The title of this article was meant to be “Someone ought to tell Jakob Nielsen to improve the usability of his site”, but after doing some research it became immediately clear that someone already has. In fact, a lot of people have, and why wouldn’t they? This site really stinks.
And I’m not just saying it’s ugly – cause it is – it’s actually surprisingly difficult to use, which seems a little contradictory for the king of usability. So at the risk of repeating what every single web designer has thought, tweeted and blogged about, here’s my humble rant.
I was introduced to Jakob Nielsen’s work a couple of years ago by a non-designer colleague. At the time I had just made the transition from print design to web, and when I first saw the website I didn’t know who Mr Nielsen was, nor did I know the extent of his wisdom and the authority he deservedly enjoys as a guru of web page usability. Not surprisingly though, my first reaction was that of horrified curiosity (“is this some kind of joke or test for new employees?”), probably followed by a snigger and, as far as I can remember, the bitter taste of my own sick. This was the epitome of usability? This was the Gospel, the good Book, the Holy Grail of user centered web design? C’mon dude, you can’t be serious.
my first reaction was that of horrified curiosity, probably followed by a snigger and, as far as I can remember, the bitter taste of my own sick
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to realise Mr Nielsen was indeed the genuine article, that useit.com was in fact no joke sor some time travelling troll from the 90′s, but apparently a well-respected source of usability know-how. It did, however, take me a long time to appreciate and embrace any of Nielsen’s thinking, and the one single reason for that is the horrendous back-to-the-stone-age (or should I say “retro”) design of his website. No hierarchy, no navigation, no contrast, no subtlety, no typographical finesse, no graphics, no clues as to where I should look first. Admittedly, the text-links are pretty obvious and so is the divide between permanent content and news, but that’s really about it. And I’m sure I’m not alone, here. If this was a talk at a conference as opposed to a crummy blog-rant I would ask you all to raise your hand if you ever had second thoughts about the design of useit.com, and I’m confident that most of you would do so. The handful who wouldn’t either haven’t seen his site or have no concept of the fundamentals of good design.
It’s a ’95 model and I’m keeping it!
At this point I should make it clear that I’m not by any means suggesting any cheap looking photoshop extravaganza, texture-masturbation or background magic – after all Mr Nielsen has some almost viable reasons why he doesn’t use graphics – but a simple introduction of basic design principles, such as structure and contrast. A lot can be achieved with unassuming typography alone.
So why hasn’t Jakob Nielsen redesigned his site yet? Interestingly enough, Guardian asked him that very question back in 2007 (before I even saw his website for the first time) and I am surprised at and critical of some of the answers he gave.
1. “I’d be just one out of 10m. Redesigning it would take away the real value, which is that it stands out.” Fine, I get it. Useit.com stands out because it’s uniquely ugly, you can’t argue with that. But isn’t that the wrong reason to stand out? Surely, instead of turning away the scores of designers coming to visit by smearing poo all over your front door (they’d recognise your house allright), you should invite them in for tea with a nicely laid out, clear presentation of who you are and what you do.
2. Useit.com is “like a protest against the overly glamorous, flashy sites” I hear that, in fact, I totally agree. Flash (or flashy things) is not good for usability, it never has been and never will be, but a redesign doesn’t have to mean flash. There’s plenty of good, simple web design going on. Just because you don’t want animated pandas running around the screen doesn’t mean you have to use the same font-size for all your content.
3. ”Websites should have almost no features: focus on the words.” Again, nothing wrong with focusing on the words. But not all words are equally important – what about drawing more attention to what’s new, or grouping the text in clear categories using size and typography to indicate hierarchy?
Without good reasons, then, why this bizarre need to cling on to a 16 year old design (that’s longer than the Internet has been mainstream!)?
Don’t fear designers, embrace them
Personally, I think it all stems from Mr Nielsen’s inherent fear of designers, fuelled by the general misconception of “design” being equal to overuse of graphics, meaningless decoration, lots of colours, spinning pre-loaders, use of flash, background music… All in all a god-awful mess, where the content and the words get’s totally lost. And the Guardian (at least in that particular article) makes matters worse by pitching Nielsen as a lone, spectacled crusader facing the wrath of the entire web design community, thus perpetuating the myth of Usability vs. Design. It’s really quite detrimental to the progression of our industry that the two are put in different camps, as if you can only achieve one or the other. The fact is, however: Usability is design, and design is usability. Any web designer who disagrees should take their pirated copy of photoshop and stick it.
Any web designer who disagrees should take their pirated copy of photoshop and stick it
So, Jakob, I’d like to finish this little rant asking you sincerely: Please make 2011 the year you stop being a cheapskate and hire someone to redesign your website. Not because it’s ugly, not because it’s difficult to use – but because millions of budding web designers who weren’t around when you first made your name automatically dismiss your wisdom the moment they knock on your door.