TR: The Web is a pretty unruly place, but you often harp on the need for structure. Why is that so important?
NIELSEN: A lot of Web sites don’t have an information architecture–a structure–at all. They are just collections of pages that people lumped together on a Web site. Structure helps users navigate better by making it apparent at all times where they are on the site, where they have been, and where they can go. Structure also provides a clear underlying concept on which to map the diverse elements of a Web site. For example, if you are on a news-articles site with no structure, you say, “Okay, I am now reading article number 2,125.” But how does that help you get to any other place on the site? How does it help you understand the relationship between this article and the previous one?
TR: In that example, what might you suggest?
NIELSEN: Well, you could add a timeline. Or you could divide the site into sections, like a newspaper–business, sports, whatever. You could provide the ability to sort through articles according to bylines. These kind of structural mechanisms make it much easier to deal with a vast pool of articles. Now there is one more point. You have to give the users what they say they want. But then you have to go beyond that and give them something extra. The Internet has to be better than reality.
TR: What sites meet this test?
NIELSEN: I think that Amazon.com, the online bookseller, is better than reality in three ways. One, it is a bookstore that actually has every book. A physical bookstore can’t do that. Second, for every book listed it also offers the titles of three other recommended books. Now, if you go to a regular bookstore, a knowledgeable staff will know good books to recommend. But they will know that only in a limited area of their expertise. At Amazon, they keep track of what people buy. People who bought the book you are looking at have also bought other books. You get a recommendation for the three they bought most frequently. Finally, Amazon.com sends out an e-mail message when the book has been shipped. It lets you know that in two days you will get the book you ordered. In the physical world, it wouldn’t really make sense to send a postcard that says that your package is now in the mail, because the package and the postcard would arrive at about the same time.
TR: What usability improvements can help companies make money on the Web?
NIELSEN: A classic mistake to avoid is that companies make it difficult for people to buy online. They don’t have the complete list of their products online. Also, they don’t have descriptions of all the product variations. The Web allows you to have infinite detail. You can have all your products and all the obscure variations of those products online. So you can expand your sales dramatically just by making it easy for people to spend their money on your site.