Prioritizing Web Usability (Book review)

In the year 2000, Jakob Nielsen's book Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity was published. It's been a few years, and on the Web things tend to change pretty fast, so this book by Jakob Nielsen and Hoa Loranger contains a welcome update of Nielsen's Web usability guidelines from the 1990s.

You may think that so much has changed on the Web that many of the old usability guidelines are no longer valid. Not so. Only a few guidelines can be disregarded, and I'm happy to see that some of the most annoying usability problems are still considered top priority. A few examples of areas that still cause major usability problems (i.e. don't do this):

  • Links that don’t change colour when visited
  • Breaking the back button
  • Opening new browser windows
  • Pop-up windows

The authors note that there is an exception to the guideline about not opening new browser windows: they actually recommend doing that when linking to non-Web documents such as PDF or Word documents. Fans of opening new browser windows have of course picked this up and love it. However, it should be noted that the recommendation is to avoid the situation completely:

Best of all, prevent the browser from opening the document in the first place. Instead, offer users the choice to save the file on their hard disk or to open it in its native application.

The guideline also includes a technical description of how to do that. Good. Let’s hope that catches on.

Besides revisiting old guidelines, the authors also discuss how you can decide which usability problems should be of higher priority than others, depending on the content and audience of site you are working on. There is also a whole chapter on searching, both with a websites internal search engine and with external search engines like Google. That of course also leads to a section on search engine optimisation, which goes hand in hand with usability.

Typography, writing for the web, navigation, information architecture, and how to provide good product information are some other areas that are discussed in the book.

If I’m going to criticise anything about this book, it is that the authors don’t seem to be quite up-to-date with the concept of Web standards. I may be wrong, but I get that feeling from the way they talk about cross-platform compatibility and how they refer to irrelevant numbers like Apple’s market share in different parts of the world.

One other area that could use a bit of editing is the chapter on typography. They make a lot of good points and give the reader lots of very good advice, but they keep mentioning “points” when talking about font size. As most standards-aware web professionals know, points is a bad choice for sizing on-screen text.

There are a few guidelines that I don’t completely agree with, and a couple of CSS and Web standards-related areas that could be clarified, but that does not by any means make this book a bad read. Prioritizing Web Usability is an excellent book and a must-have for anybody involved in creating a website.

Prioritizing Web Usability
Authors: Jakob Nielsen, Hoa Loranger
ISBN: 0321350316

Posted on September 11, 2006 in Reviews, Usability