geert lovink on Sat, 1 Dec 2001 17:06:37 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Danny Yee: Review of Homepage Usability

(I wonder what web designers on nettime think of this review -- and of the
Nielsen/Tahir book. I haven't seen the publication yet. The fresh and bright
'usability' populism of Nielsen however shines through the review: most
designers are stupid, lazy and ignorant and so are the average Internet
users who have the right to silly and childish design in a network without
surprises, freed of evil innovative designers. What's presented as
well-meant corporate/institutional criticism may as well add to the
portification of content and a surrender to the imaginary 'natural' behavior
of the 'common' user. Is it right to question Nielson's constructive
proposals (aimed at increasing shareholder value)? Is there an alternative
in sight to this school of pragmatic design hegemony? /geert)


(posted on nettime with the permission of the author)

From: "Danny Yee" <>

Homepage Usability
 - 50 Websites Deconstructed
 Jakob Nielsen + Marie Tahir
 New Riders 2001
 315 pages, index

 A book review by Danny Yee

You might want to read _Homepage Usability_ just for the entertainment
of watching web usability guru Jakob Nielsen deconstruct the homepages
of fifty major sites.  Or you could read it for some invaluable advice
on web design -- I learned a lot from it, as I think even seasoned web
designers will.

_Homepage Usability_ begins with 113 tips on homepage design, some of
them obvious and some not so obvious, and most of them applicable more
broadly than homepages.  Here are two of the shorter ones:

*Use graphics to show real content, not just to decorate
your homepage.*  For example, use photos of identifiable
people who have a connection to the content as opposed to
models or generic stock photos.  People are naturally drawn
to photos, so gratuitous graphics can distract users from
critical content.

*Don't use clever phrases and marketing lingo that make people
work too hard to figure out what you're saying.*  For example,
the "Dream, Plan, & Go" category on Travelcity might sound
catchy to a marketing person, but it's not as straightforward
as "Vacation Planning".  Every time you make users ponder the
meaning behind vague and cutesy phrases, your risk alienating
or losing them altogether.  Users quickly lose patience when
they must click on a link just to figure out what it means.
That isn't to say that homepage text should be bland, but it
must be informative and should be unambiguous.

Nielsen and Tahir then look at some statistics on the fifty sites
considered.  These statistics are used to make recommendations, following
Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience, that "most users spend more
of their time on _other_ sites".  Here's a sample:

*Link Formatting*

Next to the use of colored text, the underline is the second-most
important cue to users that text is clickable, and 80% of the
homepages underlined the links.  We continue to recommend that
links be underlined, except possibly in navigation bars that use
a design that makes it more than commonly obvious where users
can click.

Of the homepages in our sample, 60% used the traditional standard
for link colors: blue. This is a fairly small majority, but
still large enough that we continue to recommend blue as the color
for unvisited links.  If links are blue, users know what to do.
End of story.

All this packs a remarkable amount of useful information into the first 50
pages, but the vast bulk of _Homepage Usability_, some 250 pages more,
consists of analyses of the fifty chosen homepages.  These follow a
standard format.  A full-page screen-shot faces a brief commentary,
discussion of the page TITLE and tagline (if any), and a pictorial
(overlay plus pie chart) breakdown of screen "real estate" into operating
system and browser controls, welcome and site identity, navigation,
content of interest, advertising and sponsorship, self promotion,
and unused/filler.  Then follow either two or four pages with detailed
commentary: the screen-shots are repeated on the left-hand pages with
elements numbered, and the right-hand pages have comments on them.
Many of these are trivial and site-specific

"This *Go* button's color isn't noticeable enough -- there should
be much more contrast with the background color."

some of them amusingly so

"In general, oil companies would best avoid photos that show
large dark shadows in the water next to their rigs."

Others are more general

"Don't have a special *Shop* link when there is a product section.
The natural thing for users is to find the product first and
then decide to buy it."

The sites covered are mostly those of corporates or media organisations
-- Ebay, ExxonMobil, ESPN, IBM, Victoria's Secret, and CNNfn, to name a
few -- but some government departments are included and there's a good
sprinkling of English-language sites outside the United States, such
as those of the BBC and Australian supermarket chain Coles.  The vast
bulk of the analysis is, however, just as relevant for other kinds of
organisations -- certainly for the university at which I work and the
charity for which I do volunteer work, but also for my personal sites.

Finally, a comment on the physical book.  A large square volume, 25cm
a side, with colour everywhere, _Homepage Usability_ is really nicely
laid out.  I'm not generally a fan of books with a lot of graphics and
screen-shots, but here they are used to good effect, demonstrating how
some things can still be done much more effectively in print than online.


%T Homepage Usability
%S 50 Websites Deconstructed
%A Nielsen, Jakob
%A Tahir, Marie
%I New Riders
%D 2001
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 0-7357-1102-X
%P xiii,315pp
%K Internet, publishing

28 November 2001

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