I spoke to Nielsen on the phone from London, England, where he had traveled as part of his world lecture tour on Web usability. Nielsen eats, drinks and sleeps the subject. He's the author of nine books on user interfaces, including his recently published "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity." He's quoted everywhere, from The New York Times to Financial Times.
Web site designers make all kinds of mistakes, says Nielsen, a Ph.D. who has done the research to back up his views. The biggest mistake is simple egotism. "Web designers believe they and their sites are important," he says. "They're not."
Just because those involved in a Web project care about it doesn't mean surfers or site visitors will. There are now 20 million Web sites to choose from and more than two billion pages of content.
IT'S HOW USERS ACT
In this age of the consumer, Nielsen advocates turning the tables. "It's not what you think about your site that counts. It's what users think about it," he says. "And even more important than what users say they think is how they act."
When visitors arrive at a page on your site, do they quickly find what they want? In general, most don't, and they back out faster than they would slam shut a poorly written book or walk out of a poorly directed movie.
It only seems that the Web is all about technology, says Nielson. Web sites are no different from books or movies in that the user experience is paramount, not tools such as printing presses, movie cameras or Web multimedia.
The most important thing designers can do to make the Web a user-friendlier place is test their sites with real people. Surveys and analysis software are no match for direct observation, says Nielsen.
Small sites that can't conduct formal tests still can benefit from adopting a user's perspective. Surfers should know almost immediately upon landing on your home page why they should stick around. Just as with an article or ad in a newspaper or magazine, you need to quickly communicate what's in it for them.
SIMPLE, NOT DUMB
You also need to optimize users' experiences for the duration of their stays.
Because it's more difficult to read from a computer screen than paper, strive for brevity with your content. For those users who want all the details, give it to them with links to interior pages.
Because most people like to know what they're getting into, be clear with headlines, not clever or punny. If you need to include longer text passages, also include subheads that summarize key points.
Because most people don't like to be led astray, clearly label links indicating where each leads. Consider providing a site map or index that displays all the interior links for those who want to get their bearings from the outset.
Because most people like to feel in control, provide navigational buttons to the site's major sections at the edge of all or most pages. Consider including an internal search engine so users can quickly home in on what they're after.
Because most people hate waiting, minimize use of big graphics and fancy animations. Most people still use dial-up modems, and many will escape out of a page that draws too slowly to screen. If you include photographs, include small versions with links to larger ones for users who want more detail.
In short, keep it simple, Nielsen is saying. This doesn't mean dumbed down. It means clear, quick and easy—intelligible.
There's nothing more important than heeding usability tips such as these when creating Web sites, says Nielsen. "On the Web," he says, "you have design Darwinism—survival of the easiest."
A shakeout is underway in the dot.com world with shaky Web sites going under. Nielsen believes the survivors five years from now will be sites that make usability the driver of their strategy. Though this may be a bit overstated—sites also need quality content, and e-commerce sites need a solid business plan and good customer service—usability shouldn't be underplayed.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.