Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Prioritizing Web Usability (aka, the New Jakob Nielsen Book)

Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger treat us to a new trip down Obvious Lane. Whether you follow Jakob’s material or not, this book is a worthy read for every web designer. The King of Usability’s major beefs with the web are given a contemporary makeover with a surprising dose of reality. The result: it actually makes sense.

It’s hard to take every thing Jakob Nielsen says seriously, or at least without a considerable grain of salt. His tendency for overstating the obvious and reducing the web to the lowest common denomination of simplicity can be frustrating for mainstream designers, if only because we want to hear the usability message, just without the fire and brimstone delivery.

The bare bones design, ancient codebase and outright refusal to update the visual identity of his own website is a running joke. His first book, Designing Web Usability, was a runaway best-seller in web development, but is now a dust catcher on most book shelves because the content is so stale. Many consider Jakob’s time in the spotlight passed.

But consider Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger’s new book Prioritizing Web Usability to be Designing Web Usability 2.0. It takes a fresh look at usability in contemporary web design.

The book is split into two major themes. The first third of the material re-evaluates the original warnings in DWU and, if necessary, changes the level of threat these various items have on general usability with a scale of zero (non-threat) to three (you’re going to hell) skulls. Some, like pop-up windows, are more dangerous than ever; others, like always making links blue and underlined, have been given some slack. There are eight triple skull warnings:

  • Links that don’t change color when visited
  • Breaking the back button
  • Opening new browser windows
  • Pop-up windows
  • Design elements that look like advertisements
  • Violating web-wide conventions
  • Vaporous content and empty hype
  • Dense content and unscannable text
Cover of Prioritizing Web Usability

Nielsen and Loranger approach these warnings with a very pragmatic point of view. They readily admit that web users are getting smarter, and that some usability roadblocks aren’t as damaging as they were ten years ago. In fact, some major points of contention — such as orphan pages or dropdown menus — have been reduced to a non-threatening one or zero skull rating.

The remaining two thirds of the book prioritize critical usability issues facing web designers. Each is given a full chapter. Most are obvious (“well of course you need a search button”), but the authors dive into each topic with such explicit detail and supporting research that there are lessons to be learned on almost every page.

For instance DID YOU KNOW CONTENT WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS NOT ONLY LOOKS LIKE YOU’RE SHOUTING BUT SLOWS DOWN READING BY TEN PERCENT? (Jakob and Hoa also make their typography recommendations, but I won’t insult your intelligence by relating them here.)

The chapter on ecommerce should be read by every shopping cart developer out there. Never a man to shy from the most painfully obvious points, Nielsen recommends showing an item’s cost on the search results page without having to click it, revealing shipping costs before you purchase, and being able to shop and browse without filling out a registration form. This seems head-slappingly simple, except when you consider the number of sites that fail any number of these criteria.

If there’s one thing Nielsen and his cohorts do well, it’s qualify statements with supporting data. In fact, many of his online Alertbox articles are built around specific sessions of user testing. The first chapter (15 pages) of Prioritizing Web Usability is spent explaining their user testing for the book — who was tested, when they were tested, and with what websites.

This library of supporting evidence is reflected on every page of the book. Screenshot after screenshot reinforce the message, and almost every single one is quantified by direct quotes from the test subjects. The bottom line: Jakob Nielsen is not making this stuff up.

After reading the book, you get the feeling the authors’ goal is to establish that lowest common denomination of usability. Yes, it’s obvious material, but legions of web designers continue to ignore what’s in the best interest of their audience.

So do I recommend Prioritizing Web Usability? Yes. Without hesitation. First, it’s an entertaining read — fast-paced, loaded with screens and interesting all the way. Second, it’s a reality check. By advocating the web user, Nielsen and his cronies are showing the designing masses the errors of our ways, and the simple things we can do to make our audience’s stay more enjoyable / less painful.

Some of the best authors in our field are not always the most widely accepted. Like Joe Clark, Nielsen takes a hard edge and doesn’t budge because he believes he’s the expert. And until someone else takes the reins and produces the amount of research and testing our author has through his career, he will remain, as he likes to remind everyone, the “King of Usability.”

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commentary + criticism


wrote the following on Thursday August 24, 2006

He’s funny looking. Good review, although it didn’t make me want to read the book.


wrote the following on Friday August 25, 2006

I may have to check that out. I’m not one of those Jakob haters, I tend to think most of the time he is probably right, even if I don’t want to admit it, but its good to hear he has relaxed on some things (e.g. hyperlink colors).

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but that jacket design really leaves a lot to be desired – yuck!

Good review!

Nate K

wrote the following on Friday August 25, 2006

I am just finishing up the last few chapters of this book right now and have enjoyed it so far. It wasnt AMAZING by my standards – for the same reasons you stated – He always overstates the obvious. He has good advice, and putting it all in this book gives you a central place to research different elements.

I just finished “Dont Make Me Think” by Steve Krugg and appreciated it much more due to his non-degrading tone. As a web developer, I am always open to critique. If I wasn’t, I wouldnt be able to refine my work and make things better. But sometimes I feel like Jakob will ALWAYS find something wrong, and some of his findings seem to be of more personal preference.

I still consider him to be a great resource, and I have enjoyed this book so far – it just wasn’t anything earth shattering.