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Friday, August 22, 2008

Jakob Nielson and the "Over-designed" Web

So, Hank Williams posted on his blog last week about how Jakob Nielsen's web site www.useit.com is an eyesore. Hank's theory was that the lack of design on Jakob's page ultimately hurts its usability - when something hurts your eyes to read, you are less likely to read it.

I've found this to be true. I find Nielsen's site hard to read. I deal with it, because his writings were important in our Computer Graphics curriculum, and I think he has some really useful and pointed advice on practical usability testing. For example, several of our senior design project groups in CGT rolled with his theory that 5 usability tests are enough, and found that those tests caught all the bugs that might come up during a presentation / demo.

However, Doc Searls made a post on linuxjournal.com wherein he states that design is a bad thing, to be left up to the users and not dictated by THE MAN, or any other sort of designer. Opening paragraph:
Back in the mid-90s, when Linux was still at 1.something, website design was a simple exercise that left matters such as font choice up to the user. It was blessedly free of the Tyranny of Typography, the Legacies of Layout, and other controlling influences from the Provinces of Print. Better yet, it was free by design from withering rebuke by aesthetes whose high-minded "taste" made life miserable for both writers and readers. Back then the Web was meant to be maximally usable and minimally controlled by Authorities who knew more about what you need than you do.
Usability and design, of course, are potentially THE major flaws holding off mainstream adoption of Linux and open source software in general. I have had some pretty bad experiences with open-source software that ran with the "let the user pick everything with preferences" theory. I found Notepad++ to be nearly unusable in its downloaded state until I had spent hours sorting through poor font choices for code and comments (Comic Sans? Really?). Eventually I gave up and went with InType, which has better defaults. Same deal with the "build-it-yourself with plugins" music player foobar2000 - after trolling forums for a few hours in search of basic plugins that would get the features I wanted, I switched back to Winamp (and don't get me started on some of the 'skins' for that program).

I think this is what would ultimately happen to the web if we agreed with Doc Searles' view that the internet should be free of the "Tyranny of Typography." If everything was stripped to its 'glorious' raw-html formatting and rendered in OS default types, I think the web would become largely unusable. Not many people would waste their time customizing the defaults of their browser to make the internet fit them. Large, bold Times New Roman is an eyesore, and I could only take so much of it. Design allows branding and character, and if all web sites faded into a bland, terminal-like mesh of default-font text, they would become indistinguishable. Even the most amazing text would become bland and boring. I'm sure people would still use the internet - it's too quick and important a medium to be killed by a lack of design - but I don't think it would have caught on with consumers nearly as much, and I don't think most people would find it as generally appealing or useful. In short, it would be like Linux.

Doc Searles does have a point in that some sites abuse design, causing long loading times. But some sites like John Gruber's www.daringfireball.net manage to balance themselves out. Daring Fireball has a design that has been distinctive and eye-pleasing for years, uses few images, loads quickly, and looks great on my phone. Design can be used to brand a page, hold attention, and attract users without interfering with usability goals such as load times and mobile device visibility.

So, while I understand the mindset of the Doc, I disagree with his notion that designs on the web should be entirely left up to the user. I also disagree with Hank Williams' notion that just because Jakob's site is an eyesore, Mr. Nielsen has nothing useful to say about usability.

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Blogger Hank Williams said...

"I also disagree with Hank Williams' notion that just because Jakob's site is an eyesore, Mr. Nielsen has nothing useful to say about usability."

hmmm... I disagree with it too since that's not what I said. Specifically I said I quote him all the time. And I do, including in my blog.


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