Monday, October 24, 2005

Blogs and usability

Jakob Nielsen is a leading proponent of usability: the principle that the design of website and user interfaces should be based on how users behave, rather than how a crazed web designer wants to impress other crazed web designers. His website is usually a fount of common sense in a world where such things are still rare. However, in his most recent column, he addresses the principles of usability as applied to blogs. He says some sensible things: that a 'journal', sequential, structure, may be easy to set up but is a real pain for latecomers trying to find popular entries, so you really need to provide links to favourite old posts (it is no coincidence that I have done this already). But he also claims that users will judge a blog partly on its domain name, and be very sniffy about those who really of free resources like Blogger. To me this smacks of the mentality of those who buy a gold fountain pen to lend their writing style, or buy an expensive sports car so that they can sit in a traffic jam in style. The whole issue of domain squatting has a nostalgic feel to it these days- as if anyone tried to find Charles Dickens' website by typing in They certainly wouldn't try it twice, since this would inevitably lead to a strange Biblical prophecy site, online poker, or dating (interesting sidelight on who they think uses the Internet, isn't it?).

Nielsen's comments have led to many responses, predicatbly, since he has been annoying web designers for years by saying things like 'Flash is crap'. I understand he now believes Flash is great, but, no, he was right first time. There's an interesting
parody of a usability report on a portal to initiate nuclear war. The authors do not realise, however, that they actually support what Nielsen is saying- that website users do not want to have to learn to use every new website from scratch, that poor usablity will discourage less-motivated users, and users need to be able to control their visiting experience. In recommending that (commercial) websites avoid 'cutting edge' untried innovative techniques in favour of established, dull, run-of-the-mill ones that work, he is giving good advice to the world outside the design community. I sometimes wonder whether Gutenberg spent his entire life trying to persuade his unadventurous customers to explore the potential of his new technology: "oh, sure, you can read it- but I have these flashy new typefaces which give a real trendy feeling-or we could print pages alternately up and down so that the reader isn't constrained by that stale old left-to-right start-to-finish straitjacket- or we could print on light-degradable papers so the user can experience the book falling apart as a he read it"

Yes, his site looks crap- it is simple and text-based. It's almost like a blog, strangely enough.

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