How Should Websites Look? Jakob Nielsen and Vincent Flanders Speak Up

CIO sat down for a discussion on website design with Jakob Nielsen, cofounder of the Fremont, Calif.-based consultancy Nielsen Norman Group, and Vincent Flanders, creator of WebPagesThatSuck.com. Nielsen, a respected usability expert, and Flanders, known for his sharp commentaries, agree that there are a lot of poorly designed sites on the Web. But the two experts don?t always see eye to eye when it comes to theories of how websites should look and feel and how they can stand out.

CIO: You have both said that websites should meet certain design criteria. Should they all look and feel the same?

NIELSEN: There is a difference between the look and feel of a website. Feel is what happens while you?re using a site, and it is important to adapt the site?s task flow [organizational structure] to the individual user?s problems.

At the same time there are a lot of conventions for screen design, and I would say?just follow them. For example, users know that blue underlined things are hypertext links. With conventions, site visitors can use their brainpower to think about their problem and how to solve it, rather than how to use the website.

FLANDERS: People expect certain things from certain sites. They expect to see a logo in the top left corner of the page, and they expect links to do certain things. Overall, users expect navigation to be in a certain place, and their expectations should be met.

CIO: So website design should always be the same?

NIELSEN: Yes, the design elements should be the same, but the way they are composed should differ because the sites are doing different things. If you think about cars, all cars have the accelerator to the right of the break pedal. This doesn?t mean that all cars are identical, but the basic elements you need to operate the device follow some conventions.

CIO: Then should a movie site have the same design in terms of layout as a search engine?

NIELSEN: The elements would work in the same way. For example, the search box would operate in a similar manner. But the movie site would be almost guaranteed to have some photos from the film, which you would not have on the search engine. So some of the details would be different.

FLANDERS: No, this is a major area where I disagree. There are certain sites, such as movie, band and Web design company sites, that have the right to be inherently stupid. It?s by their very nature.

Take a rock and roll band site for example?rock and roll appeals to people who don?t mind being frustrated by ?mystery meat navigation,? [Flanders? term for confusing website navigation], flash animation and all those other silly things that would never work on Amazon.com.

Yes, the search box will still search. A very frustrating site is the Beatles site (www.beatles.com)?the links move and you have to track them down to click on them. They move so quickly that you are never sure which one you are going to click on, but that?s part of the game. Sites like those do not have accountability.

NIELSEN: I?m not sure I agree. Just because they are not accountable, in the direct sense of having the metric easily retrievable, doesn?t mean that they should be given a license to just throw away the company?s money. They still have the business goal of getting people to see the film or attend the rock concert. It may be harder to measure compared with an e-commerce site, but that doesn?t mean that there isn?t a connection.

Look at the example of the Beatles site. Committed fans will suffer through having to chase the links around the screen, but the people in the gray zone are more inclined to go away.

On a rock band site, if the user cannot figure out where the band is playing or when they are coming to town, then they are going to lose a lot of ticket sales.

FLANDERS: Right, but the reason people use these strange techniques is for that very same reason?you can?t prove how well that site is doing.

NIELSEN: I would agree they are doing that from a management perspective, but I?m arguing that it is mismanaged.

FLANDERS: But certain sites are expected to be hip. There are very few big bands out there that have sites like Amazon.com.

NIELSEN: I would agree that in some things, such as visual appearance, those websites can achieve a more edgy look, but again there is a difference between the look and the feel. The feel should still be that you can use it, otherwise they really are going to lose money.

The goal for a rock site should be that the music is the content. Website producers should have enough faith in their own content, in their own stars, to really feature that instead of putting up barriers between the people and the music.

CIO: Should websites be aesthetically pleasing?

FLANDERS: To create a website that is both commercially effective, usable and aesthetically pleasing is one of the most difficult things to do. I think that is an extraordinarily difficult thing, and if it weren?t difficult you wouldn?t be talking to us.

With the increase in bandwidth, we are going to see better-looking sites, but what it comes down to is content. If you?ve got what people want, they?ll put up with about anything to get it. Do you have something that is so good people will crawl through the sewer and beg to buy or get in to your site? Very few sites do. That is one of the reasons why band sites go to the extremes they do, because they have a loyal fan base that will put up with almost anything.

NIELSEN: Sorry to hop on that last point, but I don?t think you should abuse your fans just because they will suffer through it.

But, to the question on aesthetics, yes, that?s one of the parameters of usability?subjective satisfaction?which can be achieved through different elements, including that it looks good.

Actually, the more important one is that it feels good. If you feel empowered, you feel like you are getting something done.

The Web is not an art museum. It is not something you use to admire pictures. Of course, there are exceptions to that as well, because you could have an art museum website. But for most websites, you are there not for the art but for the action.

CIO: How then should websites differentiate themselves from one another?

FLANDERS: Creating a site that solves problems will differentiate a website from other sites that are just there to show off how cool they are or what kind of brand they are trying to sell.

NIELSEN: Websites can get a differentiating advantage by being human centered, studying the users and figuring out how they do things. They need to find out where the opportunities are for doing things differently?not just automating the way things are done today.

But, I really want to emphasize not to be different for the sake of being different and not to do everything differently. Follow the basic things like putting your logo on the upper right-hand corner and making your links blue. Changing those things is not the way to differentiate; to differentiate is to do something that is valuable to the users.

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