Can Usability and Design be Friends?

Strong feelings abound regarding usability and design, especially in discussions that mention or include Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen’s July 23rd Alertbox issue declared,

"End of Web Design

Websites must tone down their individual appearance and distinct design in all ways:

  • visual design
  • terminology and labeling
  • interaction design and workflow
  • information architecture

These changes are driven by four different trends that all lead to the same conclusion:
1. Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience...
2. Mobile Internet...
3. Network Computing...
4. Syndicated Content and Services..."

[For brevity I have not included ALL the text here. I encourage reading Nielsen’s article online if you haven’t already.]

So many have understood this article to say that all Web designers must quit designing Web sites and go find something else to do. It sounds like we’re back in school being told that we must wear uniforms and all look alike, behave alike and turn into robots.

Needless to say, Nielsen got blasted all over the Web for this article.

But.... is that what he’s really saying?

With my lot in life as Peacemaker, especially during times of war like this, I want to be objective, open-minded, listen to all sides, seek compromise, a middle ground. There must be firm middle ground, though, a strong basis for my stance that makes sense, or I’ll be tossed out the door.

I’ve checked back at Nielsen’s site, knowing that he may post a follow-up, a response, comments.... something. I wanted to see if he might post some of the backlash, clarify his article, back up his position more, or otherwise explain in further detail what he means.

Part of the comments:

"Tom du Pré writes:
Although in principle, I agree with the majority of your points, I think some are only effective and useful in an idealistic, marketless, and dare I say Communist world...Excluding high loyalty sites, the reasons why people log on to the internet is that they expect to find something new and interesting."

An excerpt of Nielsen’s response:

"...Consider the analogies of television and newspapers: there is huge uniformity in the design of these products in terms of the user interface. Only the content differs. And I did note that the content would continue to be different for different sites."

Nielsen continues with further analogies. OK, now this begins to make a little more sense. Too bad he didn’t explain this a whole lot better in his article.

While Nielsen’s initial statements were indeed quite drastic, not surprisingly resulting in a huge backlash and heated discussions, I’m beginning to wonder if his bottom line is not quite as extreme as the impression given in the article.

If Nielsen isn’t trying to throw all the Web designers into the unemployment lines, is he demanding that we all wear school uniforms and suspend us if we refuse to comply?

The Web Standards Project is pushing for browser standards. Could it be possible that Nielsen is seeking a similar goal with usability? Maybe. If that’s the case, unfortunately his current approach produces tremendous misunderstanding (especially among Web designers), anger, a contest to redesign Nielsen’s Useit.com Web site, and (among other things) even an online game, Driving Over Jakob Nielsen.

Why does it matter what Nielsen really means?

I’ve observed with discussions and opinions about Jakob Nielsen and others that someone who has been repeatedly perceived as having extremist views loses credibility by those who perceive him to be extreme, even if many points are valid and not necessarily extreme. This potentially ends up being counterproductive, not only to Nielsen but also to practical usability issues that truly need to be addressed and considered.

So, in regard to my peace-making mission here, is peace possible? My own philosophy includes finding a balance and utilizing the best of these worlds to complement each other. Here’s what I mean:

Designers need to be cognizant of how users browse the Web and design Web sites that are easy for the users (which users and how extreme to take this is a thesis of its own to be saved for future columns). We must address the target audience and design accordingly and appropriately. When a designer considers and utilizes how users will navigate through the site, peruse content, and perhaps shop for products, a more user-friendly design approach can be achieved.

Designers also need to consider the accessibility needs and take appropriate action (once again, material for an entire thesis!). This doesn’t mean plain vanilla design. It means allowing for accessibility needs.

I’ll use an analogy with buildings to describe what I mean. Accessible buildings with stairs up to the entrance include a ramp for wheelchair users. That doesn’t mean they blow up the stairs and make everyone use the ramp. They can coexist and can even be visually appealing within their coexistence. Once inside, the walkways are wide enough for easy wheelchair maneuverability, but people walking aren’t impeded. Seating areas co-exist with wheelchairs, doors either open automatically or have knobs that are easy for wheelchair users to open and also work fine for those not in wheelchairs.

So, sometimes everyone can use the same things, and sometimes there are options, depending on the need. Overall, though, the design, navigation, and site architecture must be easy to understand and flow well throughout the Web site.

Designers and usability experts can gain much from each other, utilizing their specialties for the common good. While this in part may be my Peacemaker approach, it’s also a practical approach that realistically works well.

There are many Web sites that take these elements into consideration and do a good job of it, having great usability and a pleasing design. Here are just a few.

I’ve clearly only touched the tip of the iceberg here. More in the days ahead....

05:15 am, pst12 December, 2000 Comments, Trackbacks ·';}?>

Categories: Design, Usability


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