by | May 22, 2007 |

Jakob Nielsen: Web 2.0 Should Go Back to Basics

Amid all the hype about Web 2.0 technologies and trends, many experts feel that human perception, the way we gather and process information, has literally been changed by use of the web, and web design must adapt by providing a more active user experience, more opportunity for user participation, even a shift of image-to-text proportion. Dr. Jakob Nielsen, known as the “guru of usability,” would be a dissenting voice in that mix.

A look at his own site,, is all that’s needed to see Dr. Nielsen’s design philosophy. He has long been a defender of the “content is king” philosophy, rejecting use of images or bells and whistles in favor of clean, content-focused design back in the original dot-com boom. Now Nielsen is speaking out again to stir the pot and assert that new trends such as social networking, user-generated content, and sites architected on user-participation still need to adhere to his principles of content-only design.

In an interview on BBC news, Nielsen lamented design agencies neglect of what he calls the “primary” areas of good design, because they are focused on slick presentation and the enabling of user-participation for timeliness’s sake. One example he cites is the roster of personalization tools provided on many sites to invite users to make the space their own. He points out that research suggests on most sites only 1% of users are regular site participators or contributors of content, with roughly 9% of users occasionally contributing, and the rest never contributing at all, simply visiting the site to get information as quickly as possible: “Get in, get it, and get out.”

On the one hand, sites that are entirely focused on social networking, such as MySpace, clearly are getting away with being visually chaotic while catering to users’ own content, participation, and personalization options. But as more and more commercially-oriented sites add these components, Nielsen urges them not to discard basic design principles, nor discount an audience older than 20, whom he feels are unlikely to spend nearly as much time on the web. With this in mind, easy searchability, text more focused on clear information than on branding or jargon, images used to support a message, and reliance on rigorous usability testing are still the most important principles for web design. “They should get the basics right first,” Nielsen said. “Sadly most websites do not have those primary things right.”

Well, nothing wrong with being reminded of the importance of usability, but before you run off to strip “extraneous” design elements off your site, consider whether Nielsen’s own site even lives up to the standards he espouses. As designer and instructor David Witt points out, Nielsen’s site has a poor aesthetic relationship between colors, and “no visual hierarchy of information, only two long columns of text and links.” If someone went to Nielsen’s site to “get in, get it, and get out,” they might immediately be deterred by the hard-to-read design. Nielsen’s own call for putting usability first would be better interpreted by someone who doesn’t set that tenet up in false conflict against good design.

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