TR: What are telltale signs that a site has been designed by somebody who doesn’t understand interaction?
NIELSEN: Big blocks of text or big pictures are two dead giveaways. Another symptom is the absence of links.
TR: Are the wrong people doing Web design?
NIELSEN: That’s part of the problem. Web sites are created by people in a company who are immersed in some project or business activity. They want to use the Web to communicate about what they’re doing, but along the way, they seem to forget that their job is to convey information to people outside of their own circle. The problem is that once a person becomes familiar with a company’s structure and lingo, it’s very difficult to design an interface that will work for someone lacking that familiarity. It’s like those Where’s Waldo books–once you know where Waldo is, you can no longer pretend that you don’t.
TR: How does this kind of inward thinking lead to bad site design?
NIELSEN: The classic mistake is to design a site based on the internal structure of the company, not based on how the user accesses the site. IBM’s site is a good example. Say you own an IBM PC 300PL and you want to buy a compatible printer. If you go to the product page for the computer, you won’t find any links to printers. That’s because printers are made by a different division of IBM, and apparently no one bothered to link the printer pages to the PC pages. So you have to go all the way up to the IBM home page, or use the search button. Clicking on the “Assistant” button brings up a window that is supposed to help you find things. But the menu of products includes only ones from the division of IBM that designed the page you are on, not IBM’s entire product line.
TR: How do you create a user-oriented Web site?
NIELSEN: You start with the users. That may sound like obvious advice, but most people don’t follow it. Instead, they look at the Web as an opportunity to accomplish some goal of their organization. But that will only take you so far. If you are going to create a golf site, for instance, first find out what golfers want.
TR: How do you test usability?
NIELSEN: There are many phases to that. The most basic one is to get customers in our usability lab and have them sit and use the system. Direct observation is the best way of gaining usability knowledge and insights. We pay attention to facial expressions and body language and voice. It’s just so painful to observe people make the same mistake again and again and again. That’s where the observation really hits home.
TR: What commonly surprises Web-site designers when they watch users?
NIELSEN: Designers are taken aback to see users misinterpret interface elements that were supposed to be obvious. Users aren’t stupid, but they are not in your company, and they do not understand your particular way of thinking, your vocabulary. Here at Sun, for example, we have something called Java WorkShop. In the early days, a lot of people would come across a link by that name and think, “Aha, this will be a Java training seminar.” But that’s not true–it’s actually a piece of software. People who were looking for training would click on it, and people looking for programming tools would not click on it. Both types of users were fooled.