Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen

Posted: January 26, 2008 in Review, Usability
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In all honesty, I wasn’t sure how much value I’d really get out of this book once I started reading it. It’s not that Nielsen isn’t saying good and important things. It’s just that this book has been so influential that I already knew most of the stuff he was talking about. The book was written at the end of 1999, and kind of a lot has happened since then. Many of the suggestions that at the time were probably revolutionary are now the standard operating procedures.

It is interesting to see where some of these ideas came from, though. I like reading about the importance of making sure that text sizes on a web page are relative, and how to deal with various accessibility issues for websites. I like his treatment of frames, where he says that his basic advice is “Frames: Just Say No” (85), which fits with what I’ve been taught (and, in fact, what I was taught was based on many of the ideas this book is presenting.

As I moved through the book, beginning to succumb to the desire to skim over content discussing actual web design, content that I read already in other books that were published after this one, I eventually hit a few things that really caught my interest.

Aside from discussion about the danger of how similar o, O, and 0 look, and how it’s good to avoid using them if possible, and to buy both domains if not possible, there was some important advice for designing standards and providing examples. Advice like that all examples should be fully standardized, not just what the example is meant to show, is very important. More important though is the suggestion to “Be supported by an active evangelism program [. . .] You must actively seek out projects and visit them to tell them about the standards and to (gently) comment on their designs and how to correct inevitable deviations” (282).

As I said before, I really appreciated his treatment of certain accessibility issues (like ALT attributes and not using “click here”), though it was sometimes strange to see him writing HTML instead of XHTML. Like so much else in the book, this was a sign of the times.

The most interesting sign of the times comes at the end of the book, when Nielsen suggests a list a predictions for how the web will change in the future. He predicts a few things I’m not sure of (like how many websites will exist, how many people will use the internet, and where they are from), but also some that are surprisingly accurate. He predicts, for example, that “because of the abundance of portable devices with wireless modems, people will be online at all times and can be reached anywhere. Privacy will become precious” (352, his emphasis). I think it’s fair to say that this has already come to be. It seems now that vacations can best be described as times when you don’t answer your phone or check your e-mail; it is that escape from the world that is so relaxing. It always strikes me as bizarre when I travel with my family and my father’s wife plans out how to check her e-mail every day of the vacation. Somehow, she isn’t vacationing.

Of course, some of Nielsen’s predictions didn’t come true (at least, not yet). The post office is still around, for example. And computer companies have not stopped cloning the Macintosh. His suggestion of this is that the old interface model of the Macintosh can’t remain effective once computers reach a certain complexity and depth of stored knowledge (351). In many ways, that prediction is true. But, of course, the Mac has managed to leave its old model behind and create a new model that works well with the current schema, and so everyone else is continuing to try to clone the Mac.

Towards the end of the book is a long discussion of how best to describe the internet, how we should look at it. This section begins with, or is hinted at during, a discussion about WebTV. It is certainly a sign of the times when I consider how I reacted to reading that. I thought about all the television that I watch online, and was impressed that it had been around as long ago as 1999. Then, as I read further, I found that Nielsen was talking about that trend of turning a television into a computer monitor; right idea (combining TV and computer), but wrong direction. I remembered that time (though I was still an undergrad at the time), and it struck me as funny that even a description as specific as WebTV can change its definition so completely in such a short time, much like the way the physical description of a computer has changed so much over the last fifty or so years (or, indeed, over the last ten).

Once the WebTV issue is settled, Nielsen gets into the meat of the web parallels. What interests me most about this discussion is that it’s more than just talking about the web; it’s a model for the introduction of new media. The ways people have tried to treat the internet, as an extension of television, don’t work. TV has a different audience demographic, is used for different things and in different settings. As Nielsen points out, the web is more like the telephone. This makes me wonder if the next new media that develops will be more like the television than like the radio (assuming that the telephone is two steps -technologically- behind the television, and that radio is two steps behind the web). I have no basis for this, and anyone with any real knowledge of the history of technology will likely point out to me that the telephone is more (or less) than two steps away from the television, or that other new media have not followed the structure of old media in that same pattern– anyway, it was a curious thought I had.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. I’m not sure how much new information I gained, but Nielsen has a way of saying things very simply and clearly, so at the very least, some of the things I have learned and absorbed over the last year were put into very understandable chunks in this book.

One last thing about it, though. There is the feel throughout that Nielsen is beginning to really simplify his definition of usability. It isn’t as complex as it was in Usability Engineering, and it looks like he’s making a move towards equating usability with ease of use. Some (such as Whitney Quesenbery) think that there’s a lot more to usability than just that; ease is part of usability, but not all of it. There’s also efficiency, effectiveness, etc. I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. Is there more to usability than just ease? On the one hand, if something is easy to use, then it meets with user centered standards, doesn’t it? Or is it possible that sometimes something can be more usable, more user centered, without necessarily being easier? Is that a contradiction?

I’m not sure. It’s a question this book has brought up for me.

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Comments
  1. Joel ellegood says:

    Hi. designing web usability was a book I read some time ago, and you sure have raked up the interest to read the book all over again. You have put in a great amount of research into giving the book a review, which on its own deserves an applause.

    There is one truth that nielsen spoke of a few years back in his book which has become a reality in my life. The quote of “privacy will become precious” is so real in my life. I hardly sleep and even in my sleep my blackberry is there to remind of business mails that come from Asia! Gosh!

    Thanks mate.. joel

  2. Well written and a great read :)

  3. Very helpful reading. Very helpful, very useful indeed…

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