Prioritizing Web Usability Book Review

Jakob Nielsen’s 2000 title, Designing Web Usability: The practice of Simplicity was at the time very widely accepted and embraced by the practitioners of solid design at the time. Nielsen understands user experience, usability and functional aesthetics quite well, and he has always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of what the average user loves and hates on the web. So, many designers worth their salt at the time adopted his recommendations as gospel, and it ended well when done right. But, given that the web changes faster than the weather in Seattle, it has long since been time for an update to this design bible, and sure enough, we now have Prioritizing Web Usability, which he and co-author Hoa Loranger have provided to address more contemporary concerns.

Does Prioritizing Web Usability hold up as well as his previous offering in this department? Well, yes and no if you ask me. Now before you Nielsen acolytes form a lynch mob to come get me, let me explain what I mean by this. It’s not at all a bad book, and what it has to say is genuinely useful, true and should be heeded just as strongly as what he said at the turn of the century was at the time. But, to me, this seems to bring in fewer “not-obvious” points to the table than the last iteration did.

His 2000 publication was so inspirational and game changing largely due to the fact that what he said were things nobody had really stopped to consider. Little of it was what we professionals call “well duh” concepts. This new iteration, however, has a lot of these “well duh” points. But … at least they’re important “well duh” points if they must be there.

This is probably more of a reflection on the design community than Nielsen nor Loranger’s ability to think outside the box in modernity, though. It seems like people are making bleedingly obvious mistakes either out of laziness or sheer inability to apply usability testing and planning these days. So, the obviousness of many of the tenets which this book puts forth are probably a direct addressing of this, rather than a lack of new ideas.

Some of these obvious but genuine concepts are avoiding links that don’t change color after being visited, disabling or utterly breaking the back button, opening new browser windows and using the much maligned popup window. These should be obvious things to avoid, but given many designers stupidly don’t avoid these things, I do get why they’re spending time driving these points home in this iteration.

Along with this, they also spend a lot of time talking about file handling, such as giving users the option to download non-web formats (PDF, Word documents, audio etc) rather than opening it directly in the browser. This, again, should be obvious, but also, again, is seldom implemented.

They do go on to discuss new issues such as typography, modern navigation patterns (the do’s and don’t’s of mixing certain ones for example) and of course the issues intrinsic to the mobile community and set top box community, but … I feel that maybe they could have spent more time on these, and relegated the obvious points to an introductory chapter of “idiot mistakes you should stop making” or something of that sort.

Prioritizing Web Usability isn’t a bad book, its points are quite valid, and it does reflect Nielsen and Loranger’s grasp of web quite well, but as a followup to the 2000 book, it’s a wee bit underwhelming.

Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.