Jakob Nielsen vs. The Designers

Jakob Nielsen is a purported “expert” on web usability, though his theories are often subject to controversy. To quote Wikipedia:

Nielsen is a leading web usability pundit, with an expertise based on human factors engineering, but he has earned the ire of graphic designers (such as those at A List Apart) for failing to balance the importance of other user experience considerations such as eye appeal.

That’s a major oversight, in my opinion. I’ve read a couple of Mr. Nielsen’s books, as well as some online articles, and while he does have some very good points on usability, I disagree with many of his teachings.

I simply can’t agree that Nielsen’s UseIt.com is a well-designed website. It looks like a relic from the mid-90s, and my eyeballs nearly bleed when I look at it. (The two multi-colored columns are probably a large part of it.) It looks absolutely horrible, yet I’m sure it reads great in screen readers, prints well, works in text-only browsers, loads quickly at 56k, and follows 95% of the Nielsen usability principles.

However, by building a website in that manner, Nielsen overlooks the majority. The vast majority of web users are running Internet Explorer 6+ or a standards-compliant browser, and a web pages aesthetics matter to them.

Nielsen may have some good points, but I say they should be taken with a grain of salt. In the modern internet, aesthetics matter quite a lot, and are every bit as important to the usability of the internet as Nielsen’s guidelines. Just look at your own browsing habits. Analyze sites you use on a regular basis. What do you notice?

The best-designed sites are the ones that pay attention to little details, and create a great-looking design while putting effort into usability. Web design is all about a balance between aesthetics and usability. Just as Nielsen’s site, which focuses on usability exclusively, is not the way a site should be built, neither is a Flash site that focuses entirely on looks. A website has to have a balance of both, and that balance is what determines whether a site is well-designed or not.

Further Reading

  • http://www.tnsmediagroup.com Trevor

    Excellent and ongoing debate. Useit.com could certainly use a little agency influence.

  • http://techzilo.com/blogging/ Sumesh

    I think you’ll find that many such ‘guru’s can only teach, but not practice.

    I have nothing personally against them, but take the example of Smashing Magazine authors – they hired others to code the theme. Mike Castilla (who is, coincidentally, a friend of mine) of WPCoder hired a designer for the redesign of his own webpage, while he offers design services. I think offering your design service/expertise while getting designs done elsewhere is bad, just as Nielsen’s problems.

  • http://stevenclark.com.au Steven Clark

    I’ve seen Jakob’s comments about useit.com before, and he doesn’t advocate that his website is either usable or that it should be emulated. Similarly to the W3C site, it’s a text dump of information and reports. The W3C doesn’t follow their own guidelines quite often either, plenty of invalid pages in there and very hard to read too.

    I do take exception to some of the things he’s said over the years, too. But it’s research done by organisations like theirs that provide a lot of information about eye tracking and a bunch of other stuff – Jared Spool would be another leading researcher in these areas, or Luke Wroblewski. The emphasis should be always on taking their research findings and applying them contextually to real world projects – being aware of banner blindness or limited attention span or the way eyes scan a page. I’m not sure literal interpretation of any scientific theory about user behaviour should be followed as a dogma, what we find and believe today does change as further research is undertaken (similar to any scientific endeavour – HCI is no different).

    Ultimately we take that information into account when we design and attempt to meet our business case (because we want to make money).

    So I’m not entirely sure the context of your post is correct. Jakob Nielsen actually doesn’t want sites to look like his site, nor does he ever recommend we do so. And he’s on the record for saying so many times over as this is a regular criticism. If I recall, he even says that in his books.

  • http://www.webmaster-source.com Matt

    @Steven, but if you’re trying to be an authority on such matters, shouldn’t your website adhere to them? It doesn’t give a good first impression, that’s for sure.

    I recall one of his books saying that the reason the site hasn’t ever had a redesign is because of branding. It’s recognizable, so it’s stayed the same. I think that’s a big mistake. A web site such as Nielsen’s (and don’t get me stated on the W3C, Steven…) should be built to follow the guidelines they’re preaching.

    I know that Nielsen is one of the ones behind much important research, and I agree with plenty of his theories, and disagree with others. But his books seem to recommend overzealous usability design with no regard for aesthetics at all.

  • http://www.joshuaclanton.com/blog Joshua Clanton

    Interesting thoughts, though I would hesitate to say that Nielsen’s site is badly designed until you specify what you mean by design.

    In my typical usage, design = aesthetics + usability. While useit.com certainly does poorly on the aesthetics front, it does so well on the usability front that I’d still call it good design. In fact, it bears a rather striking resemblance to 37Signals blog design (svn.37signals.com).

    Regarding hiring another designer to design your site, I don’t find that problematic in the least. A lot of people have trouble writing/designing for themselves because of a perfectionist streak, but put out amazing work for others.

    • http://www.webmaster-source.com Matt

      @Joshua Clanton, I agree with “design = aesthetics + usability.” Both are important, but if a site has a lot of one, and not much of the other, it’s not as good a design as it could be. I agree that it does have a bit of a resemblance to the 37signals blog, but 37signals has done a much better job in my opinion. There’s plenty of whitespace, the text is laid-out and sized in an easy to read manner. It looks much better organized, and though it’s a little light on visual style, it looks a lot more tasteful than Nielsen’s site. Perhaps SVN is UseIt.com the way it should look?

  • http://stevenclark.com.au Steven Clark

    At the same time we should realise that usability expert doesn’t mean graphic designer or web developer. Plenty of info architects and card sorters and researchers have never hit code in their lives. I’d find it a pretty boring career myself, although usability itself is interesting enough. Recently reading Indi Young’s Mental Models I found the entire mid section partly interesting and mostly jaw gnawingly tedious. Some people thrive on the same book though, go figure ha ha.

    You make a valid point though between practitioner and researcher. Once we recognise that Jacob Nielsen is a researcher it should become pretty obvious that his site would be crap from the web design stance. So I tend not to expect it of him. I’m more interested in the book coming out in a few months about eye tracking research.

  • Carsten B.N.

    Calling Jakob Nielsen a hypocrite because of his web design, well, isn't it directly critiquing a scientist because he's not a good designer? An unrealistic expectation. His job is finding information and making conclusions from it, just look at the prices for those full reports.

    The information that Jakob Nielsen and others bring us as web designers is invaluable. He should be mandatory reading for any serious web designer, and having read him, he does indeed encourage web designers to take of his information and make the Web a much more comfortable place. Aesthetics are not being undermined here.

    Thinking it does is a sign that one has not read his texts clearly enough – I'd recommend seeking a career in print rather than web design because it is an entirely different form of design.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/redwall_hp redwall_hp

      It has been proven that the look of a site matters greatly in web design. Failing to hire a designer and build a site up to today's standards, standards that Nielsen had a hand in setting, is just plain folly.

      The site doesn't meet many of Nielsen's own principles, which is quite ridiculous. The site is hard to read, and not really scannable. The individual article pages, but the front page, the main navigational method, is a mess. The clashing color scheme makes matters worse.

      I have nothing against Nielsen's writings, but he could do to follow them himself.

      Oh, and tables?

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  • http://www.webandgadgets.com Mary

    Hello Matt,

    I found your article as I was writing mine about Nielsen’s Useit.com. I agree with you about trying to have a balance between usability and design. In defense of his website, Nielsen has referred to Don Norman’s book “Emotional Design”, which states designs work at 3 levels: visceral (the initial impact/appearance), behavioural (look and feel; total experience of using the object) and reflective (the prestige or how people feel about it afterward). Nielsen says his website works really well at the reflective level and quite well at the behavioural level. He admits it sometimes annoy people at the visceral level. What I don’t understand is why he doesn’t try to make it work at the visceral level as well? Norman’s book does have a chapter about how attractive things are perceived to work better by users. But it seems Nielsen chooses to ignore this.

    Anyway, in my article, I also mention a few elements I feel are usability issues: the lack of a menu, questionable terminology and content organization, no real site identity, and some hard-to-scan pages. You can read my arguments here: http://www.webandgadgets.com/w.....useit-com/

    As for tables, haven’t you heard? It was determined in 2009 that you can now use them, see rule #10 here: http://www.webdesignerdepot.co.....can-break/



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  • http://www.cwi.nl/~steven Steven Pemberton

    Criticising Jakob Nielsen for not having an aesthetic website is like criticising a gun designer for being a bad shot, or a choir conductor for having a bad singing voice. It misses the point.

    And as far as I recall, he only reports on actual results of tests with people using websites, so they are not opinions you can disagree with. If you think his tests were wrong, then you should run your own tests to prove it.