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Usability Analysis of This report is an analysis of factors affecting usability for the, a web […]

Usability Analysis of

This report is an analysis of factors affecting usability for the, a web usability site authored by Jakob Nielsen, renowned web usability curmudgeon.


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  1. 2

    I don’t know if criticizing is _easier_than creating, but it’s certainly different. To draw an analogy, film makers might not make good film critics, and vice versa, but that doesn’t make film criticism easy; it relies on a good deal of historical knowledge, critical thinking, and writing/presenting ability. Remember the days before Nielson jumped on the web bandwagon and was writing books like ‘Usability Engineering’? He was putting his PhD to work, setting the standard. That said, he’s no designer, and we shouldn’t expect to get the summer’s blockbuster web site from a critic.

    It seems our field is too young to draw this parallel of designer/creator and usability expert/critic, but I think we’re headed down that road, like we have in most human endeavors.

  2. 3

    It’s indeed easy to criticize, but they do have some valid points in there. I’ve gotten lost a couple of times on Nielsen’s site

  3. 4

    viktor, buddy. i know. criticizing IS easier than creating. interesting points you bring up and all, but once the framework is there and it’s your job to critique — that’s easier. it just is. think about it: any second year philosophy student should be able to come up with a reasonable critique of marxism, for instance; but sit them down and tell them to come up with something that robust…

    it is easier AND different.


  4. 5

    I’m gonna stubburnly disagree. Simple critique is easy; rigorous critique is difficult. Take George Bernard Shaw for example. He could write a book that would give you just as much pleasure as the symphony he was writing about. Sure the framework exists already, but he’d dissect it, compare it to other dissections, and incorporate new perspectives and insights, all with the finest language. Great criticism is an art form unto itself. I don’t know if web criticism has reached that level, but Jakob is coming as close as anyone else.

    Conversely, creating something lame is easy, but creating something great is hard.

    We only think criticism is easier because most of the examples we see are lame: sound bites telling us what we should and should not purchase. Criticism has been reduced to a ranking produced by a collaborative filtering algorithm.

    So there.

  5. 6
    Jonny Roader

    I don’t like this guy’s dodgy methods. This wouldn’t pass muster as a usability report in my department. Poor-to-fair undergraduate criticism of the professor!

  6. 8

    You said: Conversely, creating something lame is easy, but creating something great is hard.
    Have you ever purposely tried to make something lame? It’s harder than one would think.

    someone else said: Great criticism is an art form unto itself. I don’t know if web criticism has reached that level, but Jakob is coming as close as anyone else.
    If you define criticism as setting up a short list of “my rules” and then berating anyone who doesn’t follow them; then sure.
    But criticism is the opposite of horse shoes. Getting close to the mark without actually hitting it is a hindrance to BOTH parties. Someone thinks they got good advice and someone thinks they gave good critique. Both parties will wallow in self-satisfaction and not pursue the problem further.

  7. 9
    Adam, full on cold udon

    Great & long overdue, but to me it misses the central issue with Jakob’s magnum opus, which is that it’s uglier than a hatful of assholes.

    I use as an object lesson in how painful information retrieval can be made when completely divorced from aesthetic concerns.

    This is a point I (have tried to) make time and again in IA circles. Beauty actually assists in the completion of measurable usability tasks: by aiding recall, by orienting the user, even potentially by incentivizing the user incrementally beyond their simple desire for some piece of data. We are aesthetic beings, and we neglect this aspect of our selves at our own peril.

    Incidentally, by my lights, the fact that this central feature of fails to show up in an inventory of this nature is a signal indictment of a Nielsenesque methodology.

  8. 10
    Paul Nattress

    Cre@te Online magazine (Future Publishing) featured an analysis of in a past issue (I will try to find out which issue).
    Neilsen answered the criticisms (which were similar to those in the report mentioned above) saying that he understands that he does not always practice what he preaches and his excuse was that he is not a designer. He said he found is difficult to write for the web following the guidelines he has set himself – he admitted that he found it hard to do. Hats off to the guy for being honest about the whole thing…
    I’ll try to find an online version of this and post the link.

  9. 11

    …his excuse was that he is not a designer
    i hear that these “designers”, although sometimes difficult to deal with, can be hired for cash money. i’d be glad to sit down with jakob for a day and go over a personal one-on-one design makeover for a small fee.
    jakob, call me!

  10. 12
    Jonny Roader

    While I have to agree that is one fookin’ ugly site, I find it a joy to use. k10k, however, literally causes me pain, although it’s much prettier. My eyes strain very easily…I get headaches…I get behind in my work and my boss beats me…

    Adam’s rant over at v-2 is the best criticism I’ve ever read of Neilsen’s work. But I wonder how possible it is to combine beauty with usability when there is no acceptable way of measuring aesthetic appeal, no bottom line similar to the ‘task-time’ metric of usability studies. People harp on about the supposed beauty of sites like k10k, but I see (with difficulty) a site that is no more appealing than a Playstation booklet.

    Moreover, given the choice between Neilsen’s ugly usability (which lets me do what I want, choosing text-size for example) and the vision of some 20-something designer (imposed from on high, with no option to change) I know what I prefer. I’ve never seen a site where the aesthetic pleases everyone, where the usability is great, and where decent customisation is available. Balancing beauty and usability is one challenge.
    Factoring in freedom is another, and I can’t see why any of the designers listed at v-2 will have the solution.

  11. 13

    you wrote: Balancing beauty and usability is one challenge.
    I love a challenge.
    you also wrote: the vision of some 20-something designer (imposed from on high, with no option to change)
    I’ve met designers like that, and I’ve also met designers NOT like that. I’ve met designers who are very skilled at weaving beauty and usability together. I’ve met designers who understand how to enterpret and enhance business plans. I’ve met designers who wear bad shoes. But as long as we’re viewing design and usability as being diametrically opposed to each other we’re probably not going to attract those designers to work with us.

  12. 14
    Jonny Roader

    I agree 100%, which is why I defend Neilsen when he is unfairly slagged off. I also defend responsible designers with good ideas who value aesthetics but do not let it over-determine the appeal of a site. Working together – which is the point of the v-2 argument really – will bring brilliant results. I just think it will be very difficult, and that designers (etc.) and IAs (etc.) each have to be prepared to give way.

    I’d love to see some examples of the work of the designers you mention, btw.

  13. 15

    you wrote: I’d love to see some examples of the work of the designers you mention, btw.
    Check out the work of Derek Powazek, Richard Winchell, Lance Arthur and Zeldman, of course. At the agency level I’ve had the pleasure of working at a few where beauty and usability went hand in hand, most notably Small Pond Studios.
    For larger inspiration IDEO continues to design work that’s stunning in how it combines both into the higher realm of desirabilty. Their design makes you want to use something. Using it is generally followed by a nice “ahhh” moment.
    Of course, Tibor Kalman was doing it back when it was still referred to as an audience. No one worked an audience like Kalman.

  14. 16
    Jonny Roader

    Thanks for those Mike. I’m a huge fan of Zeldman’s work: his personal site and alistapart are probably the best examples I’ve seen of good looks and usability working well together. undesign is lovely too. I’m not sure about the usability of your other examples though. The smallpond site is built entirely in Flash; the IDEO site seems to think that alt tags are not necessary; Glassdog breaks in my old Netscape browser, etc. So, unless you’re discarding accessibility as part of usability, I can’t see how these sites solve the problems I was speaking of.

  15. 17

    you said: The smallpond site is built entirely in Flash
    and? the flash crticism needs to rise a level above “flash is bad. period.” while i’m not a huge proponent of flash myself, i think they use the tool very elegantly and it’s appropriate use for their audience.
    you said:
    the IDEO site seems to think that alt tags are not necessary

    IDEO has an amazing track record of building usable and desirable products. Desirable because they’re very usable, by the way. So, they blew the alt tags. Give ’em a call, they might give you a job.
    you wrote: Glassdog breaks in my old Netscape browser

    Once again, a question of audience. I don’t think Lance is expecting many housewives from Michigan to visit. (My aplogies to any housewives from Michigan who might be on this site.) Lance pushes the technology envelope. Some of the stuff he’s doing today will be widespread tomorrow.
    But, the curmudgeonly nitpicking aside, what kind of experiences did you have from these site? Once you noticed that IDEO had no alt tags did you move past that and look at their work? Did you notice how funny Lance is?

  16. 18

    Jonny, if you’re going to apply your own rules of what websites should be, without considering what went into making that site, then you’re missing the point. Every site has an audience, and a purpose. Yes, total accessibility can be important, but if a blind person visits (the main audience these days for ALT tags), they’re going to miss seeing all that design work they’re presumably wanting to check out.

    I wish Suck was still around. Their early days were a sort of useful criticism of websites. Not going down a checklist of what “should” be there, but a look at what the website is saying.

  17. 19

    it takes a village…

    I find it a bit ridiculous to criticise Jakob for not being able to design, or Lance (glassdog) Arthur of not being able to write cross-platform code (or wanting to). A professional site needs the talents of a designer, usability specialist, technologist, etc. if it wants to suceed in all those things. it is embarrassing that Jakob can’t make his own site usable. If he sat down and did a heuristic I bet he could come up with some recommendations he could then take. And yes, he does have the cash (unlike some of us) to hire a designer and a technologist and since it is his business reputation on the line, he really ought to do so.

    As for glassdog: it’s a PERSONAL SITE.

    as for small pond: It’s a DESIGN FIRM specializing in among other things– flash. It’s like complaining a pollock painting is not accesible to the blind.

    not every one can do everything, and not ever site is required to do everything.

  18. 21
    Jonny Roader

    It’s fair enough to state that some these sites have all been designed with particular audiences in mind: I’m not disputing that. It’s fair enough to state that glassdog has excellent content: I’m not disputing that. What I was wanting to know (and what I was trying to infer in the posts I made) was whether or not beauty and utility can be fully reconciled.

    All these sites, these ‘beautiful’ sites, make compromises that I have to question the necessity of – accessibility being a primary concern of mine in particular because I’m basically losing my eyesight. I’m not just working through some Jakobian checklist. I don’t think that Flash is necessarily bad, it’s just that I find HTML more usable. As for the IDEO site: fair enough, not all that many 100% blind people will be interested in a design site. Yet despite my failing eyes I’m still very interested in design, and the IDEO site makes no concessions to HTML text-reading. None at all. The whole textual content is held in graphics. As a consequence, it’s rather difficult for me to work out what IDEO are actually saying, Richard.

  19. 22
    Jonny Roader

    And one small point: what is it with this word ‘curmudgeon’? I object to the pejorative undertones of this term. If I really am just being resentful and stubborn then it’s because I’m sick of barriers being put up between me and the ‘experiences’ I could be having. Is that so bad?

  20. 23

    i use curmudgeon as a term of endearment. please don’t take it personally johnny. i’m an old curmudgeon myself.
    back to our regular program:
    you wrote: What I was wanting to was whether or not beauty and utility can be fully reconciled.
    I didn’t even know they’d broken up.
    As far as I’m concerned beauty and utility go hand in hand. It’s about desire. See also: how procreation works.

  21. 24

    beauty and utility are reconciled in most every good piece of design. that’s what makes them so good.

    i’m thinking here of area code parenthesis (ladislav sutnar designed those, you know), well-formed handles on coffee mugs, the pop-tops on soda cans, my new giro bike helmet, the ducati monster, etc.

    the examples are everywhere around us. you just have to look. i don’t think any websites are all the way there, but is pretty damn close. just to name one example.

    (i know all lower case isn’t as usable or readable, but sometimes i’m lazy like e.e. cummings)

  22. 25
    Jonny Roader

    I’m not implying that they have, or should be, broken up. I guess I’m not making myself too clear here. Let me put it this way. I agree that beauty and utility must be balanced for a good experience (have I said otherwise?). However, taking the IDEO site as an example, was there really no possible way that they could’ve used HTML text and still achieved an acceptable aesthetic? Is the compromise they have made – (subjective) beauty over (objective) accessibility – justified?

  23. 26
    Jonny Roader

    Tully’s is, once again, a site with virtually no HTML text! Sorry to nitpick here, but for me that is one site very far from striking a balance between good looks and good function. Slow as fuck from here in the UK too.

  24. 27

    I favor dean and delucca’s site– though their front page does exhibit some of your crimes (imagemap and no alt tags?!?!) once you are in the catalog it’s fast, easy to find your way around and beautiful. It is one of the more effective use of a breadcrumbs I’ve seen on a site

    Red envelope is probably the winner, though. While not as jaw-droppingly lovely, it is well designed and usable and well executed. Their html text is even relatively sized, so it scales up and down!! I use them to shop for relatives in far away places (like Iowa) and I think I’m back in my grandfather’s will, thanks to them.
    accesiblity=9 (maybe, I can’t perform all the tests.)

  25. 28
    Jonny Roader

    Much better examples, IMO. You barely even notice that you’re in a frameset at the D&D site. I’d score the Red Envelope side in about the same way i.e. more usable, less beautiful.

    Now, if only I could get these shipped to the UK.

  26. 29
    Adam, ko-he o nomitai desu ne?

    Try this one on for size:

    Beauty. Utility. Balance.
    And – here’s the kicker – the clean-to-six-sigmas aesthetic matches the product line perfectly.

    Now if he or she could only ditch the “content to come” lines…

    To me, this is a great example of a site that imposes very very few obstacles to a perfectly lucid usability, yet definitely has an aesthetic stance. What do you think the good Doktor Jakob might say about it?

  27. 30
    Jonny Roader

    DNS problems are preventing me from checking that one out, Adam, but thanks anyway.

    Just so that I’m contributing links too, check out Joe Clark’s site, which has a series of excellent articles on accessibility. Information apartheid is certainly one way of putting it: I’d like to see the makers of the IDEO site formulate an answer to this.

  28. 32
    Jonny Roader

    The point about Neilsen missing a great opportunity to speak about new tools and to the designers using those tools in a more productive way is well made. However, I think Julie Meloni has had misrepresented Neilsen here. It seems to me that they actually agree on the main point! In the infamous “99% bad” article his first and main point is simply that Flash encourages bad design. He never actually says that Flash is a bad tool, just that designers (and project managers, etc., to use Meloni’s own extension) use it poorly: “the use of Flash typically lowers usability”. Typically is the key word. Meloni has to elide this point for her article’s impact.

    Still, I suppose it’s not exactly fair to chide her for exaggerations and let Neilsen’s go.

  29. 33

    While the products at Lost Luggage are some of them quite nice, the site has one major flaw to it’s design. Nearly white text on a white background dies on my LCD screen. I can’t read any of the navigation.

    Yes, yes, I know I shouldn’t be looking at “design” sites on a laptop, God forbid useability include a non-standard system.

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