Nielsen & Loranger, Prioritizing Web Usability

Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger
Prioritizing Web Usability
New Riders, 2006

Jakob Nielsen is the 800lb gorilla of usability, at least where the web is concerned. Why?

  • Academics like him because of publications like Usability Engineering (1993), which uses a definition of usability accompanied with research into testing and application.
  • Nerds like him because of his readable, practical, quotable web site. Generally speaking, Nielsen’s advice also clicks with nerdly values: substance over glitz, get the job done, follow standards, share your research.
  • Writing for the web has set the standards for web writing. I’ve seen it cited or clearly influenced all over the place, from composition texts to online tutorials.

This preface leads me to Nielsen and Hoa Loranger’s book Prioritizing Web Usability, which updates the seminal Designing Web Usability. The update begins with a review of Nielsen’s early web usability work which summarizes changes in web use since the mid 1990s, and moves into a list of best practices for designing web sites (for example, making a search engine results page, or integrating multimedia).

Theoretically, I find few big changes from DWU. Nielsen & Loranger focus on “business goals,” which they argue can apply to non-profits, government agencies, and the like. But the sites and tasks in the case studies make it clear the focus is e-commerce–products, navigation, and other elements all focus on e-commerce sites of some kind. This is also reflected a simple definition of usability, as opposed to the multi-part definitions typical of Nielsen and other usability specialists (for example, Whitney Quesenbery’s 5Es). As was the case in Designing Web Usability, simplicity is most important for Nielsen & Loranger. Second is convention: as Nielsen wrote in 1999, they advise following standard practices whenever possible, from GUI widgets to the use of previews and navigation design.

This focus makes Prioritizing Web Usability less broadly useful than it might otherwise have been. For example, usability guidelines for page layout echo design principles of proximity and alignment, and call on examples from corporate web site front pages and shopping carts. But there is little discussion of other kinds of pages or sites, and discussion of the practices Nielsen & Loranger recommend is often very brief. Add to this the lack of methodological content, and the end result is somewhat typical of Nielsen’s a teaser for more expensive reports fron NN/g. I found myself repeatedly asking, “Ok, but what about a different kind of web site?” The lack of attention to method is understandable (focus) but at times I find the book more a loose collection of examples than a coherent argument. Still, I welcome the research-based approach, especially the debunking of old saws like the three-click rule or “chunk all your pages,” and the repeated calls for user testing and user-oriented design in general. Never enough of that, in my mind.

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