Designing Web Usability, Jacob Nielsen

New Riders, 1999, 432 pages, C$67.95 tpb, ISBN 1-562-05810-X

As someone who does web stuff for a living, it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a book on the subject that will teach me new things. While there’s a huge demand for introductory material (HTML for Dummies, Introduction to Web Design, this sort of stuff), the market is far narrower for professional-level books and reference material.

Part of this scarcity can be explained by the twin factors of media and maturity. Obviously, the best place to find information about the web is on the web, not in bookstores. Only the web can cope with the lighting-fast pace of change that is the norm in Internet Time. Pro designers are advised to have a list of bookmarks, not a shelf of books. Furthermore, Web Design as a discipline is still in its infancy. Even the best professional shops are still, at some level, not completely sure of what they’re doing. (as a look through their own corporate web sites will quickly reveal) There are no “rules” anywhere, only guidelines. The formal literature is quasi non-existent.

In this context, Jacob Nielsen’s work (at http://www.useit.com/) is a breath of fresh air. He’s been in the usability business for more than ten years, and is constantly one of the most reasonable voices in the business. For Nielsen, Web Design is subvedient to one, and only one factor: What users want. You are not designing a brochure, you are not designing your CEO’s pet site; you are designing for your users. Only they matter. Only what they want, and how easily they find it, matters.

Elementary, you’ll say. And yet, in this crazy business where more tech is seen as a natural advancement, it’s curiously down-to-Earth advice. Designing Web Usability is a worthwhile book-length elaboration on this thesis.

For once, this is not a book for beginners or pointy-haired managers; Nielsen speaks the lingo and won’t make allowances for anyone who can’t follow. The baggage of knowledge assumed by the author is broad, but not too onerous; even budding webmasters will be able to make use of the book.

Ironically, there are maybe ten lines of HTML code, max, in the whole book: While intensely technical, this is a book that deals with more advanced concepts than simple coding, and who will probably age better because of it.

This being said, there are at least two weak points in Designing Web Usability. The first one isn’t Nielsen’s fault, given that it’s the occasionally-annoying page design, with its weird color and perplexing layouts. The other is a lack of a clear structure; while Nielsen’s intention seems to be to go from simple web page design to more overarching issues, this isn’t re-enforced in the writing. This lack of structure is also cause for some repetition late in the book.

Still, these two flaws are minor, and don’t really distract from the Nielsen’s main argument, which is minutely detailed with solid arguments and research. It’s one thing to present common-sense concepts, but it’s another to back them up with facts. This blend of entertaining writing, common-sense opinions (“Frames: Just say no”) and hard facts (Frames break information unity, aren’t indexed by search engines and are often inaccessible by the disabled) makes it easy to imagine a good future for Designing Web Usability as an essential read if not a classic in the field.

The book, in short, deserves to be read by anyone who’s seriously doing web design. Nielsen’s advice is sound and easy to apply. This is both a book you’ll read cover to cover, and you’ll refer to at appropriate times. Don’t be put off by the steep cover price; this is worth every penny you’ll spend on it.

In his introduction Nielsen promises that this is the first book of a series. Let him bring on the second one. And, for the sake of all web user’s sanity, let’s hope that his books find a wide readership: We could all use faster, simpler, smarter web sites.

(Pro web designers in love with frames, fancy graphical designs, big contracts with gullible clients and/or their own cleverness should steer clear of this book… they’ll feel naked after reading it.)

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