Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity

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February 2000

Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity

CIDMIconNewsletter Review by Tina Hedlund, Comtech Services, Inc.

“Short preview: Relish simplicity, and focus on the users’ goals rather than glitzy design.” And so begins a wonderful, easy-to-read book that exhorts Web designers, corporate executives, and anyone else who will listen to their users: first, last, and always. The book, which could easily be mistaken for a cookbook approach to Web usability, encourages the reader to dig in and learn the common-sense advice on every page. Jakob Nielsen, in fact, states his goal early on:

The goal of this book is to change your behavior. I am an evangelist at heart, and I want you to be able to provide better service to your users after you have read my book…. After you have read this book, you are ready to take action.

He continues in the introduction to disclaim any large, strategic intent and yet concludes in the following passage:

The book does, however, focus on one big-picture strategic idea: Place your customers’ needs at the center of your Web strategy. The remaining strategies will differ from company to company, but I can guarantee than any company that makes its site easy to use will have a major advantage over its competitors, no matter what industry it is in.

For information-development managers and departments, this book provides compelling ammunition for justifying usability studies with customers-yes, those people who we rarely get to meet. To jump start your work and prevent errors that Nielsen made early on, though, he offers the fruits of 20 years’ experience with non-linear design and usability.

To help you out, he offers a list of common mistakes that everyone makes in their initial Web design, himself included. When designing sites, Nielsen urges you to consider the following factors:

  • A sound business model
  • Effective project management
  • Excellent information architecture
  • Solid page design
  • Responsible content authoring
  • A good linking strategy

The book itself follows a logical progression from page design to future predictions. As you will see in the following highlights, Nielsen constantly harks back to the subtitle of the book: The Practice of Simplicity.

Page Design

Nielsen begins his discussion with page design because pages are the smallest building blocks. To improve page design, he recommends, among other things, using screen real estate more efficiently, keeping download time to a minimum, incorporating link titles, and using cascading style sheets.

Nielsen feels that designers allocate too much screen real estate to navigation and advertisement. His rule of thumb is to set aside 20% of screen real estate for navigation and 50-80% for content. The home page may require a higher percentage dedicated to navigation to orient the user to the Web site structure, but the “meat” of the Web site should focus on the content.

Nielsen’s research shows that Web sites are more popular when they download quickly and recommends designing Web pages so that they take ten seconds or less to download. He tested 20 sites; half were the most popular sites on the Internet and the other half were the Web sites of some of the biggest companies in the country. The most popular sites downloaded on average in 8 seconds, while the big corporate sites downloaded in 19 seconds. For users to feel that there is no lag from page to page, the response time should not exceed one second and, for users to stay focused on their tasks, the response time should not exceed ten seconds. Since response time varies depending on the kind of connection the user has to the Internet and the browser version running, test your site using a worst-case user scenario: a 28.8 modem running a two-year-old browser version. If the site comes up in ten seconds or less, you should meet all your customers’ expectations for responsiveness.

The implications of this advice on the use of frames and Java scripts is quite profound, which makes Nielsen’s advice somewhat controversial among Web designers who want to use the latest bells and whistles. He goes on to urge Web designers to separate content from format by using links and cascading style sheets.

Content Design

Users typically read 25% slower from a screen than they do from paper, so Nielsen maintains that content must be completely redesigned for use online. You can accomplish this goal by adhering to the following advice:

  • Design content for “scanability”
  • Chunk documents
  • Hire an editor
  • Make content legible
  • Provide the right type of online documentation
  • Label multimedia so that users can decide if they want to download

Users typically scan headings and titles to decide if a section contains information they want to read. To accommodate this practice, Nielsen recommends designing your content in the following manner:

  • Structure documents with no more than three levels of headings
  • Use concise and descriptive headings
  • Use bulleted lists
  • Bring the user’s attention to important information by making it a hyperlink or by changing the font color

By chunking the data, you can let users decide which parts they would like to read. Chunking the data requires that documents be completely redesigned. It is not enough to break up one long document into several pieces; users then waste time downloading every time they go to the next page. The document needs to be written for scanability into segments that can be accessed in chunks.

Nielsen recommends hiring an editor skilled at editing for the Web to make sure that these standards are maintained. He estimates that a company can lose $5,000 on one badly written link on an intranet. This estimate rests on the following assumptions:

  • It takes employees five seconds to decide if the link would be helpful to them.
  • Ten percent of employees will click the link even though it does not apply to their needs.
  • These employees will spend 30 seconds reading the wrong content before realizing it.
  • There are 10,000 employees.
  • Their time is worth $50 per hour.

Nielsen encourages you to make sure that users can read your content easily. He recommends a high contrast between the background and the text, fonts that are large enough to read, and subtle or muted background colors and graphics. He cautions against using blinking or moving text, which users find annoying. He does feel it is appropriate to use non-looping animated graphics to attract a user’s attention, as long as the animations blink or move only once and then stop.

Many designers are tempted to add online help to their Web sites, but Nielsen recommends designing a site that does not require online documentation. In fact, according to Nielsen’s First Law of Computer Manuals, “People don’t read documentation voluntarily.” If documentation or help is necessary, he recommends the following strategies:

  • Provide a search capability
  • Use many examples
  • Provide task-oriented procedures
  • Provide a short, conceptual model of the task
  • Create hypertext links to the definitions of difficult words
  • Keep your documents as brief and concise as possible

If you are providing multimedia on your Web site, Nielsen recommends informing users of the size of the clip, approximately how long it takes to download, and how long it takes to run. If you provide video clips, you should also provide a screen capture from the video so users can predict if the clip meets their needs before they download it.

Site Design

Site design is the most important aspect of Web site usability and determines more than anything else how quickly and easily users locate the information they need. Issues that Nielsen discusses are the use of splash screens, site structure, and breadth versus depth when providing navigation.

Nielsen’s contempt for splash screens is obvious in the section called “Splash Screens Must Die.” In his opinion, users click off splash screens as soon as possible so they can get to more substantive information. Users do not care about “setting the stage” and are often irritated by a splash screen that just increases download time.

The structure of a Web site should be determined by knowing who the customers are and how they think of the product or information on the Web site. Designers are often tempted to structure the Web site in the same way that the product is viewed internally; however, customers rarely view the product in this way.

Nielsen performed a usability study for an e-commerce site where two designs were competing for supremacy: a Web site structured the way the product was viewed internally and a Web site structured the way customers viewed the product. Not surprisingly, users had an 80% success rate when using the customer-oriented Web site and only a 9% success rate on the site structured the way the product was viewed internally.

Although Nielsen does not seem to have a preference for any navigation style, he discusses the differences between the navigational styles of breadth and depth. Breadth emphasizes the top-level directories at a Web site. Many Web sites use this navigational technique when they list the top-level links in the left portion of a page. Depth tells users where they are in the Web site by providing a map back to the initial choice. For example, the site may display the following:

CIDM Home—>Members—>Best Practices Newsletter—>February Book Review

Nielsen cautions designers to highlight where in the hierarchy the user is by using bold text or color changes. He also notes that a combination of breadth and depth appropriate to your users often gives the best results.

Intranet Design

Nielsen recommends keeping the same design standards in mind when designing for an intranet as when designing for the Internet, even though the customers are now employees or partners. Employees know the company’s internal structure and benefit when you organize the intranet to mirror that structure. They also want and benefit from more options (in other words, more depth) from your home page. Nielsen recommends maintaining rigid standards and adding navigational components to an intranet to make it more usable.

Rigid standards are the key to a successful intranet. Users learn from predictability. In most intranets, different departments across many sites post documents to the intranet without following any of the corporate guidelines, leading to a hodgepodge of chaotic information.

Nielsen recommends hiring a standards expert to help Web designers define and follow the standards and to monitor the intranet for compliance to those standards. He also recommends putting some organizational clout behind the standards, with repeated, diplomatic explanations of the benefits (for each department and the organization) of complying with standards. By establishing these standards early, you will find it easier to work with “maverick” departments later.

Because you have a captive user pool and you understand your own cost structure so well, Nielsen asserts it is much easier to demonstrate the impact of a bad intranet interface than an Internet site. If you redesign your intranet to save employees one minute when searching for information and there are 1,000 employees, you save the company two work days per week. He recommends determining the marginal cost of time wasted on a bad user interface. Because it is difficult to determine actual values he recommends using average values.

Every intranet should have a directory, a search function, and an area set aside for news. The directory should look similar to the directory used on sites such as Yahoo. Display a hierarchical list of all of the site’s content on the home page. Since intranets have between 10 and 100 times more information than Internet sites, make sure your site has a robust search capability.

By setting aside an area for news, you reduce announcement email to all employees. This practice has three benefits: it improves productivity, reduces mail server load, and encourages employees to visit the intranet frequently. The table below outlines some common differences between Internet and intranet design.

Nielsen estimates that bad intranet interfaces will cost companies $100 billion around the world. Because obtaining test subjects for usability tests is easier (you have a pool of test subjects waiting to give their opinion) and cost benefits are easily demonstrated, Nielsen feels that it is usually easier to justify the cost of usability testing on intranets to upper management.


Nielsen frequently reminds us that the Web is a new medium and that our ways of doing business need to change radically to accommodate these changes. Perhaps the most persuasive argument is that Web users are sophisticated and impatient-users have the ultimate power. They have the mouse, and the next site is just a click away

Overall, Nielsen’s mantra throughout Designing Web Usability is simplicity. By simplifying page design, content design, site design, and intranets, we create a more usable Web. Simplifying Web sites for your customers will become more and more important as Web technology is integrated into more and more information appliances. Through concrete examples and illustrative screen shots, he shows us all how to create a more usable Web.

Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity is a must read for manager and designer alike. Neilsen’s readable, somewhat irreverent style and excellent examples are extras too rarely found in technical books. CIDMIconNewsletter