WebReference.com - New Riders Interview with Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (3/6)
Making the World a Happier Place, One Web Site at a Time
NR: You may or may not find this funny, but the people who are talking a lot about going to the Web for inspiration are New Riders' Flash authors.
JAKOB: That's a very good point because it leads to another misconception about web design, which is that you can judge it yourself. In reality, the people who work in these design teams are very different from the average user. This is true whether you talk about the graphic artist, the marketing director, the CEO, or the programmer. Every one of the people on those teams is an exceptional special case relative to the average population or the average customer of that company. The average customer of a company is not a VP of marketing. Therefore, a valid way to judge whether a homepage is reaching out to the audience and satisfying their needs is not whether it reaches and satisfies the CEO's or the programmer's needs. Of course, that's the reason you should use discipline and bring in the user's perspective.
MARIE: We frequently watch those VPs and directors of marketing in a user test situation or field study where they see a person having a hard time and they walk away saying, "Oh, what a stupid user." Or, "Where did you get that idiot?" They blame it on the person. But then, it keeps happening from session to session, with different users. After a while, they can't think that everyone's an idiot, with five people in one day all saying the same thing. When an advanced, articulate, user comes in often the observers light up and say, "This person's great. Now this person is really right. Now we've got the right user." Inevitably, the advanced user finds the same three glaring things that tripped up the other less experienced peopleÂand is much more likely to blame the site design for the pain, rather than blame his or herself. That's when the message hits home and the higher ups realize they're not an end user.
NR: Jakob, you were quoted as saying, "Common sense isn't as common as you think, as proven by how often the rules are violated." So when you talk about rules for a usable site, what would you say are the top messages to impart to the design community?
JAKOB: One of the things we are doing in the Homepage Usability book is we are providing the guidelines for usable homepage design. When designers read each of these guidelines, they will probably say, "Oh yeah, this makes perfect sense." They make perfect sense because they're based on human behavior and therefore are obvious in some ways. But they're only obvious after the fact. If you look at websites, designers very often violate these common sense guidelines. In the different studies of projects we have done, we typically see websites follow only between one-third and one-half of the guidelines. Every now and then, we'll come across a really great website that might follow three-quarters of the guidelines, but that's very rare. In other words, even though a designer says, "Sure enough. Of course it should be that way," when you go to the website, the designer hasn't followed that rule. Let me mention one of the examples out of the book. One of the issues in homepages is that they often feature a current big news story, promotion of a special product, or some other interesting thing. If the user sees that but doesn't read that article or buy that product at that moment, and the next day says, "Oh, I really want that." Guess what? When he or she or she goes back to the homepage, you see the next day's featured item. How is he or she or she going to find the thing he or she saw yesterday? To avoid this, one of the guidelines is that you should have an archive of things that are featured on the homepage where people can easily go to look at all the recently featured items. That is an obvious guideline when you think about human behavior. How do you like to use these websites? If you have featured items, you also need a way for people to get at previously featured items. It's an obvious rule. Look at some websites. Almost none of them do that. Almost all leave people completely stranded if they come back to things they noted at an earlier visit.
MARIE: The basic purpose of a homepage is to immediately tell people the purpose of the site and who's responsible for the site. What's the company? It's unbelievable how many homepages do not answer that question. So often, you have to hunt to figure out what the purpose is or you have to look through every little bit of what's on the page to put together an idea of the purpose of the site. When we do user testing with a website, we always check the homepage to get the user's first impressions about the purpose of the site, what he or she can do there, and what it's all about. So often, the user's impressions of what the site is are off from what the site really has to offer. That's something that seems so obvious and simple. Of course the homepage should clearly tell who and what it is, but it's more frequently done wrong than right.
NR: Would you summarize that as "Make the proper introduction to your audience"?
JAKOB: Tell me what the site is about, what it can do, and why I should care about the site. Why is it that the most obvious guideline is not followed on most websites? As I was saying earlier, I think people on the project are not qualifiedÂthe people who work at the company already know what the company is about, and it never enters their minds that somebody might actually ask, "What is this?" It is so obvious to them what the company does that they don't feel a need to explain it, and they put all their emphasis on fancy marketing slogans that spin off of what they're doing. They never state it explicitly. Just call a spade a spade. Don't call it a digging implement or an excavation solution. Call it what it is!
MARIE: Many sites don't communicate their core value over their competitors, especially their competitors off the Web. This puts the onus on the user to infer the benefits, which isn't their job. Many products you can get on the WebÂlike mortgages and complex financial servicesÂoffer real benefits by being online, such as cutting down paperwork or saving on processing time. Companies forget to communicate their value add in their tag lines or in their big message. Worse, sometimes they have it wrong. They don't truly understand what causes their users the most pain, and try to focus their offering to ease that pain. For example, sites might focus on being the cheapest, when in fact the users care most about handholding and customer service.
Created: October 15, 2001
Revised: October 15, 2001