Review – Designing Web Usability

Matt Mickiewicz

Jakob Nielsen, self-acclaimed Web usability expert, is loved by countless people and loathed by just as many. After a read of his book, Designing Web Usability (New Riders Publishing, 1999), many Web designers will seriously reconsider their approach to design, and many more will simply toss the tome into the fireplace.

Nielsen’s message is quite simple: a Website exists in order to help people accomplish a task, rather show off the designer’s skill. Regrettably, some of the steps he recommends to achieve that goal are drastic, and are not supported by solid evidence.

At many points throughout the book, Nielsen makes unfounded statements that are more opinion than fact. Even though he’s extremely well known, and is able to charge a six-figure fee for a usability critique, what he says shouldn”t be taken as the absolute truth. In fact, it should be quite the opposite. After all, any expert should have solid research to back up their statements, and, given the fact that his advice is so widely read, Neilsen in particular should be able to justify his claims.

However, I will give credit to him for one thing – his book will make designers step out of their own shoes and into those of users, those people who will try to achieve a goal through the designers’ creations. The book has no lack of guidelines on writing, navigation, the use of space, scrolling, download time, search and cross-platform design, which push you to look at your own Website through the users’ eyes.

However, the guidelines themselves seem to be stuck in a time warp. The author appears to believe that we live in 1997, where 28.8 modems and 14 inch monitors running at 640×480 are the norm. For many of today’s Websites, it’s unreasonable to restrict the design to such strict specifications. It seems that the only sites that could meet the ideals presented in this book would be graphics-free. Since his own Website only meets only 75% of his own principles, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Back to the content of the book. The first four chapters, which focus on page design, content design and site design, are thought-provoking. The liberal use of visual examples is very useful, however in many cases they break up the continuity of the text. Sometimes, the caption that describes a screen shot appears on a different page than the screen capture itself, requiring you to flip back and forth. Other times, three of four pages are devoted to nothing but screen captures, which break up the content. In my mind, the book itself could have used a bit of usability engineering.

I personally found Designing Web Usability rather wordy at 400 pages, especially in comparison to the concise and to-the-point-book on the very same subject titled Don’t Make Me Think. A more concise book, with a list of research references at the back would have been much better.

This leads me to another topic – Jakob Nielsen’s prophecies, also known as "Future Predictions", to which an entire chapter is devoted. After reading the whole chapter, I still couldn”t understand what it had to do with the subject at hand. I’m personally not as interested in the author’s future-forecasting abilities as I am in the subject of Web usability. No wonder Nielsen has been labeled by some as an egomaniac, preoccupied with tooting his own horn.

After reading all of this, you’ll probably think I’m not about to recommend this book to everybody. You’re right. If you’ve never read a book on Web Usability, skip over Jakob Nielsen’s Designing Web Usability, and get Don’t Make Me Think. However, if, after reading that publication, you’re hungry for more, do read Jakob’s book – but with caution. His rules, if applied to the letter, would lead to a very dull site. There is a middle-ground somewhere, but it’s left for you to find, because the author certainly hasn’t presented it himself.

Rating: 3/5

Buy it at Amazon.com for $31.50

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