Designing Web Usability

By Murray Bourne, 28 Aug 2006

The Practice of Simplicity

Designing Web Usability coverby Jakob Nielsen, New Riders Publishing, 2000.

A Summary Review

I have read a lot of Nielsen's Alert Box usability articles and I like most of what I read there. I was interested to read further.

Designing Web Usability was written during the heady heights of the dotcom boom and while some of the information and suggestions are no longer relevant, I still enjoyed reading the book. His basic tenet is that Web pages should be simple, text-based and should be designed around getting the user to where he wants to go in the least number of steps. The user's needs and actions are the most important elements when designing Web pages.

The book is printed on glossy paper and is extensively illustrated with screen shots of good and bad usability design. There were some items of interesting historical value in there (oh, how the Web moves quickly!). For example Google was in beta and when it first started in 1999, it provided a red bar indicating relevancy of the result. The user was told:

Clicking on a red bar searches for backlinks (citations).

A screen shot of 24 Aug 1999 has 2 photos of Bill Gates and one of Alan Greenspan (the Fed had just raised rates by 0.25%) and the lead stories were on the Balkans war and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. But my favourite is titled "Unsafe Cybersex?":

"Did online chat sessions lead to an outbreak of venereal disease?"

While I enjoyed the book, the issues I had were:

  1. It is probably impossible for Nielsen to divorce himself from his own preferences. But I kept wondering as I read the book whether he was ranting against things he personally didn't like or to what extent his complaints were backed up by solid research. (While the book does not claim to be an academic document, there was a lack of quantitative data throughout and this weakened the arguments for me.)
  2. Nielsen does not appear to care or to be aware of column width for screen readability. His own site uses large font (which makes reading easy), but many pages stretch the full screen width. If you are using a large monitor, this makes it difficult to read.
  3. He makes some predictions throughout the book that are really pretty silly, like:

    "Computer screens must improve to the point where reading from screens is as fast and as pleasant as reading from paper. I am confident this will happen around the year 2002 for high-end computers and 2007 for mainstream computers.


    We have to wait until approximately the year 2007 for books to go away and be fully replaced with online information

Anyway, it is good to think through the usability issues that Nielsen raises. Now to get his more recent book, Prioritizing Web Usability.

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