WebReference.com - New Riders Interview with Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (2/6)
Making the World a Happier Place, One Web Site at a Time
NR: What would you both characterize as the most common misconceptions about what constitutes a usable website?
MARIE: First, it really bothers me when people equate usability with a lack of aesthetics or being boring and that it's not creative. I think people forget how freeing good functionality and usability can be. It frees them to be creative. You must have a good functional, usable foundation before you can add anything else. I don't think people complain that a Steinway piano is "boring" or lacks aesthetics because it's too usable or functional. It is beautiful, but that's not what it's known for. It's better because its usability is better. Its performance is better than other pianos. Steinway shows that you can have both beauty and usability. On the other hand, beauty without core functionality isn't that appealing, unless you don't have a critical need, or you can afford redundancy. Take the Jaguar example. Jaguars are gorgeous cars, but they're not known for their reliability and functionality. You see more of them in garages than on the road. If you really need one car to drive, a Jaguar is probably not your best bet, no matter how pretty it is.
JAKOB: Similarly, consider how all cars have the steering wheel on the left side (except in Britain where steering wheels are on the right side). You always put the steering wheel in the same place. Likewise, you always put the brake pedal and the accelerator in the same relative position--one is to the left, one is to the right. That's always the same. If it were not always the same, the second you got into a rental car, you might have a crash. That is usability. That does not mean that there's no creativity or aesthetics in car design. It just means that there are certain things that you must do right or people can't drive the car.
MARIE: Another misconception is if the car does everything that you could possibly want, then it's as usable as it can be, when the contrary is true. If your car does so many things that the dashboard is loaded with buttons, imagine how difficult it is to find the right knob in a critical situation. Similarly, just as it has happened in desktop software, designers keep bloating websites. Especially during the Internet bubble, every site thought it was going to be the center of the universe for every user in the world. A targeted site that was good at doing one thing started adding a lot of different features and products and functionality until it became difficult to tell any website from another because they were all trying to do everything. What's usable is when you know what your customers need from your site, what your unique offering is, and you promote those things in a very clear and obvious way to guide people to the most probable point they need to reach.
NR: I am curious about the point you made about people confusing a usable site with one that is not necessarily aesthetically pleasing. Jakob, your site, Useit.com, is very much just functional information.
JAKOB: The two dimensions are almost independent in the sense that they are both interesting criteria for design that looks good and works well. Those are both criteria. For any individual project, you might emphasize one or the other, and because I'm certainly not a graphic designer, I tend not to emphasize graphics on my website. The opposite has happened on a lot of corporate websites because they tend to have plenty of art directors and graphic designers around the marketing department. But they tend to forget about the ease of use, because that's the job of usability professionals. The designers then go overboard on the graphics, which leads to several usability problems such as download time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons some people believe there is an opposition between aesthetics and usability. They think you can achieve an aesthetic site with big beautiful pictures. This approach hurts usability in an environment where you have a slow speed Internet connection.
MARIE: Right. A lot of people who are doing design on the Web are prejudiced against usability because they think it's robbing them of their freedom to be creative and do interesting things. I think you should get the usability right first. That's the fundamental thing that users need and what they want. Let people go to a museum to see beautiful artwork. If you can have beauty on top of having a good usable, functional site, that's fantastic. I'm for that. But you can't offer people a hollow shell of artwork that has nothing working correctly underneath because we see firsthand too many people resenting that. It's so presumptuous to think that because I'm giving you this beautiful picture, it doesn't have to do what you want it to do. Most people on the web are trying to get specific things done. They aren't thinking, "Oh, I'm just going to go and have some aesthetic pleasure right nowÂsome empty pleasure." They're going to websites to do things, and you should help people do those things first. If you can do that in a lovely way, that's perfectly fine. But you should always deal with the functional aspects first.
Created: October 15, 2001
Revised: October 15, 2001