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Keeping Sites Simple

Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity
By Jakob Nielsen
New Riders, 1999, 419pp.

Publishers usually relegate a book's subtitle to some small corner of the cover. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen, on the other hand, chose to give the subtitle of his latest book, "The Practice of Simplicity," first billing on the book's back cover. In his introduction, he explains that his message can be summarized in one sentence: "Relish simplicity, and focus on the users' goals rather than glitzy design." Nielsen concludes the book by reiterating his intention to help the Web "regain a level of simplicity that can put humanity at peace with its tools once again."

Clearly, Nielsen is not one for subtlety. Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity is a collection of tips and examples for designing—what else?—simple, and hence, usable Web sites.

Nielsen notes that designing for the Web is not just about making something visually pleasing, although that's the approach many designers take. The Web is the interface to a vast amount of information, and so the emphasis must be on usability, he says.

The problem is similar to that faced by designers of software user interfaces, with a few important differences. Nielsen points out that developers building GUIs for traditional software applications might have to account for screens varying in size from 640x480 to 1600x1200. Web designers, on the other hand, have to design an interface that may be viewed on anything from a large computer screen to a cellular phone. Additionally, Web designers must account for variations in connection speed, ranging from slow modems to T3s.

Simple Steps

To address these unique challenges, Nielsen presents an exhaustive list of specific rules for designing usable Web sites. While many of these rules seem obvious, Nielsen cites many studies that prove otherwise. For example, the author cautions against the overuse of images, stressing the need to keep response times short. However, as anyone who uses the Web knows, many sites continue to insist on overloading users with useless images.

Another of Nielsen's rules is to run a spell check on all documents, citing the role many Web sites serve in influencing visitors' perception of an organization. Not adhering to this rule could lead to embarrassment, as it did for one company that claimed on its site that it paid "the strictiest [sic] attention to detail."

These examples are the book's greatest strength, and Nielsen does an excellent job of integrating the examples into his rules. The author explores the evolution of Slate magazine's home page, and does a wonderful job of showing how the site resolved its early design gaffes.

One curious and somewhat ambitious chapter covers writing for the Web. The topic isn't normally covered in books for Web designers, but Nielsen once again manages to include some useful tips. Headlines, for example, don't translate well from printed publications to the Web. Catchy, clever headlines on printed publications benefit from additional visual context, such as subheads, kickers, and graphics, that explain the topic of an article. However, running a long list of story titles without the additional context—a common occurrence on many news Web sites—reduces some headlines to nondescriptive and often useless blurbs.

Nielsen also suggests including only one nugget of information per paragraph when writing for the Web. His book is written in a similar style, with each paragraph expressing exactly one point. Because of his conciseness, Designing Web Usability is extremely readable. It could easily be used as an organization's primary Web style guide.


While most of Nielsen's arguments are well-reasoned, some of his rules are unjustified. Nielsen explains that ending directory names in a URL with a slash when embedding them within an HTML document actually decreases response time. However, he then recommends against including the slash when listing the URL in a printed article, without offering a good reason. This seems counterproductive because designers are probably more likely to exclude the trailing slash in HTML files if they're not used to seeing them in print.

At another point in the book, Nielsen writes, "Although Web text should be short, it should not be without personality." This is about as useful as saying, "Don't be boring." Who wants their writing to lack personality? He later adds, "The correct amount of attitude in a Web page is: Not too much, not too little." One might just as well say, "The correct amount of attitude is just the right amount, no more, no less."

At times, Nielsen unfortunately decides to play the role of futurist, and in the process, makes some lame and unnecessary predictions. For example, he says, "Most current media formats will die and be replaced with an integrated Web medium in five to ten years." Nielsen cannot back up this statement with scientific studies or examples. It amounts to pure speculation, and as such, adds nothing to his goal of helping designers make Web sites more usable.

One final complaint is with the design of the book itself. On the whole, it's well laid out with the examples and sidebars conveniently placed along with the rest of the text. However, two design elements in particular detract significantly from the overall appearance of the book. First, the opening paragraph of each chapter appears on its own page underneath the chapter's title, with a white font on a colored background. Because most of Nielsen's paragraphs are short, it is easy to confuse these paragraphs with epigraphs and accidentally overlook them. Second, both the front and back covers of this paperback book have flaps that are folded in. This annoyed me, as it prevented the cover from staying shut when I laid the book flat.

Despite these minor problems, the book's strengths greatly outnumber its weaknesses. Nielsen has done a great service to the entire Web community by showing why simplicity in design is important, and by clearly explaining how to achieve it.

Eugene writes, programs, and consults on a freelance basis. He is currently writing a book on the history of free software, entitled Software, Money, and Liberty: How Source Code Became Free. You can reach him at

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