BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ -- DESIGN

Diss My Web Site, Please
Jakob Nielsen believes the best design critics are users

Photo by Robert Houser
A credo to minimalism -- and user-testing
Jakob Nielsen is feeling anxious. He sips a soda and paces like an expectant father. A series of ''users,'' as he likes to call them, soon will troop into the room next to the one where we are waiting here in a Seattle testing lab, visible to us through one-way mirrored glass.

They will sit in front of a computer and be asked to do simple tasks on a Web site. We will look over their shoulders, watch where they click, and listen to their comments.

It's not exactly brain surgery. Yet this rudimentary exercise, neglected by the majority of Web-site developers, can improve the effectiveness of a Web site 100% to 1,000%, argues Nielsen. The soft-spoken but intense Dane, 43, is considered one of the world's foremost experts in Web usability. That's how well a Web site allows its users to navigate and transact business efficiently, and with a minimum of swearing, scowling, and confusion. It's Nielsen's notion, in fact, that every Web site must be designed for Internet users who are ''about as patient as a New York cabbie.''

Nielsen first became obsessed with usability at Sun Microsystems Inc. ( SUNW), where he worked in interface design--an area he has written about widely and in which he holds 38 patents. What makes Nielsen stand out is that he's a curious mix of nerdy engineer and sensitive observer of human emotions and behavior around computers. He has turned that into a lucrative consulting business that has helped such startups as Epinions and Motley Fool, and major corporations, including General Electric ( GE) and Hallmark Cards.

Nielsen preaches a gospel of minimalist design. Sites should be laid out simply, with clear headlines and labels, directories of what's on the site, summaries of new information, and easy-to-spot search buttons. A pet peeve: Web links that strong-arm your browser window into opening a new window--something that you then have to close to get back to the page where you started. He fumes in his recent book, Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, that such a technique is ''like the vacuum cleaner salesperson who starts a visit by emptying an ashtray on the customer's carpet.'' Other digital-design land mines: registration screens that force you to reveal personal information before you even know what the site has to offer, excessive use of text, and slow-loading graphics.

His design principles evolved from what we're about to do here: Test a Web design with real users. Nielsen urges Web site operators to begin by testing their early designs in this kind of structured environment, incorporate that feedback into the design, and then periodically retest to make sure the site keeps up with the fast-changing Web.

Even Nielsen's own company, the Nielsen Norman Group, doesn't always get design right on the first pass. That's why today we'll be trying out Nielsen's own new Web-site design. Several months prior he ran a new design by a test group, and it bombed. When given a list of tasks, users would get lost and click around, befuddled. With a self-deprecating grin, Nielsen recalls that when he first launched his site he had written on it: ''The mission of the Nielsen Norman Group is simple,'' and then explained it in a long paragraph. ''I still remember the guy [in a testing session] who said: 'If it's simple, it shouldn't take a whole paragraph to explain it.' He was absolutely right.''

The door opens, and the facilitator for today's test warns us to keep our voices down so the users won't hear us. ''Showtime,'' she says. ''Oh good, good, good,'' Nielsen says, rubbing his hands together. A woman in her late thirties walks into the testing room and sits down. Nielsen explains that it's crucial not to ask leading questions or for users' opinions directly: ''Don't ever ask anyone, 'What do you think of the navigation?' That's useless. Say, 'Here's the thing you want to do. Go try and do it.'''

The facilitator assigns tasks and asks the subject to think out loud as she moves through the site. ''I find the layout a little bit boring,'' the woman says right off the bat, squinting at the screen. ''Oh, this green is way too earthy, and this minty green is just yucky.'' When it comes to locating what she's asked to, however, she does so quickly and efficiently, and praises the organization. Nielsen is delighted: ''They did not say that last time,'' he says.

Respecting impatience. One of the challenges of getting good design feedback is actually learning what not to pay attention to. Color is one example. ''Some things vary so much by personal taste they really don't matter,'' explains Nielsen. ''If you ask someone whether they like a color, they will instantly tell you. But it's really unlikely it will interfere with their user experience.'' Sure enough, the next user is a young man who remarks: ''That green is good.''

This fellow's critique reminds Nielsen of one of his principles. ''It's too long,'' the man says of a long block of text. ''This 'summary' is as long as an article.'' Nielsen nods vigorously. ''Users do not like to scroll,'' he says. When the design goes live, summaries will be more compact.

The three users we watch over the course of several hours reinforce Nielsen's view that Web surfers are an impatient lot. The third tester, herself a designer, gets lost looking for something on Nielsen's site and begins clicking away almost randomly. Frustrated, she mutters: ''The way I am on the Web, I would never have waited that long to find it.''

Why do so many sites fail to employ user testing? Nielsen says hierarchy and bureaucracy, especially within large companies, are partly to blame. ''The CEO says, 'I think there should be a spinning logo,' and everybody does a jackboot salute, 'Yes, sir,''' says Nielsen. ''This suck-up-to-the-boss behavior results in miserably bad Web sites.'' When he finally can get the top brass into usability tests, ''their jaws drop when they hear uncensored comments from users. Their first reaction is often, 'Where did you possibly find users this stupid?''' As the Net shakeout continues, no one can afford to let bloated egos chase away customers.

By JOAN HAMILTON

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