Jakob Nielsen on Web usability problems. Again.

Let me start out by saying that I have high regard for human factors and usability, and often look at Web sites and wonder what the heck the designer was thinking when they made a particular section blue, a link red, a banner ad bigger than the site logo, or, the most heinous of sins, made me have to hunt to find the content on the page.
Heck, in college I even worked with usability star Dr. Donald Norman at a research group focused on human-computer interfaces and usability, including helping the U.S. Navy with some of its navigational systems as used on submarines. Oh, those many years ago. 🙂
Having said that, I read that Jakob Nielsen has come out with yet another book on usability and yet another criticism of Web site and, no doubt, blog design. His new book leaves no question about his stance: Prioritizing Web Usability.
Is it okay if I yawn yet?


Seriously, here are his Eight Problems that Haven’t Changed, which I’ll first present as a list, then present again a second time, with my commentary added:

  • Links that don’t change color when visited
  • Breaking the back button
  • Opening new browser windows
  • Pop-up windows
  • Design elements that look like advertisements
  • Violating Web-wide conventions
  • Vaporous content and empty hype
  • Dense content and unscannable text

That’s The Big List. Now, let’s dig into each of them…
Links that don’t change color when visited
As someone who pays a lot of attention to the appearance of my site on various systems, I violate this one consistently and across tens of thousands of visitors, not one has ever indicated that it was a problem. You know why? People are more sophisticated in their use of the Web than they were a decade ago when NCSA Mosaic came out and users required blue and underlines to denote hypertext reference links. In fact, I can’t think of a site I visit with frequency that still sticks to the tired convention that unvisited and visited links should be displayed in different colors.
Score: irrelevant.
Breaking the back button
I think that this is a hit on the entire Web 2.0 / AJAX phenomenon, actually. Go and try to use the back button in Google’s popular Gmail service, for example, and you’ll find that it screws things up. But a single click of the reload button and all is good, and now you know. The cost of making this mistake? Very low. The ease of learning that it’s not how you navigate through the site? Very low too.
This is one of those “much ado about nothing” sort of problems. While in a laboratory consistency might be valued above all else, I think that out here in the real world of active Web sites, blogging and the vast range of design capabilities of users, making mistakes on usability are far, far less onerous than being unable to produce quality content, for example. I mean, do you really care when you get to a site that doesn’t work with the back button, or do you just learn to compensate?
Score: relevant, but a well-accepted fact of life in the world of Web 2.0
Opening new browser windows
Hmmm… this is another ivory tower thing, I’m sure. Ya see, there’s a reason that Web browsers and HTML make it so darn easy to open up new windows by simply adding target=”_blank” or similar: people like to use it.
From a usability perspective, the tradeoff here is creating the complexity of multiple windows being open versus the ability to have a persistent context by not leaving sites unexpectedly. This article itself offers a good example, actually. You’re reading to here and I say go check out the Webmonkey article Jakob wrote. Now, when you click, do you want to leave this site and have to use your back button to return, or do you want to have a “diversionary” window open up that lets you check out the reference and easily return here with a simple close-window operation?
Now imagine that you click on the above link and them immediately get a call from your boss who gives you a 45 minute assignment. When you’re done you go back to your Web browser and wonder “how the heck did I end up here on Webmonkey?” See my point?
Score: relevant, but low priority.
Pop-up windows
By differentiating from the previous, opening up browser windows, I can only presume that Jakob is actually talking about pop-up ads and the like, and yes, those can be darn annoying, but at least just about every modern browser makes it really, really easy to defeat them once and for all. I’m so used to having pop-ups blocked that I have no idea what sites do or don’t use them.
Score: spot on. This is still a pox on the Web in most cases.
Design elements that look like advertisements
Oh, the different worlds within which we travel, Dr. Nielsen! When I saw this on the screen I read it as “advertisements that look like design elements” and in my eyes, it’s my mis-reading of your point that’s far more of a problem online. What’s legit content? What’s a link added by the person who created the content, and what’s an advert? What’s an affiliate link or commission-generating link, and does that influence the content itself?
From a pure usability perspective, I suppose that design elements that look like ads are a problem, but it seems to me that this is a problem precisely because ads are trying to look more and more like legitimate design elements and content. Chicken, meet egg. Or vice-versa.
Score: You got this one backwards.
Violating Web-wide conventions
Ah, that would be the usability version of the blog police knocking on my door, wouldn’t it? Web-wide conventions aren’t conventions at all and there are plenty of sites that seem to focus on explicitly violating all of these design guidelines. So do those sites comprise the “conventions”, or do the sites that match the expectations Jakob and his UI compatriots have comprise the conventions?
Score: irrelevant. Conventions are made to be broken, not followed.
Vaporous content and empty hype
I know exactly what sites you’re talking about and yes, I agree 100% that if you aren’t adding to the value of the Web, if you aren’t producing content, you’re adding to the noise, and while I wouldn’t say that’s a usability problem, per se, it’s sure a plague on the Internet today. In fact, some of my best friends’ Web sites…
Score: spot on again!
Dense content and unscannable text
Now, finally, we get into a true user interface and usability issue, and here Jakob is right on the mark again. There are few sites that wouldn’t be easier to read and understand if there was a bit more “white space” and a bit less information density, allowing you to absorb the content quicker and more accurately.
Score: third one’s the charm.
In conclusion, while it’s an interesting exercise to consider the eight Problems That Haven’t Changed, it’s mostly a bunch of irrelevant complaints that fly in the face of how people are actually using the Web. Modern web users are considerably more sophisticated than they were a decade ago, and I fear that Jakob and his colleagues are simply demonstrating that they are further and further out of the mainstream of designers and Web site producers.
But that’s just me. What do you think about his eight problems? Are they all problems? And what other problems do you see with the usability of the Web that haven’t been mentioned here?

8 comments on “Jakob Nielsen on Web usability problems. Again.

  1. Does seem pretty familiar. But still a lot of problems to deal with in serving up web pages for people. Lately more and more sites are going to fixed 1024 for instance.
    I kinda think Alan Cooper is more on the mark. The “design” for the end user has to start earlier. Only so much a fresh coat of paint can do – or mess up.

  2. Re: Opening up new windows:
    Firefox and Safari let me open tabs in the browser. That makes my surfing far more enjoyable. I imagine IE will do so soon if it doesn’t already.

  3. I will agree with you on most of your comments.
    But I will say he is right about the first one. I have watch people trying to find links and having a hard time when they are not blue.

  4. I will first admit that I am one of those irrational Jakobites, who lives, eats, and breathes everything he publishes. I’m a big fan of Tog, too, and love Steve Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think!”
    I’ll preface this by what I consider is the largest truth about human factors or usability: _no_ one has the same opinion as you. It was the earliest lesson I learned in designing software and Web sites. I can’t tell you how many times I sat on the other side of the glass, banging my head on the recording console, and screaming “IT’S RIGHT THERE…CLICK IT…CLICK IT!!” Thank God the sound-proofing was excellent. _No_ one is going to use your site or application how you do. Victory is achieved when a majority of people use it in a consistent fashion.
    1. “Links that don’t change color when visited?” and links that have no discernable difference for other text: I agree with Jakob on this one and have seen it in the lab. While I agree with your premise that Internet users are more sophisticated than they were 10 years ago, I do feel that they are not nearly as sophisticated as you imply. What is confusing to users is different navigation models…one site is this way, the other is that way. I’ve seen no lack of people in the lab take a site like this and never click anything on it because the non-obvious links (column on the right) just seem like text to them. This site requires a high user-sophistication level to be fully used…it uses at least _five_ different models for linking. Do I personally find this site difficult to navigate? No, not at all. Does that mean every user would feel the same? Again: no, not at all. OK, I’m done beating that dead horse.
    2. “Breaking the back button”: I’d love to see a study done on how much revenue is lost from transactions that are started but not completed because the Back button is broken. Then you’d have cost that would be get businesses interested fixing this issue. Your examples are sites of middle to high sophistication levels. What if this were a Medicare site for Seniors who are looking up the new laws or a Veteran on the VA site interested in knowing how to protect him/herself from fraud? Would it be OK to break the Back button for all those users? Another study I’d love to see: how much did we pay for 800 support because a user failed to find what they were looking for online or failed to complete an online transaction because the Back button was broken.
    3. “Opening new browser windows”: Yep, I agree with you on this one and disagree with Jakob. I personally feel it makes sense that when you’re leaving the context of a site, it should be in a new context and that’s a new Web browser instance. FWIW, I don’t think it should be a new Tab (Firefox, IE7, or otherwise) because I’ve seen low-sophistication users lose the tabs.
    4. “Pop-up windows”: Jakob means ads and non-ads. For example: “Would you like to tell us how great our Web site is?” surveys. A pox, agreed….vaccinate!
    5. “Design elements that look like ads”: I agree with you that there is some convergence of ads and design elements, and discerning the two is getting more and more difficult. There are some obvious offenders that are still doing design like ads because that’s all they know. If you want it to be a design element (link), don’t make it a rolling banner graphic with lots of animation that says “Save the hostage to see the corporate report!”
    6. “Violating Web-wide conventions”: It’s true….it will be _your_ door on which the Internet police will be knocking (right after they get done with me). I would be great if we had a Web style-guide…then again, it would be awful because innovation would be stifled. It boils down to this: can users of your site succeed in what you want them to do?
    7. “Vaporous content and empty hype”: Blah, blah, blah, blah, and blah. I agree and, from a purist perspective, content does impact usability. Content is the reason we go, right? If there’s vapor between the user and the content they need, it’s a usability issue.
    8. “Dense content and unscannable text”: Agreed…it’s why we invented punctuation for the written word. I hear users all the time saying “ugh” as soon as they get to a densely packed site.
    Summary: I disagree with you: Jakob’s still got it and he’s timely. I think he sees a lot more diverse users of the Internet than on what you’ve based your critique.

  5. It makes a difference whether we’re talking sophisticated user or not. I defy anyone to explain with a straight face how you should be able to tell when the Back button works and when it doesn’t. My belief is, things are getting worse, not better, in terms of basic site navigability. There’s no easy solution, though two useful rules to follow seem to be (1) keep it simple and (2) always provide cues for where you are so you can find your way backwards or forward. (Dave are you still discriminating against paid Yahoo email users? I can’t seem to get my comment submitted without using my Verizon address, which I also pay for.)

  6. I agree with Jakob Nielsen, that all these are still web usability problems, and that designers still persist in making these violations.
    There are many other problems, link files that don’t upload, RSS vampire blogs, broken forms, no upfront Contact or About page, blogs with few or no external links to substantiating credible info sources, obsessive boring exhibitionism in the blogosphere, and CMS that is still oriented to static sites and fixed positioning, column widths, etc.
    While you have downplayed some of these web problems, I leave it to others to proclaim the darker side of these seemingly “irrelevant” problems.
    We more geeky types take our skills for granted. Every day I use a work-around to overcome some dyfunctional web page. New users would be trapped, lost, and drowning in despair.

  7. Despite the fact that Jacob generally identifies some pretty good guidelines and advice on useit.com and in his books, I dislike his attitude towards new web technology in general. You mention web 2.0 above (must say I love Ajax… in a geeky sad techie sort of way) however remeber his anti-Flash obsession a few years back? I also think I recall him having issues with DHTML.
    I like a lot of the new web technologies however as always there is a great risk to misuse them and rookie web developers always find new and wonderful ways of doing this much to their sites usability’s detrement.
    I believe the underlined link issue is a convention violation. So my response is to points 1&6 combined. I think that conventions are good in that if followed they can allow users to instantly recognise elements of sites and the web developer doesn’t need to be a usability guru to develop with these in mind. I like Steve Krug’s approach which is (paraphrased slightly): unless your new design is totally self-explanatory or is so ground breaking that it’s worth the hassle then it’s best to follow the conventions as they are a safe(r) bet to enhance usability.
    I agree with you on the back button thing, breaking it should only be an issue if the user’s doing something which if broken could cause stress (such as online banking or payment engines). For things like information display and dynamic page updates or searches it’s really not a problem especially if the site offers other usability benefits through use of said back button breaking technology 🙂

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