Re: Theory? (of Web design)

Subject: Re: Theory? (of Web design)
From: Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- jci -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 8 Oct 2001 10:29:49 -0500

Sandy wrote:

>Why would that be? His site passes some basic tests that many others fail.

I'll give you a big "so what?" on that one. I'm reminded of when
then-Secretary of Education Bennet characterized Chicago schools as the
worst in the nation, Chicago's response was "no we're not, Detroit's worse
than us!"

So there are worse sites than Nielsen's out there. There's so much crap out
there I'd be astonished if there weren't.

But I'd just ask Sandy in particular (and any other Nielsen defenders out
there in general) to examine the defense offered for the usability of
Nielsen's site: It certifies via Bobby and the W3C validators. He doesn't
use Java or Javascript.

All words about how easy it is for software to interact with his site; not
one word about how easy or hard it is for *people* to interact with his
site. "Note how the text flows when viewed with a wide browser window" I
hear. I don't hear a thing about how hard it is to find anything or to do
any actual reading of text when the lines are a mile and a half long. (Oh,
that's right. Jakob Says nobody reads web pages. Therefore I must be
nobody, because I tried to read his web pages. I can see the blurb now:
"Nobody criticizes uability guru!") It couldn't be that we avoid reading on
the web because the Guru Himself doesn't care enough to even make an
attempt at producing pages that *can* be read more easily.

His Alertbox columns are listed in chronological order; at least he puts
the most recent on top. The most popular ones are bolded, meaning you may
have to traverse the entire list of columns to find a popular column.
Hardly good usability. You also have to guess from the title whether he'll
have something to say in that column about a topic you might be interested
in; no subject classification is available, not even a terse abstract in
most cases. In fact, the prime factor for the classification of the
information he's presenting is the least important factor: the date he
actually put fingers to keyboard. Even chat boards on the web do a better
job of organizing information than that!

Want a more concrete example? Try looking for what he has to say about the
right length for link texts. (You know, how many words should be underlined
in the average link? Two? Ten at the most? As many as you want? Are more
better? Or are fewer better?) I don't know if he had anything to say on
that topic (he had something to say on almost every other word-count
related topic, so I suspect he did) but there's really no effective way of
using his site to find that out. (Every time I tried I got 400+ hits, and I
certainly don't have the patience to look at *that* many pages. I know none
of the top hits delivered that info, at any rate.)

An interesting exercise for someone with some time to kill is to read what
he says, and count just how many of his own strictures he violates on his
site. Might be none, might be fun. He *does* seem to have some trouble
being consistent between words and deeds regarding style sheets, but
perhaps that's just a pecadillo. (Style tags are tossed willy-nilly around
the source, despite his own words saying that embedded style is a no-no.)
He declares absolute font sizes are Bad, but appears to think absolute font
faces are Good, and choses to inflict serif fonts on low-res devices like
screens. Love to know how *that* gets rationalized.

And please, let's drop the pretense that we have to be perfect ourselves
before we can note a problem. Nielsen is vulnerable to the very same
attack: we should listen to what he has to say about usability only when
*he* can build a site that we can use without headaches and confusion.
Sauce for the gander and all that. But it's not a valid approach. He has a
lot to say that's worth thinking about; he just isn't Always Right.

The major fallacies that he and most other usability gurus fall into are of
two varieties, both seriously connected to personal ego. The first is "I
haven't seen it, therefore it doesn't exist;" declaring that something or
other is anathema because the writer hasn't yet seen it put to what they
would consider a good use. The other is "I don't like it, therefore it's
wrong," meaning that either personally or through a test group the author
declares a technique as hard to use, without realizing that he or his test
group are *not* part of the intended audience, and therefore the proffered
opinion is quite irrelevant.

His pronouncements, to stand up to scrutiny, must be accompanied with
qualifiers. Unfortunately, he generally leaves the discovery of the correct
qualifiers as an exercise for the reader, a habit which I consider
(personal opinion warning) intellectually dishonest at best. Perhaps he's
doing it to be outrageous; after all, his site design certainly shouts
"Boring!" at the top of its lungs, so he needs to generate a spark somehow.

By all means, be aware of what he has to say. Just don't confuse it with
Revealed Truth. It's his opinion, backed up in some cases by a small
amount of general-purpose data. Be also aware that his research won't
necessarily apply to your project; your audience may be different than the
one he tested. (A site designed to reach web design professionals, for
example, will have a vastly different audience than one designed to supply
information to novice web users.) It's *your* audience, not his, that

(Note: I deduce he may read techwr-l; there's now a search box on a page
that didn't have it when I last posted.)

Have fun,
Chief Managing Director In Charge, Department of Redundancy Department
DNRC 224

Arlen -dot- P -dot- Walker -at- JCI -dot- Com
In God we trust; all others must provide data.
Opinions expressed are mine and mine alone.
If JCI had an opinion on this, they'd hire someone else to deliver it.

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