Prioritizing Web Usability

Reviewed August 26th, 2006 @ 03:04PM

[Book Cover] Prioritizing Web Usability

Prioritizing Web Usability by Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger can best be described as a more ‘strict’ approach to web usability. If you have been in web development for any extended period of time it is likely that you have heard the name Jakob Nielsen. He offers great insight to web usability and has for many years. Some may view him as strict, some as normal, and still some as way off his rocker. No matter how you view him, he deserves much respect for his time spent in usability studies and the (somewhat timeless) statistics and information he brings to the table. I just finished reading this book, coupled with “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug, and appreciated what all of the authors’ could present through statistics, screenshots, and customer insight.

The first part of this book focused on revisiting early web usability findings. This dealt with discussing the aspects of web usability that have progressed since his first book. He went through each of them and re-evaluated their score. His scoring method was based on 1-3 skulls, with 3 representing major problems and 1 as not as problematic. He goes through each of them and asserts why (or why not) they received their specific rating. Many of these deal with the basics of web development such as underlining links, using animation or other intensive use of graphical elements, and the structure of pages. I found this section to be a great resource, but the best of the book was still yet to come.

The middle chapters (I would break this book into thirds), discussed assessing your website and potential usability problems. The chapters focused on such things as: Search, Navigation and Information Architecture, Typography, and Writing for the Web. Each of these chapters plunged deep into the root of how users interact with each element.

  • With search, it included such things as where the search box is placed, how it is worded, and how easily results are returned. He examined several sites and their search results — giving feedback to their listing and usefulness. The concept of Search Engine Optimization was also discussed here, giving you insight on how to optimize your internal website to interact with the larger search engines.

  • Navigation and Information Architecture was interesting, but I don’t believe much as changed in the past few years. Users are accustomed to many different elements when browsing a website (a standard, if you will). Many times when this is broken it causes the user to have to stop, spend time thinking about the site, and then interacting (if they stay in it that long).

  • Typography was discussed in detail, and I found this to be an informative chapter — even if you are not a designer. It lets you know what fonts are common for web browsers, the difference between serif and sans-serif and its effects on users and their reading pattern, and using case and spacing (and color) to present your content. These are often the little things that are overlooked when developing a website, and he gives several examples of typefaces in page structures.

  • Writing for the web is somewhat of an art. Many companies rely on marketing ‘fluff’ to get content in place. This strategy is more harmful than helpful as people are in search of your content — and if they get fluff or can’t find what they are looking for, they can instantly go to another website. Through this book, and others, I have found that the key to successful copy on the web is: Keep it Short.

The last part of the book discussed e-commerce, product page structure, using technology that works, and finding design that works. Again, I don’t feel that there was anything earth shattering or new mentioned — but reinforced with up to date websites and common mistakes.

  • When discussing technology that works, he made mention to accessibility. He states:

    “An accessible site is one that removes obstacles that get in people’s way; removing the obstacle overcomes the disability.”

  • In design that works he emphasizes the practice of simplicity. He makes the analogy of interior decorating. He states that:

    “An amateur decorator might pack a living room with a jumble of furniture styles, patterns, and textures in a misguided attempt to dazzle. In contrast, skilled designers carefully select items that support their clients’ needs, ruthlessly eliminating those elements that do not serve a real purpose.”

    Basically, assessing each element of your design and asking if it simplifies the user experience or adds value. If it doesn’t, then remove it!

  • The steps to finding a design that works involves evaluating new technology.

    “There will always be new technology, but setting your sights too high backfires. Early adopters are a minority.”

This book is an invaluable resource for anyone doing web development and is highly recommended if you want to really understand your users and their habits. It is a fairly quick read and is packed with up-to-date screenshots and statistics.