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It's so smart to be simple

From the Grauniad, Thursday December 2, 1999.

Jack Schofield meets a critic who gets paid $10,000 a day to tell designers not to be too clever.

For only $10,000 a day, usability expert Jakob Nielsen will tell you why your website is rubbish. Surprisingly, what you get for the money isn't a high-powered marketing executive, or even an expert in web programming. He's just a deliberately ordinary user with a dial-up modem.

What's unusual about Nielsen is his understanding of the way websites work - and the growth of e-commerce has suddenly made that valuable to lots of big companies. As Nielsen says: "For anybody who is selling online, even the smallest usability improvement has an incredibly positive pay-off ratio. The cost of getting my feedback is much lower than the benefit from taking my advice."

This idea has already been accepted in the design world, partly through the work of Donald Norman, the former Apple usability expert who wrote The Design Of Everyday Things and a partner in the Nielsen Norman Group, a consultancy.

Nielsen, settling into a sofa in a central London hotel, explains that usability is even more important on the web than businesses have realised, because e-commerce has changed the way it works.

"The web is no longer about brand image, the web is about customer experience," Nielsen says. "The web reverses the relationship between the two different types of communication.

"In the industrial age, you got a huge number of marketing impressions compared with the number of experiences. How often do you rent a car compared with how often you see television advertising or logos for car rental companies? The web is the opposite: the web is nothing but customer experience." If the experience isn't good, users will go to a different site to rent that car, or whatever.

Nielsen cites American bookseller Barnes and Noble as an example of a company making this industrial age marketing mistake on its website. "They weren't focusing on how to buy a book, they were focusing on building their brand, which is so arrogant. They were saying: 'Because we are a famous bookstore, you should buy from us and not [Amazon].' Everybody who tried the two sites decided it was enormously easier to buy the book from Amazon, so that's what they did."

Focus on the customer experience - how easy is it to find and buy a book? - makes it hard to justify the "bouncing heads, spinning logos," and other graphics added to make websites look cool.

"It's sad because animation is almost a negative design element," Nielsen says. "On the web today, animated graphics equals useless in many people's minds, so they ignore things even if they could in fact be quite good. They skip the slogans, they skip the branding messages, and they skip the advertisements, so the amount that goes into the user experience is very very small."

Since users mentally strip out the rubbish there's not much point in putting it in, and I suggest Google, the search engine at www.google.com, as a wonderful example of minimalist design.

"That's truly one of my favourites," says Nielsen, "but I didn't want to mention it because I've been involved with them. But the real message of Google is that the other search engines have abandoned their responsibilities. It's a disgrace, really. They got so caught up in chasing the latest fad they forgot why people go there. Every time they do a redesign their search boxes get smaller and smaller and harder to find. They're spiting their customers, really. In the long term, that's not a viable strategy.

"Google has focused on taking one thing that we know is really important - searching - and doing it much better than the others. The others are just second rate now, so that's where they should focus."

Another advantage of minimalist designs is that they can be fast. "Response times rule the web: if it's faster, it's better," Nielsen exclaims. "We say this because when we do studies, all users say the same thing: they don't want to wait for slow download times.

"Other people did research on [computer] response times back in the 1960s, and we know they have to be less than one second. Subsecond response times dramatically enhance the user's feeling of confidence and control and of under standing what they're doing. Productivity goes way up as well, because now you dare to move where you want to move. When the user worries - 'should I click or should I not click? It's going to hurt me if I do' - you get a suboptimal use of the system.

"We've known this for 30 years, so why don't people follow it? The fact that it's based on a different technology doesn't matter, because we're talking about humans here and they're the same... unless you give everyone a lobotomy or something to slow them down."

Nielsen's own website, Alertbox, is not just minimalist, it looks almost undesigned. I ask Nielsen if it puts people off because it's so clearly intended to be not flash?

"That's true: it's almost like a provocation that I do it the way I do," he says. "I would not necessarily recommend that, say, an e-commerce site be done in that style. But I do want to emphasise that you can do websites based on text. There's so much under-emphasis on content on the web today, but it's why people are online to begin with.

"There are cases where it's appropriate to do a video or an animation, and as we get more bandwidth, more places will emerge where it's appropriate to use multimedia. However, it's almost unheard of to see good uses of multimedia on the web today. It's almost always used for effect, not for something users benefit from.

"I'm the tireless defender of users' rights, and in the modern world, there's a very great degree of correspondence between what's right for users and what companies need to do to survive. You can't just design what you like, you've got to design what users like.

"And if you don't do it, someone else will. There are millions of websites out there and people will go where they're well treated. You've got to tell people that ultimate truth, even if it's very difficult to do."

Jakob Nielsen publishes his articles about website design free at www.alertbox.com. Nielsen Norman Group is at www.nngroup.com