Designing Web Usability

Designing Web Usability

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Creating Web sites is easy. Creating sites that truly meet the needs and expectations of the wide range of online users is quite another story. In Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity, renowned Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen shares his insightful thoughts on the subject. Packed with annotated examples of actual Web sites, this book sets out many of the design precepts all Web developers should follow.

This guide segments discussions of Web usability into page, content, site, and intranet design. This breakdown skillfully isolates for the reader many subtly different challenges that are often mixed together in other discussions. For example, Nielsen addresses the requirements of viewing pages on varying monitor sizes separately from writing concise text for "scanability." Along the way, the author pulls no punches with his opinions, using phrases like "frames: just say no" to immediately make his feelings known. Fortunately, his advise is some of the best you'll find.

One of the unique aspects of this title is the use of actual statistics to buttress the author's opinions on various techniques and technologies. He includes survey results on sizes of screens, types of queries submitted to search portals, response times by connection type and more. This book is intended as the first of two volumes--focusing on the "what." The author promises a follow-up title that will show the "hows" and, based on this installation, we can't wait. --Stephen W. Plain

Topics covered: Cross-platform design, response time considerations, writing for the Web, multimedia implementation, navigation strategies, search boxes, corporate intranet design, accessibility for disabled users, international considerations, and future predictions.


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  1. Brian Leitten, says


    Jakob Nielsen has created the perfect guidebook for Web usability. Based on a simple premise — simplicity yields usability — he has cut to the heart of great web design. He has recognized that, above all else, Web users want things made easy. If it loads quickly, tells you exactly where you are, provides information in highly useable form and doesn’t attempt to take advantage of the user and cause them to be disoriented, the design will succeed.

    I have purchased copies for everyone on my Web development team. They have all instantly recognized the value of the many guidelines and rules the Nielsen sets out throughout the book. We have already adopted many of these rules as our own. His 1/10th second-1 second-10 second guidline reflects the experience of the everyday user. Since reading that chapter of the book, I rarely wait long once I know I have passed the one second mark and am likely on my way to ten or more.

    If you go ten pages without exclaiming’ “Ah! ha!’, then you are not paying attention. Nielsen has created the “Web Field of Dreams” — if you build it [with usability and simplicity], they will come [back again and again].”

  2. Rating

    Jackob Nielsen has pulled together an excellent primer on usability for websites. Perhaps the easiest way to summarize his book is the book’s tagline: “The practice of simplicty.”

    Web design has to this point been more of an intuitive art for many designers. Many web managers look at general graphic and layout design and not the functionality that design is suppose to enable. Nielsen takes this intuition and describes exactly what solid, functional web design looks like and what it should do.

    He uses numerous real world examples and screen shots throughout the book. Scattered throughout are statistics from his research which are helpful as well. Nielsen also explains how website should differ from Intranet sites and also how to “internationalize” your website for foreign users.

    One particularly helpful chapter focused on how to write for the web. A common theme throughout the book is that web users are impatient and thus prefer to skim rather than read. Thus, when writing web content, you should do so with skimming in mind using lots of bullets, and highlighting key words. He also advocates using Title tags for links so that when a user places a mouse cursor over the link, a little bubble help will appear describing where the link will take the user.

    The chapter on page design is also particularly helpful in building in designing pages that tells the user where they are, what they can do from there, where they can go from there, and what is offered – all without scrolling.

    Nielsen has become the Father of Usability on the Internet. This is a great book to give you some practical advice on design. It won’t tell you how to do coding, but it gives you the conceptual framework needed to design a site. Even if you do not agree with all of his points, it will at least have encouraged you to think about aspects of design that many haven’t considered.

  3. Anonymous says


    Every member of your web design team should be required to read this. It is the best, simplest, and most concise reference I have ever read on web design. I’ve been doing this since 1994 (I spent two years reviewing websites for an online library. I have seen more bad design than anyone ever should – and have seen very little improvement since then.)

    Marketing folk, grumpy programmers/developers, and upper management who think that the web is their very own toy should read this and start to understand that the web is meant for the user, NOT THE DESIGNER!

    I don’t agree with everything – but no two people ever do. By far, this is the best book to use as a web style manual / usability manual I have seen.

    All opinions are my own and reflect on none of my colleagues.

  4. Arnold Kling says


    I already was familiar with Nielsen’s views from his Web site. I am an enthusiastic supporter of most of his opinions.

    There are one or two ideas with which I disagree. For example, I believe that there should be comment forms on sites, and that these should go to high-level executives (I personally answer comment forms for my business). If you are getting overwhelmed with dumb questions, take that as actionable information.

    Also, Nielsen believes in treating your home page as an orientation page. Because the majority of links to our site do not point to our home page, we cannot assume that the consumer ever will go to that page during a site visit.

    Those are nits. Everything else in this book is advice that we either have taken or have compromised on taking (not necessarily the right compromises, either).

    This book is more usable than Nielsen’s web site in three ways.

    1. Screen shots. Having the screen shots on the pages is like having Nielsen sitting next to you, jabbing you in the ribs and saying, “See what I mean?”

    2. Time to absorb. Reading his advice in book format, I have more time to absorb it. I picked up on little details (like using Link Titles) and I became more motivated to implement some of his other ideas.

    3. Bookmarks. I don’t use bookmarks much on the Web (I can’t keep them organized), but I have some of his pages marked, which makes it easy to refer to them.

    Because of these usability advantages, the book is value added relative to Nielsen’s web site.

  5. Richard Tribe says


    Jakob Nielsen’s latest title will most likely become THE most influential book on web design for the next twelve to eighteen months.

    This is a bible for web developers who are serious about business results. After four years of building and rebuilding a major Australian sport site I quickly learnt the importance of usability. Usability IS your number one competitive advantage because users ARE driven by tasks, have little patience and if your site delivers, they will come back again and again and they will spread the word.

    Reasons to get this book;

    Because you want your customers to come back!

    Because you already know usability is the key and need a solid reference based on REAL research.

    Because you currently have to KEEP spending big dollars on marketing just to maintain traffic and want to find a way to halve your budget.

    Because you want to say NO to that 100% Flash site your colleagues are proposing.

    Because you want to crush your competitors with it’s knowledge.

    Because you want to know WHY your competitor (with that simple site with seemingly no production standards) is crushing you.

    Because you can’t help but feel that the design team with only six months experience is a LONG way off the game.

    Because the money is running out, the investors are getting edgy and you need to start getting some REAL business results soon.

    Because you want to build a site you can be proud of.

    I have bought umpteen books on Internet design, strategy and marketing – my web site dominates it’s market by an order of magnitude and has done so for three years (and I have spent less than $2000 in that time on advertising). Designing Web Usability is the single most valuable volume of information I have come across to date. If you have quality content – all you have to do is make it usable and your site will become a success. Designing a usable web site is no easy task even for those who have been building for years. You know you need this book.

  6. Dale Fast says


    Anyone who wants to design more than 5 web pages should be required to outline the major points in Jakob Nielsen’s Designing Web Usability. Anyone who is hiring someone to design a web site should read this book first. Anyone who uses the internet as a regular source of information will tend to scream “YES” when Nielsen points out examples of bad web design.

    Jakob Nielsen’s book describes a way of thinking about the World Wide Web. It is not a how-to book tied to a particular software package. He simply wants the internet to be a useful place where communication takes place. He talks about what a web page should be like rather than focusing on the HTML required to create it. He illustrates his ideas with many examples of sites that work and ones that don’t. As a result, it is one of those rare computer books that will still be useful 5 years from now.

    Much of the information in the book seems obvious. After all, isn’t communication the goal of a web page? Yet I would guess that after reading a chapter of Nilsen’s book, you could identify significant design problems in the majority of web sites. Read all of the chapters and you’ll begin to understand what it takes to create powerful web sites.

    Dale Fast

  7. Sage Tyrtle says


    I bought this book without knowing anything about it other than the title and the fact that it was published by New Riders (who I’ve had great luck with in the past). When you consider that in general I only buy 2-3 books a year and do all the rest of my considerable reading at the library, that’s saying something.

    Jakob Nielson takes the world of web usability and makes it understandable to a complete usability ignoramus like me. After reading this book, I revamped almost all of my websites and yes, I’m getting more orders as a result. I’m also making sure I listen more closely to the negative feedback I get – because after reading this book I know that behind every person who does give negative feedback, there are 100 more who didn’t bother to write.

    The only slightly annoying facet of the book was the way he kept wandering off into the future and what “might happen” and how that “might effect” the web in the year 2005. Well, that’s all well and good, but I’m worried about designing in the year 2000.

    I would warn beginners NOT to purchase this book, however. This book is about *why* to make your website more user friendly. It does not tell anything about *how* to accomplish this. It’s really for advanced users, and I would recommend it to any advanced user without reservations.

  8. Paul Nishikawa says


    I’ve been an avid reader of Jakob Nielsen’s alertbox web site for 2 years. One has to remember that Jakob’s views are quite extreme – a “usability nazi” if you will – and using his comments to temper over-creativity can create some of the most functional Web sites out there.

    I believe that any members of a development team, particularly those without Web design experience, should read this book. It’s an easy read with many, many real world examples. His breakdown is at times hard to follow if you are looking for specific examples of page elements (ie. is a navigational button part of the “page design”, “site design” or “content design” chapter?).

    Overall, his work is an excellent refresher for any site architect or Web designer. His views, although extreme, can help most Web designers remember that this is very much a user-centric medium.

  9. Matthew Foraker says


    Nielson’s book offers a straightforward and intelligent presentation of web design with a keen awareness of the big picture and what actually happens when users visit a web site. All times the practice of simplicity and ease of use are emphasized in page design, navigation, content and overall web site development.

    The book is heavy (literally!) with high quality color printing featuring hundreds of web sites to illustrate each of the points discussed. This could be regarded as a serious textbook that takes a deeper cut into the art and science of effective web site design than the more amusing (and also valuable) reads such as “Web Pages that Suck.”

    Nielson addresses such issues as users with disabilities, the global nature of the web and the implications of multilingual sites, the use of metaphors, and the numerous other issues including download times, URL design, graphics, streaming video vs. downloadable video, site structure, color and text design, and so on. The book really “gets into it” and does not shy away from the nitty, gritty details, using its large quantity of illustrations to fully address each point. While it comes across as heavy handed on some occasions (“Do it this way”) where an experienced web designer may see alternatives, this detail provides a great introduction for those new to web design.

    This one text effectively captures the most significant topics associated with designing effective web sites that will accomplish the task at hand. Reading it will put the overly zealous gif animators and latest plug-in proponents in touch with the world of the average user. Given some of the hideous web sites I’ve seen even from Fortune 500 companies with large web development budgets, Nielson’s book is a voice of reason and intelligence in an area where hype and flash can cause people to lose sight of their objectives.

  10. Charles Ashbacher says


    As a programmer, I have a difficult time recognizing any limitations on what web functionality that I can code. However, I will push people aside to be the first in line to admit my inherent weaknesses in making it esthetically correct. According to some sources, that is a common problem in web design. This book is not about the coding, but is an extensive treatment of how to improve the user experience. In that sense, all web developers should read it.
    Web users have a level of impatience that will put a cranky two year old child in second place. Even what may appear to be relatively minor adjustments can and does lead to a higher rate of users returning to the site, which is the true currency of success in the e-commerce environment. The author uses an extensive number of figures to explain the rights and wrongs of page design. While some of the problems would require an extensive reworking of the site design, many are near the area of tweaks that could be done rather quickly.
    Generally, in the area of aesthetics, there is a great deal of room for interpretation, but it is hard to argue with the points that the author makes. If there is a negative side to what is done, it is that many points are repeated. A judicious elimination of 20-40 pages would not have sacrificed a great deal of quality. However, in his defense, these are points that tend to be ignored, so pounding it in may be necessary.
    I came away from reading this book with an enhanced understanding of the need for cleaner and smoother user interfaces in my design. In the future, I will incorporate some of the examples into my teaching of web development.