A Process for Web Design — Usability author

Jakob Nielsen's "Laws"





Jakob Nielsen, proclaimed web usability expert first published a list of the top ten web design mistakes in 1996. For the most part, his original list of mistakes are still problematic today. He has also published a list of top ten "new" web design mistakes, as well as the top ten good deeds designers can implement in their web pages.

The information on this page comes mainly from these three articles, and I highly recommend reading through them and the rest of Jakob's Site. Many of the issues Jakob tackles are interrelated, and for our purposes I have summarized them into three categories:

  1. User Centered Design
  2. Standard Operation
  3. Author-Reader Relationship

If you design you web pages with these three categories as a framework, you will have more usable web sites, and happier users.

User Centered Design

The first principle states that: All design considerations should be settled according to the needs of the user. While you are the one that is designing your web pages, you are not the one that will be "using" them. New designers often try to use the latest flashiest techniques because they "look cool." Often these techniques only look cool once, so avoid using "leading-edge" web technologies, scrolling text, and excessive animation.

You also want your user to know "where" they are in your web space, so use headlines that clearly identify your page. Also, avoid opening new windows to take your users to a new page. The only time I would open a new window is if you have a small definition like the one in this sentence.

Consider that most users will not ply over big text blocks when viewing your pages. For this reason it is important to facilitate page scanning, so that users can decide if they want to read more. Also, avoid putting too much information on any one page. Keep your pages short, and use hypertext to structure you content.

Finally, when considering your users, keep in mind that your pages should be accessible to users with disabilities. There are web browsers for visually impaired persons that read the descriptive text for images. Many designers forget to put in a description of the image when inserting an image into their html document.

Standard Operations

One of Jakob's pet peeves appears to be pages that look and act differently. On first consideration it seems as though he is advocating boring style for the sake of usability. In fact, it is possible to practice good rules of design and stay (more or less) within Jakob's guidelines. Really what Jakob is advocating is that pages function in the same way, and page elements function the same way from page to page.

Perhaps the most annoying problem facing some web pages is slowing down or breaking the back button. Some sites use frames and javascript to manipulate which page order a user moves through. Jakob has found that the second most used navigational item (behind hyperlinks) is the back button. So if your page somehow makes it difficult or impossible (by opening a new window) to use the back button you will frustrate your users.

Another annoyance to users is what Nielsen terms "Non-Standard GUI Widgets." What this means is buttons (such as form items) that function differently than they were intended to be used. Nielsen's example is a radio button that when pressed makes a selection. The intent of the radio button is to make a selection when a users pressed the 'Submit' button on a form.

A related issue is non-standard linking colors. While this is not as much of a problem, most users are at least superficially aware that their links change color after being visited, and if you change this vaguely familiar color standard you merely cause unnecessary confusion. Jakob's basic rule on standardization is: Do as everyone else does.

Author - Reader Relationship

The final category of rules for usability speaks to the relationship of the author of the web page and the reader (or user). Interactions such as extremely slow download times will cause the user to get frustrated and not want to use your site. This can be caused by overly large pages or a slow server. The designer can't do anything to upgrade the server, but they can increase download time by being careful in graphic use, and graphic format.

Another important point that Jakob covers is that people generally want to know about the author they are reading. For this reason he advocates putting links to biographical and content information regarding the author on every page.

Final Jakob Thoughts

Jakob Nielsen is hardly exciting, and he can sometimes be annoying, but his rules are based on sound logic and research. Some things that I noticed about Jakob's site that you should consider when designing your own pages are:

  1. Jakob uses bold to facilitate page scanning. I've tried to copy this style.
  2. Jakob has lots and lots of inline links to related materials. This is how hypertext is supposed to be structured.
  3. Jakob uses different fonts than the standards. This can improve a site's look, just make sure your font choice is standard across page
Jakob's Laws | Graphic Arts Perspective | Aesthetic Principles | Conclusion