Let me start out by saying that I have high regard for human factors and usability, and often look at Web sites and wonder what the heck the designer was thinking when they made a particular section blue, a link red, a banner ad bigger than the site logo, or, the most heinous of sins, made me have to hunt to find the content on the page.
Heck, in college I even worked with usability star Dr. Donald Norman at a research group focused on human-computer interfaces and usability, including helping the U.S. Navy with some of its navigational systems as used on submarines. Oh, those many years ago.
Having said that, I read that Jakob Nielsen has come out with yet another book on usability and yet another criticism of Web site and, no doubt, blog design. His new book leaves no question about his stance: Prioritizing Web Usability.
Is it okay if I yawn yet?
Seriously, here are his Eight Problems that Haven’t Changed, which I’ll first present as a list, then present again a second time, with my commentary added:
- Links that don’t change color when visited
- Breaking the back button
- Opening new browser windows
- Pop-up windows
- Design elements that look like advertisements
- Violating Web-wide conventions
- Vaporous content and empty hype
- Dense content and unscannable text
That’s The Big List. Now, let’s dig into each of them…
Links that don’t change color when visited
As someone who pays a lot of attention to the appearance of my site on various systems, I violate this one consistently and across tens of thousands of visitors, not one has ever indicated that it was a problem. You know why? People are more sophisticated in their use of the Web than they were a decade ago when NCSA Mosaic came out and users required blue and underlines to denote hypertext reference links. In fact, I can’t think of a site I visit with frequency that still sticks to the tired convention that unvisited and visited links should be displayed in different colors.
Breaking the back button
I think that this is a hit on the entire Web 2.0 / AJAX phenomenon, actually. Go and try to use the back button in Google’s popular Gmail service, for example, and you’ll find that it screws things up. But a single click of the reload button and all is good, and now you know. The cost of making this mistake? Very low. The ease of learning that it’s not how you navigate through the site? Very low too.
This is one of those “much ado about nothing” sort of problems. While in a laboratory consistency might be valued above all else, I think that out here in the real world of active Web sites, blogging and the vast range of design capabilities of users, making mistakes on usability are far, far less onerous than being unable to produce quality content, for example. I mean, do you really care when you get to a site that doesn’t work with the back button, or do you just learn to compensate?
Score: relevant, but a well-accepted fact of life in the world of Web 2.0
Opening new browser windows
Hmmm… this is another ivory tower thing, I’m sure. Ya see, there’s a reason that Web browsers and HTML make it so darn easy to open up new windows by simply adding target=”_blank” or similar: people like to use it.
From a usability perspective, the tradeoff here is creating the complexity of multiple windows being open versus the ability to have a persistent context by not leaving sites unexpectedly. This article itself offers a good example, actually. You’re reading to here and I say go check out the Webmonkey article Jakob wrote. Now, when you click, do you want to leave this site and have to use your back button to return, or do you want to have a “diversionary” window open up that lets you check out the reference and easily return here with a simple close-window operation?
Now imagine that you click on the above link and them immediately get a call from your boss who gives you a 45 minute assignment. When you’re done you go back to your Web browser and wonder “how the heck did I end up here on Webmonkey?” See my point?
Score: relevant, but low priority.
By differentiating from the previous, opening up browser windows, I can only presume that Jakob is actually talking about pop-up ads and the like, and yes, those can be darn annoying, but at least just about every modern browser makes it really, really easy to defeat them once and for all. I’m so used to having pop-ups blocked that I have no idea what sites do or don’t use them.
Score: spot on. This is still a pox on the Web in most cases.
Design elements that look like advertisements
Oh, the different worlds within which we travel, Dr. Nielsen! When I saw this on the screen I read it as “advertisements that look like design elements” and in my eyes, it’s my mis-reading of your point that’s far more of a problem online. What’s legit content? What’s a link added by the person who created the content, and what’s an advert? What’s an affiliate link or commission-generating link, and does that influence the content itself?
From a pure usability perspective, I suppose that design elements that look like ads are a problem, but it seems to me that this is a problem precisely because ads are trying to look more and more like legitimate design elements and content. Chicken, meet egg. Or vice-versa.
Score: You got this one backwards.
Violating Web-wide conventions
Ah, that would be the usability version of the blog police knocking on my door, wouldn’t it? Web-wide conventions aren’t conventions at all and there are plenty of sites that seem to focus on explicitly violating all of these design guidelines. So do those sites comprise the “conventions”, or do the sites that match the expectations Jakob and his UI compatriots have comprise the conventions?
Score: irrelevant. Conventions are made to be broken, not followed.
Vaporous content and empty hype
I know exactly what sites you’re talking about and yes, I agree 100% that if you aren’t adding to the value of the Web, if you aren’t producing content, you’re adding to the noise, and while I wouldn’t say that’s a usability problem, per se, it’s sure a plague on the Internet today. In fact, some of my best friends’ Web sites…
Score: spot on again!
Dense content and unscannable text
Now, finally, we get into a true user interface and usability issue, and here Jakob is right on the mark again. There are few sites that wouldn’t be easier to read and understand if there was a bit more “white space” and a bit less information density, allowing you to absorb the content quicker and more accurately.
Score: third one’s the charm.
In conclusion, while it’s an interesting exercise to consider the eight Problems That Haven’t Changed, it’s mostly a bunch of irrelevant complaints that fly in the face of how people are actually using the Web. Modern web users are considerably more sophisticated than they were a decade ago, and I fear that Jakob and his colleagues are simply demonstrating that they are further and further out of the mainstream of designers and Web site producers.
But that’s just me. What do you think about his eight problems? Are they all problems? And what other problems do you see with the usability of the Web that haven’t been mentioned here?