The Problem with Nielsen (UW2k4, Day 4)

I admit I have never read any of Jakob Nielsen’s books, only a few of his articles online, and the ensuing angry reactions they incite from the design community. And I never really understood what the big deal was. Sure he comes across as a bit of a pompous ass, but the majority of his points are extremely valid at their core, and I couldn’t figure out why so many designers were so upset by him. So the guy’s website is hideous. Does that mean everything he says about usability should be dismissed, even when we know in our hearts that he’s probably right?

Nielsen gained infamy with his notorious column Flash: 99% Bad. Flash designers the world over were up in arms, trashing Nielsen and countering every issue he raised. But when I first read that article 4 years ago it made plenty of sense to me. In 2000, Flash really was almost all bad from a usability standpoint. Waiting forever to download a 900k intro animation that doesn’t even offer the slightest scrap of real information is just wasting my time, and a designer who takes the user’s goals into account would never commit such an act of hostility. Much of Flash design is still problematic and difficult to use today, at least in sites which are 100% Flash. Flash sites disable the back button, sub-pages cannot be bookmarked, the text cannot be scaled, etc etc. Flash is a remarkable tool capable of amazing things, but capability does not give license for abuse. Nielsen’s article should have been titled “Flash: 99% Misused.” Flash has improved since that article was published, both because the technology itself has improved with newer versions (Macromedia even hired Nielsen as a consultant), and because designers are making better use of it as the culture matures (largely in reaction to Nielsen’s accusatory writings).

But back on topic. Nielsen’s opinions tend to piss off web designers, even when valid. And now that I’ve heard the man speak, I’ve figured out why. He’s just not a very good communicator. It’s not the points he’s making that offend designers, it’s the way he makes them. It’s extremely irksome to be told you’re doing your job wrong by a person who can’t even do it himself. In his writing he projects an obnoxious “do as I say” attitude, but he doesn’t have the designer chops to back it up. One can easily understand just why this guy gets on our nerves.

Nielsen likes statistics. It’s his lifeblood. He conducts a bunch of tests, observes real users trying to complete ordinary tasks on a range of websites, compiles all the data, adds everything together, and reports on his findings. But the reports remain vague and don’t include enough satisistical information to give them proper context. In an unbiased statistical report, saying “X% of users had difficulty finding Y on this set of websites” is perfectly acceptable. The NNG reports do provide more context and detail, but still not enough to provide real accountability.

But Nielsen really blows it when he tries to write a 900 word essay in plain English. He’s just not good at boiling his research down into a few words without making it all sound bogus. He spouts dizzying statistics without explaining their origin, makes blanket generalizations as if they were incontrovertable facts, and states his recommendations in the form of edicts while leaving out the kind of “this is based on research” qualifications a responsible, impartial observer should include.

For example, Nielsen might write in an Alert Box column “Most users have difficulty finding Y on websites, so you must do Z” thus falsely implying that the vast majority of humans on the planet have this problem on every single site on the Internet and it’s entirely your fault because you didn’t listen to Nielsen. What he should really say is “X% of the 60 users who agreed to submit to compensated usability testing had difficulty finding Y on the select 4 websites we observed them using in a controled testing environment.” His essays rarely reveal the entire background of the study on which they’re based, and never allow for any margin of error or skewed test results. As for the recommendation “Z”, that should be qualified with something like “6 other sites which did Z were also tested, and only x% of users encountered the same difficulty, so Z seems to work a bit better.” Grain of salt included free of charge.

Nielsen doesn’t have ideas, he just observes and reports. As such, he should try to express his findings in a more impartial tone. Or, failing that, he should at least cover his ass by saying “but hey man, this is just my opinion, I could be wrong. Take it or leave it.” So my advice to web designers is this: Pay attention to Nielsen’s research, but ignore the poorly-chosen words he uses to describe it.