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An Euros 1 000 000 000 Book
Jakob Nielsen   Designing Web Usability - The Practice of Simplicity
New Riders Publishing 1999 /  / 432 pages
ISBN : 156205810X

Most of the books dealing with ICT’s are located somewhere between the quite useful but rather limited kind of the "how to" and prospective but rather imaginary science fiction-like descriptions. Jakob Nielsen’s book Designing Web Usability is definitively different from this mainstream. It is anchored in the reality of Web using -in a world where monitors are small and modem connections are slow- and aims to give hints to make the most of it. The standpoint is ergonomy (the discipline that studies how we relate to things in our everyday life) and the aim is improving what Nielsen calls the "usability" of a site: its ability to let its visitors surf with minimum difficulty and maximum enjoyment. That can be put in another way: a simple evaluation shows that ill conceived sites will cost about Euros 1 000 000 000 in 2001… Let us hope that Jakob Nielsen will help save some of it!

The book is indeed intended to help you with site making, but not in the sense that it would either teach programming or give advice on what e-business will make the reader a millionaire on the spot. It is rather a treaty on Web architecture, so to say. Jakob Nielsen does not give his opinion, but shares an analysis, based on research and experimentation. That is why his book is also a very useful tool for reflection: it gives a concrete and empirical understanding of what the Internet actually is. A generous display of illustrations and critical comments on actual Web sites, backs up the analysis, and gives the example of a perfect "usability" of a book.

The book shows what to do with a web site rather than how to do it. More often Jakob Nielsen tells you what not to do. Like: putting images all around, using graphics without "alt" comments, designing splendid sites that are unreadable on a small average monitor, stuffing them with applets that take hours to load, or even freeze the visitor’s computer (top recipe to loose potential customers by making them angry at you)… The list of the mistakes is long, - it actually lists most of what I did some day or another when making sites (Jakob Nielsen is kind enough to pretend that he did some of them, too)…

Very often those blunders come from an inverted perspective on what is expected from a web site. Most people forget the Nielsen’s "rule of the rules": a web site has to be convenient for the one who surfs on it; it is he who should be pleased, not the one who designs the site. Fast access is a must: Jakob Nielsen repetitively reminds his reader that after a second — yes! one (1) little second! — if nothing happens, you will probably loose your visitor; and any page of your site should be loaded in less than 10 seconds to keep the surfer’s attention. The information should be clear and short (on this aspect, we have very remarkable notes by Nielsen on what it is to write on the Web). The Web’s structure should not reduplicate the structure of the organization that owns the site: one does not visit the web of an organization for the sake of it but in order to find out information and/or products (the people who recently redesigned the French Prime Minister’s Web site obviously did not read this part). Too much originality is also a danger: it makes it difficult to navigate the site, for we, basic users, like to find out our way around using the knowledge we have from previous surfing experiences. However, the structure can be more complex on Intranets or Extranets; users have more familiarity with the site they use.

Jakob Nielsen notes that, like all the rules, the guidelines he gives are to be adapted: his book should serve as a reminder or a warning; when bypassing its recommendations, a second thought is a good thought. Eventually, Designing Web Usability is clearly a praise of "the art of simplicity" as the French translation puts it; but surfing on the Net unfortunately shows that simplicity is not… that simple. So, Jakob Nielsen’s book will be most useful to many…

Thierry Leterre
( Mis en ligne le 20/08/2001 )

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  • Conception de sites Web: l’art de la simplicité
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  • Conception de sites Web: l’art de la simplicité
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