For those of you that don’t know who Jakob Nielsen is, click on this link. For those of you that don’t want to leave the comfort of my site, I will simply say he is one of the founders of web usability. For those of you that don’t know what web usability is, it would suffice to say that it is what Jakob Nielsen does. (I use this logic on my four year old; drives her nuts.) The focus of web usability is to get out of the user’s way and when you can’t make something so intuitive that anyone could use it you make sure it is easy to learn.
Jakob’s site is useit.com and it would be safe to say that it is very simple. You have permanent content down the left hand side of the entire site and you have news on the right hand side. Very basic and in theory; usable.
The issue that I see is with the medium. When Jakob started his career, the Internet was primarily a text based medium. Over the last ten years of helping clients design sites and online products, I’ve come to realize that people who use the Internet don’t read. They want whatever they’re looking for to jump out at them; especially on the home page. (This is usually done with icons or images.) The home page for the most part is a series of funnels that simply help the user get to where they want to be. The Internet is a combination of all mediums and text is the least intuitive.
Once they’ve clicked into a funnel they’re provided more information (bulleted text, images, video) to entice them to seek more information. The next level down is filled with information; text, images, video, UGC, etc. This is progressive disclosure. Funnels at the top. Deep information at the bottom of the site.
Jakob’s site is awash in text at the top of the funnel and seems to have taken a “one click to everything” approach. (Like a smaller version of UAL.com in the early 90s when everything was one click away but you needed to hit ‘Ctrl-F’ to find anything’.) If Jakob would simply bullet the categories of his site (Alertbox, Reports, Film, Books, Consulting Services, etc) with accompanying images/graphics that would be a great way to get people into the right funnel. The next level down would feature excerpts from his content with some imagery that illuminated the user as to what the subject was about. The final level would be the actual content.
Now I understand that every site is not a three level deep site and yet I would challenge those that design sites to help users by realizing that usability is not what it used to be. Text is not something you lead with and progressive disclosure is something the masses do respond to.
When we were testing the usability of a site, I would have my 92 year old grandmother sit down with the site. If she could get through the task, we were set. If not, time to update. Unfortunately for us she got too smart and we had to “borrow” our neighbor’s grandmother. I’m not sure Jakob’s site would pass the grandmother test. Maybe he can borrow our neighbor’s grandmother?