Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir on Homepage Usability - Interview - WebReference Update - 011011
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This week we interview Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir about their new book "Homepage Usability." Your home page is your company's electronic face to the world. It's important to make a good first impression. The authors discuss the ways you can make your home page easier to use, how they arrived at their 113 usability guidelines, and some specific recommendations.
New this week on WebReference.com and the Web:
1. INTERVIEW: Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir on Homepage Usability 2. OTHER VOICES: * Build Web Cred 3. NET NEWS: * Bush Administration Wants Its Own Internet
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 1. INTERVIEW: Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir on Homepage Usability
We interview the authors of the upcoming book "Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed." Reviewed last time, the book offers 113 homepage usability guidelines and 40 design recommendations to make your home page more usable. The authors then mercilessly critique 50 prominent Web sites using their own recommendations. Derived from the authors' combined 14 years of Web usability experience and from countless hours of user testing, the book is part of the Niesen Norman Group's campaign to make a more usable Web.
>WEBREF: Why did you do the book?
>JAKOB NIELSEN: Homepages are the most valuable real estate in the world. Millions of dollars are funneled through a space that's not even a square foot in size. The homepage is also your company's face to the world. Potential customers look at your company's online presence before doing any business with you. Complexity or confusion make people go away. Of course, all other aspects of bad Web design should be fixed as well, but if the homepage doesn't communicate what users can do and why they should care about the website, you might as well not have a website at all. That's why homepage usability is so important and that's why we wrote a book specifically about this one topic.
We followed our own principles when naming the book. Most people should be able to figure out what a book called "Homepage Usability" is about. Two words, and you know the topic.
>MARIE TAHIR: The purpose of the book is really to help design teams help themselves. The whole philosophy of our company is built on this, because we believe that design and usability efforts are most successful when they come from within the company. Many of our training services focus on coaching teams to do the work themselves, rather than making them dependent on us for extended periods of time.
>WR: How did you choose the 50 Web sites to review?
>JN: They were on various "top 10" lists, such as most visited sites in the U.S., most visited sites in the U.K., biggest e-commerce sales, Fortune 100. We also picked a few prominent sites from Asia and Australia as well as some small-business sites and government sites. The general idea was to get a spread of different types of sites, but mainly to pick good ones so that we did not have to waste the commentary on obvious stupidity.
>WR: Have you noticed an increase or decrease in the Web's usability since 1993?
>JN: Increase in absolute terms, but decrease in relative terms. By this I mean that sites follow many more of the usability guidelines now than they used to do. For example, splash pages are almost unheard of today. Search engines are also better. They are not nearly as good as they should be, but still the average site has a better search engine today than in 1993. Thus, in absolute terms, usability has improved. If the same user were to try to attempt the same task on a site today vs. that same site in 1993, the task would be better supported and earlier to perform today.
In relative terms, usability has declined. We are not talking about the same users, the same tasks, and the same sites today. Some of us have used the Web since 1993 (I personally started using the Web in 1991), but the vast majority of users are much less computer-savvy today than they were in the early days. The tasks are much more complex today than they used to be, and we obviously have many more sites. The increase in usability has not been big enough to compensate for the broadening masses of users and the increasing complexity of the tasks.
>WR: How were the 113-homepage usability guidelines arrived at?
>JN: We analyzed the design mistakes on the 50 homepages and also drew upon our experience from other usability projects over the years. Mainly, if something was an issue sufficiently often, we made it into a guideline.
>WR: I hear that you have a list of 200+ usability guidelines for Web sites, and that you'll reveal it this month. Do you plan to make it available online?
>JN: This is actually different. I have a list of 207 guidelines for e-commerce sites. So this is for a more specific type of website where we can provide more specific guidelines than we can when the problem is broadly defined as "Web design" in general. These guidelines have been collected into a rather fat report that was just published and is available from our website now: http://www.nngroup.com/reports/ecommerce/
>WR: ON MENUS: In your book you mention some "rather tricky dropdown menus" and seem to discourage them. How do you feel about dropdown HTML and cascading DHTML menus in general? How prevalent are dropdown menus on the Web? How should they be designed properly?
>MT: Many designers use dropdown and cascading menus, because it's a tough challenge to reveal enough content to users, make categories understandable and differentiable, all without putting too much information on the page. By using dropdown menus, designers think they can keep the page simple, while still providing information on the homepage. A couple of major usability problems often plague dropdown and cascading menus.
First, many menus give no visual affordance that they have information lurking beneath, so people often don't know that they are there. In fact, many users are startled when they hover over an area of the screen and a new element pops up unexpectedly. Users only discover the menus if they felt sufficiently convinced that the menu choice was correct enough to go to it. This negates any "benefit" from putting the submenu items on the homepage, because it means that the hierarchy of the site is only revealed to those who already have a pretty good understanding of it.
Another problem is that users can only see one dropdown menu at a time, so if the user isn't clear about the difference between main navigation items, he or she must access each one individually, remember what was on each one of them, and try to determine which main item to choose. That's a lot of work.
Another problem is that the menus often use tiny fonts and place the items very close together. This means the user must have precise mousing skills in order to select the right item. In many of our studies, we've seen users select incorrect menu items from dropdowns.
If you're going to use dropdown or cascading menus, then, they need to have some sort of visual cue that they have a dropdown. Also, avoid small fonts and allow adequate space between menu items.
Often you can avoid the dropdown dilemma by not trying to make your homepage a completely democratic representation of all of your content. It's much better to give top billing to the highest priority items and feature some of the content in those categories directly on the homepage and provide simple links to other categories rather than to try to cram equal depth on all features on the homepage.
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>WR: WINDOW TITLES: The TITLE tag of a home page is especially important, both for bookmarkability and search engine relevance. What makes for a great TITLE tag?
>MT: First and foremost, the title should begin with the company name. If you break this rule, you make it very difficult for users to ever find you again in a bookmark list. Many sites make the mistake of starting with generic words like "Welcome" or "Homepage." These look fine in isolation, but they don't help users find them in a bookmark list. If you're looking for the Acme Company, you'd never scan a list looking for the word "welcome" or "the." TITLE tags should also include a brief description of the company, both to help with search and to help jog the user's memory about what your company does if there is no immediate recall of the company name.
>WR: HEADLINES/DECKS: Even with Jakob's efforts, it seems to me that headlines and especially decks still have a way to go. Are there any classes folks can take on snappy headline/deck writing? What's a good length for a deck?
>MT: Yes, it's true that headlines and decks need a lot of improvement. Human intelligence is the best enemy of poor headlines and decks. Too much automation without the thoughtful eyes of a good editor usually results in junk, or content that isn't optimized in any way for online viewing. Many sites pull headlines from press release titles and use first paragraphs from stories as the deck verbatim. Especially for the homepage, it's critical to have an editor review and rewrite this content. We offer a great tutorial on content usability at our conferences: http://www.nngroup.com/events/tutorial_2.html.
>WR: What's the difference between writing headlines for print and writing headlines for the Web? As you wrote, "Well-written headlines should begin with an information-carrying word or phrase and contain no unnecessary verbiage."
>MT: It's not that the rules are entirely different, it's just that it's even more critical to do it well online. It's not as pleasant to read online as offline. Users skim on the Web, rather than reading carefully. It's easier to focus on a paper version of a newspaper, because you're only seeing the content itself. When looking at an online newspaper, users have many other elements surrounding the content - browser controls, navigation bars, possibly animation, not to mention other possible obstacles, such as small monitors and glare. Users quickly scan for meaningful phrases and actions they can take. You've got to hook them with the first word, or you risk having the user skimming right past the link.
>WR: BREAKDOWN OF SCREEN REAL ESTATE: You show a pie chart breaking down each home page's component parts (content, navigation, advertising, etc.) but don't advise us on percentages. What are typical percentages for navigation, content, identity, ads, and what would you consider ideal?
>MT: We are going to publish some more information about this to our companion Web page for the book.
Different sites will have different goals and different needs for the percentages - a portal site will devote much more space to navigation than an ecommerce site, which should have a large amount of content. It's a good exercise to map your own site, and see how you're spending your homepage investment. For example, if you devote most of your real estate to identity and ads, you're not really telling your potential customers enough about yourself to draw them in. The best way to hook people's interest is by showing what you've really got, by giving them real content on the homepage.
>WR: As i'm reading your homepage reviews, a few things stand out. The amount of graphics I'm seeing on popular pages has decreased while less popular sites sometimes use *all* graphics with *no* ALT text. Some common problems you find:
* Simplification of text and graphics is nearly universal * Duplicate links * Copy editing is lax and inconsistent capitalization is common * Overuse of exclamation marks
It seems as though these multibillion dollar companies can't afford to hire a copy editor.
>MT: Hard to believe, isn't it? Unfortunately, these unglamorous details often get overlooked. Often the content creators don't get the clout and headcount they need to do a great job. "Content cleanup and maintenance" just isn't a sexy item on the feature spreadsheet - but we know how important it is.
>WR: How would you summarize your approach? How should designers approach new designs or redesigns? Is it something like:
* Simplify both text and graphics * Use plain language * Adopt existing conventions * Be specific * Reveal content by examples not hype * Show benefits, and * Carefully copy edit?
>MT: Sounds good - want to be my spokesperson? :-) I'd add that it's not just a matter of copy editing, it's creating good content for online viewing from the beginning.
# # #
About the authors: Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is a User Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group which he co-founded with Dr. Donald A. Norman (former VP of research at Apple Computer). Until 1998 he was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer. He's written widely on usability and has published his semi-weekly alertbox usability column since 1995 at http://www.useit.com >. Dr. Nielsen's office can be reached at email@example.com.
Marie Tahir is Director of Strategy at Nielsen Norman Group. Marie previously managed the Human Factors group at Intuit, Inc., where she introduced and taught user-centered design methodology and oversaw the usability and design of the TurboTax and ProSeries product lines. Her work on the QuickenLoans Web application resulted in dramatically increased click-through and conversion rates, and she has been featured in ComputerWorld magazine and in textbooks on information systems. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 2. OTHER VOICES: Build Web Cred
>Build Web Cred
Stanford's Web Credibility Project shows how to build a site you can trust. http://www.webcredibility.org/ http://www.business2.com/articles/web/0%2C1653%2C17556%2C00.html Business2.0, Stanford University, Oct. 3, 2001
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 3. NET NEWS: Bush Administration Wants Its Own Internet
>Bush Administration Wants Its Own Internet
The Bush Administration, citing security concerns, has proposed a new Internet-like network be created to handle sensitive government information. The new network, dubbed GOVNET, is the brainchild of Richard Clarke, the newly appointed presidential adviser for Cyberspace Security. "Planning for this network has been going on for several months," says Clarke. http://news.excite.com/news/zd/011011/07/should-the-government ZDNet News, Oct. 11, 2001
That's it for this week, see you next time.
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