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You may think that so much has changed on the Web that many of the old usability guidelines are no longer valid.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


  1. September 11, 2006 by Gerben

    I found a small typo. I think note should be not:

    … the guideline about note opening new browser windows

  2. I agree with your review. I thought, from a broad perspective, that each of the topics covered were necessary (even today). I took the discussions of web standards with a grain of salt because I still felt they were somewhat outdated. HOWEVER, the core of what was being said was still true - so take the core, and adapt it with proper techniques for meeting standards, and you have a great solution.

    There were so many topics covered in this book, which make it a great resource. Topics like navigation, search (internal and external), typography, information architecture, and writing for the web were all covered extensively.

  3. I’ve been flipping thgrough this book on my lunch hours for a few weeks and I pretty much agree with your review. Despite misgivings about Nielsen in general I found this book to be a very good overview of usability issues. I like that they often site actual usability studies to back-up their reviews. I also like the large section on writing which often seems to be overlooked as a usability issue.

    Another one of my favourite points was a box on p. 115 about About Us sections that don’t say enough. I encounter this a lot - there’s something suspicious about a company that won’t say who’s in charge.

    On the standards note, they are also recommending completely separate sites for mobile devices (see box on p. 96). They don’t even mention the possibility of mobile stylesheets there.

  4. September 11, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Gerben: Yep, that’s a typo. Thanks.

  5. September 14, 2006 by lewish

    I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about improving web usability lately, so after reading this review I went to the local book shop and checked it out. Unfortunately, it was pretty much what I expected from Nielsen - overly verbose and extreme coverage about topics that really don’t need much explanation (either because they’re outdated or just fairly obvious). And of course as a standards proponent Nielsen’s apparant ignorance of them didn’t help much.

    That said, there are some worthwhile tips in there for common mis-practices, such as poorly displayed text-sizing controls (tiny buttons with low contrast designed to help people with poor vision? right…), and an attempt to standardize what those controls look like.

    Overall I didn’t feel it was worth a buy, but for someone just starting out in the usability world it would definitely be worth a look.

  6. September 14, 2006 by Henrik

    I dont agree with this statement: “Links that don’t change colour when visited”

    I don´t like sharing which articles i´ve read on the internet for persons who can get a glimpse at my screen (valid both at work, at home or at a internet cafe).

    So I think the a:visited rule should always be the same as for a.


  7. September 14, 2006 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Henrik: That’s a valid point. However since it is very helpful to quickly see where you’ve been and which articles you’ve read, I think if you really want that kind of privacy you’ll need to apply a user stylesheet.

  8. Hi, you mention in the article about a technical description in the book of how to force people to download PDF documents (or other formats) rather than opening in a new browser window. Any chance of spilling the beans on that one? I looked into this recently but couldn’t find any reliable way to make all browsers do it.

    It’s the one aspect of shifting from an XHTML transitional doctype to a strict one that causes problems regarding compliance with the doctype. I hate how Acrobat (or Safari for that matter!) takes over the browser when clicking on a PDF link. I know some people think that the decision to open a new browser window should be made by the person browsing but in reality a lot of web users don’t know how to choose to open in a new window or tab. A lot of my clients’ users fall into that category! ;)


  9. Im working as a webdesigner for a french online travel agency and im still fighting against the use of promotionnal Pop-Under in our e-website… but that’s France…

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