Funny it should take me two and a half years at DSU before I finally read Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger’s Prioritizing Web Usability (New Riders: Berkeley, CA, 2006). Sure, my doctoral studies focus on knowledge management and decision support systems. But given how everything I.T. is switching to the Web,  I’m inclined to make Nielsen and Loranger required first-semester reading for anyone seeking a DSU diploma. Even if you’re not an information systems analyst or Web guru, the Web is becoming as common a mode of communication as good old business letters. Everyone should know the basics of formatting a business letter; everyone should know at least a few principles of designing a quick and effective Web page.

Some of my favorite bits of advice from Nielsen and Loranger:

Write simply. 43% of Americans read at or below an eighth-grade reading level. The English teacher in me wants to shout, “Well, they should have paid attention in school!” The marketer in me says, calmly, “They also have a lot of money to spend.” If your website targets a broad audience, aim for a sixth-grade reading level on your main pages. Maybe bump up to an eighth-grade reading level on deeper pages. (So far, this blog post scores a 9.6 on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale in MS Word.)

Sell with words. The best ads use text, not images. Web readers skip images and scan for words. So do search engines. If you want people to click, your best bet is to give them words that actually say something about what you’re selling. Apparently words are worth a thousand pictures.

Conform. This advice pains me, but on the Web, it makes sense. People spend most of their time on other websites (Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience, p. 78). During the tiny fraction of time they spend on your website, they don’t want to have to figure out strange new configurations or names for standard functions.

  • Don’t waste time coming up with creative names for your “About” and “Contact” pages.
  • Don’t lose sleep trying to reinvent the scrollbar; your customers’ browsers already have one, and your customers like it.
  • Don’t break the Back button! It’s the second-most used feature on the Web after hyperlinks. It lets users sally forth without having to remember every step. Don’t take those breadcrumbs away!

People don’t care about your website; they care about the content. Your website is a tool to convey that content. Give your customers a tool they already know how to operate so they can concentrate on the content they’re looking for.

Splash pages. Don’t. You don’t need a billboard to get people’s attention online. They’ve already punched in your URL or clicked a link. They will spend less than two minutes deciding whether your website has what they want. Don’t waste a second of that window of opportunity showing them a pretty splash page that doesn’t give them useful information and choices.

Rein in fonts and colors. I usually recommend no more than two fonts on a given page; Nielsen and Loranger say three is the limit. Just remember: people don’t like reading ransom notes. They also say limit your text colors to four (p. 235). And leave room in that color scheme for blue hyperlinks (since that’s what lots of users expect) and some different color for visited links (give users’ short-term memory a break by showing them which links they’ve already tried).

Ditch the three-click rule. Nielsen and Loranger are just part of the growing chorus of experts rejecting the conventional wisdom that every child page should be within three clicks of the homepage. Their usability tests show “users’ ability to find products on an e-commerce site increased by 600 percent after the design was changed so that products were four clicks from the homepage instead of three” (p. 322). Users would rather have several links telling them they’re headed the right direction at each step than think through just two or three lengthy lists of links and hope they guess the right place to click.

Be functional, not fancy. Nielsen and Loranger’s rejection of the three-click rule demonstrates a key point of their usability guidelines. They aren’t offering aesthetic judgments or elegant mathematical models. Their recommendations are based on user performance: certain design elements help users get what they want faster. Good graphic design matters, but good usability matters more. Your website doesn’t have to win artistic awards; it does have to help users find what they want. Think about the homepage of the most successful website in the world: Google.

Some designers may find the recommendations of Prioritizing Web Usability too restrictive. What do you think? Get the book, subscribe to Nielsen’s useit.com (and enjoy the throwback design), and see if their advice helps you make your nodes of the Web more usable.

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p.s.: Got the Flesch-Kincaid score down to 7.4. Not bad! :-)

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