Web site usability has come a long way. For proof, just consider the strange case of Dr Jakob Nielsen.
Back in 1995, Dr Nielsen was a Sun Microsystem Usability software usability expert with a string of published papers and books on topics such as "heuristic evaluation". Nielsen had spent a chunk of his career analysing the benefits of quick-and-dirty usability methods such as heuristic evaluation, where a group of experts rate a system's compliance with established usability norms. But such methods remained generally underappreciated, and Dr Nielsen's books and papers were read by a relatively small group of fellow specialists. In 1995, with Web sites becoming a popular new type of "software", Dr Nielsen started publishing his thoughts at his own Web site, useit.com.
Now move forward seven years, and here is Dr Nielsen again, peering out of the front of a book through neat glasses, wearing a red tie and perfectly mismatched greenish-blue shirt, with hair just long enough to mark him as a child of the 1960s. Except now Dr Nielsen is famous and runs sell-out executive lecture sessions on Web site usability. And the book out of which he is peering is not a scholarly tome but a big, glossy, full-colour 320-page compendium of heuristic evaluations on some of the world's best-known Web sites. It's called "Homepage Usability".
Yes, it's the world's first coffee-table usability book.
And if you can get over the price, "Homepage Usability" is both a useful contribution to the discipline, and more fun than you'd think. It's a set of design rules centred around an examination of the home pages for 50 major sites, including the highly-valued (Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Google), the worthy (PBS, Art Institute of Chicago) and the famous (CNN, Google, BBC Online).
"Homepage Usability" is particularly useful because Nielsen and collaborator Marie Tahir use these 50 sites not just as a gimmick but also to help define the "standard" treatments of elements on a Web page. They do so in the belief that rather than learning a new interface on every site, users prefer your site to work the same way as the last dozen they were on.
On top of the 15 pages of statistical analysis, Neilsen and Tahir also offer 25 pages of heuristics - rules - on eveything from displaying logos to communicating site problems. Many of these rules will be familiar to Web design veterans and to readers of Nielsen's last book, "Designing Web Usability".
Once the rules are finished with, Nielsen and Tahir take you into the instructive and oddly entertaining 240-page dissection of those 50 sites. They seek out and pull apart every misplaced button and vague label. The label "MTV news gallery" obscures the richness of the MTV site's feature articles. Drugstore.com probably thought the term "shopping bag" appropriate, but "shopping cart" has become an accepted term. And ExxonMobil might have thought their front page oil rig photo looked arty, but "oil companies would best avoid photos that show large shadows in the water next to their rigs". Heh, heh.
The home pages themselves are displayed at full-page size. Some of the comments verge on pedantry, but there's praise too - the informative headlines on CNN, the well-described sign-in at Amazon. And the sheer weight of commentary eventually starts pushing you to think more rigorously about how users see your own pages.
Many Web designers, especially the less pragmatic and those without formal training, hate Nielsen's approach. They can see it leaching the originality out of Web design. Neilsen makes no apologies for this; he believes the content should outshine the look, and he once wrote an essay entitled "The End Of Web Design".
Commercial operators may see a different reason for suspicion. The likes of Amazon and Yahoo have been around long enough, and have experimented enough, to know exactly what produces commercial results for them. Heuristic evaluations never ask what is working in a particular case; they just apply standards. As Graham Hamer notes in his review below: if Amazon wants to label a link "Friends and Favorites", it's probably because the link is known to provoke the desired book-buyer behaviour - regardless of what Jakob Nielsen thinks. Heuristic evaluation has its limits.
Within those limits, heuristics have real power. Usability commentators like Steve Krug, author of the excellent "Don't Make Me Think", argue that the average user is a myth and all Web use is essentially idiosyncratic, so the only way to design is to test. But the truth is that almost every designer uses heuristics at some point, adopting elements because they are familiar and because there isn't the time or the budget to test. They're too useful to resist. So is this book.