now it's good advice.

His bias is clear from the start:

"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."

The lists of "dos" & "don'ts" may be a little off-putting, but the abundance of examples shown get the points across fast. If you look at the abundant case-study illustrations & read the captions you'll get a good sense of his arguments before reading a word of the text.

Head for HOME
Nielsen's four criteria for designing a site that users return to, the real test of its success:

  • High-quality content
  • Often updated
  • Minimal download time
  • Ease of use

For a HOME RUN, he adds:

  • Relevant to users' needs
  • Unique to the online medium
  • Net-centric corporate culture

Forget animation, imagemaps, frames, PDFs
Nielsen quotes credible research to back up his point that users hate anything that keeps them from quickly getting the information they want from your website. And while none of us will admit to doing it, we've all seen websites where it's clear the designer simply wanted to show off a new-found technique.

While constantly bad-mouthing the use of graphics to make things look interesting, Nielsen makes a strong case for writing in a more interesting, Web-friendly way:

  • Be succinct.
  • Write for scannability
  • Use hypertext to split long articles into multiple sections

His advice on how to write differently for the Web vs. traditional print media can transform your thinking about Web content design.

Devil or angel?
I disagree with some of Nielsen's views, especially his black-and-white view of art vs. engineering. Art can add meaning and enjoyment to any activity. We could squeeze concentrated nutritional paste from tubes like the astronauts rather than eating beautifully prepared food, but why? Is the Web just a medium for efficient transactions, or is that merely our own short-sightedness?

But then every time I hop onto the Web and encounter sites that make me wait while a 100 Mb image that I have no interest in loads, or I click on the "Yes I have Flash installed" icon only to have the screen freeze up, I wish I could force those designers to memorize Designing Web Usability before booting up their computers again.

Either way, it's a book worth reading.



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