'Guru of web usability' speaks

March 17, 2000

The successful development of the internet as a device for communication will only happen when education unpicks the bad design habits learned over the past five years, according to usability expert Jakob Neilsen.

Mr Neilsen, the "guru of web usability", according to The New York Times, has seen enough failing web design in his years at Sun Microsystems to emphasise the key role of usability theory and practice in undergraduate design courses.

"We have seen huge increases in internet spending by corporations. They have spent millions on glamorous design that simply does not work. So there has been a wasteful process of firing and hiring designers," he said in London last week.

"We need more usability design students schooled in the methods of simplicity who are able to tell corporations 'change your perspectives or you will fail'.

"Web designers have a responsibility not just to do what they are told, but also to tell firms when they are forcing through decisions that waste money."

In the new economy, the user interface is the company, he says. "The company is the screen. So design will be tested. User tracking surveys show the miserable nature of the web at the moment. Users do not click through. The drop-off rate is appalling.

"The old economy's ways will not work any more. The marketing techniques that identified consumers as masses of varying sizes, with the aim of learning how to manipulate them, will no longer apply to the networked economy."

A key short-term goal of net design education should be to understand how to communicate interactively, to focus on the user.

Mr Neilsen, whose new book Designing Web Usability is just published, said:

"These goals are forgotten about in most design degree courses. The art school aesthetic - behold the beauty - does not apply either.

"Usability redefines the culture of design and commerce. The networked economy demands a pleasant and businesslike experience. Here, look and feel is dominant with the emphasis on feeling, the emotional response."

Neilsen emphasises that a return to simplicity will become more pressing with the development of wireless application protocol and he foresees a return to the early spirit of the web with information designs that work across everything and include voice for information navigation. These themes will be explored in detail at a London conference on April 3, "Web Design for Usability" (www.designforusability.com).Details: www.useit.com and www.nng.com

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