Jakob Nielsen has spent the past 15 years pioneering the art and the science - but mainly the science - of user interfaces. Exhibit A: the Web. Yet if you ask him to name the most user-friendly sites, he protests: "Most sites don't work from a user standpoint. The design is confusing. It takes too long to move from page to page. Most companies don't understand Web business - or the Web itself."
Nielsen is making it his business to change all that. In 1994, after a stint at IBM's User Interface Institute, he joined the usability lab at Sun Microsystems, where he served as a "distinguished engineer" until this past summer. In August, he joined forces with Don Norman, former head of research at Apple Computer, to create a consulting firm aimed at helping companies "enhance the user experience."
Nielsen's Web-reform movement covers many fronts. This year alone, his eminently usable site (www.useit.com) has attracted more than 5 million page views. He's also a popular speaker at conferences, and he's written a series of books, including Designing Excellent Web Sites: Secrets of an Information Architect (forthcoming from New Riders Publishing, November 1998). His core message: "In the 'attention economy,' anyone trying to connect with an audience must treat the user's time as the ultimate resource. Most Web sites squander time shamelessly."
In an interview, Nielsen offered Fast Company some easy-to-implement ideas for improving Web design.
What's wrong with Web design?
Too many Web designers substitute a marketing agenda for a focus on what customers want. Users want speed, utility, and credibility - not portals, banners, or even community. And speed is the overriding criterion: Minimalist design rules.
One phrase sums up the dominant mentality of the Web user: "I'm driving." People don't spend lots of time on any one page, because in order to feel that they're accomplishing something, they have to keep moving. The best kind of site shows users what each page is about and then quickly gets them to the next page.
Why don't more sites work that way?
Most developers fail to treat the Web as a new medium with new rules. The dominant metaphor is TV - think "channel," "show," and "eyeballs." But the Web is an interactive, one-to-one medium in which everyone can be a producer or a publisher.
It isn't like newspapers or magazines either. At IBM and at Sun, we studied how people read on the Web. What we discovered is - they don't! They scan. Only 16% of Web users actually read word by word. So, on any given topic, people should write about half as many words for the Web as they would for the printed page.
Are we all Web writers now?
The ability to communicate online will be one of the most important job skills of the 21st century. At Sun, almost every project has its own Web site. So almost everyone at the company is a writer for the Web. By 2001, there will be about 200 million people throughout the world designing intranet pages. The ability to produce 'microcontent' will be a highly prized talent. Such microcontent could be a good Web page - or even a good subject line for an email message. A good subject line, like a good Web site, answers the question "Why should I pay attention to this?"
What about the Web do you like?
The best Web sites are better than reality. Too much Web design falls into the trap of emulating the physical world in order to make users feel at home. The real promise of the Web is to give users what they can't get in the physical world.
Take Amazon.com. The site asks authors to complete an electronic "self-interview template." That way, it can interview thousands of authors at once - something that you can't do in the physical world.
There are lots of ways to be better than reality. You can be nonlinear: Thanks to links and short pages, Web users control their experience. You can be asynchronous: Users can resume a 'conversation' without having to reestablish context. You can be unconstrained by geography: Users can access a site from their home, office, or car, or from anywhere in the world. Finally, you can be anonymous - and if users don't have to reveal who they are, they may be more willing to do certain things.
You can reach Jakob Nielsen by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Visit his new company, Nielsen Norman group, on the Web (www.nngroup.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.