Book Summary "Designing Web Usability" Part 1 | WebReference

Book Summary "Designing Web Usability" Part 1

Book Summary: Designing Web Usability

Jakob Nielsen is on a crusade to make the Web easier to use. His latest book, Designing Web Usability, takes what he learned through years of usability testing, both on and off the Web, and applies that knowledge to Web site design.

Following Nielsen's "less is more" philosophy, we've summarized the key portions of the book below for quick scanning.

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Summary of Key Chapters: Designing Web Usability

1. Preface

The book opens with some reinforcement for book presentation of his findings, and then proceeds to predict the demise of books by the year 2007 when digital technology catches up with book publishing's current resolution.

Introduction: Why Web Usability?
There will be 10 million sites on the Web by January 2000 (25 million by the end of a year and the 100 million to the year 2002), so users have more choices than ever. Why waste their time? With this overwhelming freedom of choice, Web users exhibit remarkable impatience and insistence on instant gratification. If they can't figure out your Web site quickly they leave.

Usability has assumed greater importance in the Internet economy. The Web reverses the order of the user's experience.

  • In product and software design, customers pay first, experience usability later
  • On the Web, users experience usability first, and pay later.

Art vs. Engineering
Design is a combination of expression and problem solving. Reflecting Nielsen's background, this book rests firmly on the engineering side - treating a Web project as a software development project helps keep it on schedule and ensure quality. Pervasive application of usability engineering leads to continuing improvement in existing designs, both to make them more usable and to help guide new designs.

This book has many rules and guidelines derived from real-world Web experience. The author shows what actually works when real users performed real tasks on the Web.

A Call for Action
Nielsen calls himself a usability evangelist: "The goal of this book is to change your behavior. To provide better service to your users." It provides techniques you can use to enhance the user experience. One big picture strategy you can use is to place your customer's needs at the center of your Web strategy.

Why everybody designs Web sites incorrectly
This book is based on observations of usability tests web about 400 users using many different Web sites or last six years. Also drawn from his 10 years of usability work in online information systems, and hypertext before the advent of the Web.

  • "User centric design rather than corporate centric design"
  • "Design for an optimal user experience under real estate conditions"


Screen Real Estate
  • Above the fold: Content of interest to the user should dominate your Web pages, especially above the fold (at least 50% of Web page's design preferably 80% percent). Navigation should consist of Simplify: eliminate unnecessary interface elements.

Cross-Platform Design
In traditional GUI design the programmer controls the navigation interface. On the Web this is reversed, the user is in control and web designers need to accommodate in support user controlled navigation. Flexibility is key. Put your logo on every page linked to your home page.
  • Where are users coming from? Design pages their work on small screens and self-optimize for different display devices.
  • Color depth getting deeper: 68% of screens are Get a big screen: you'll be much more productive
  • Resolution Independent Design: use percentages not fixed widths
  • Use text for text
  • Provide separate printable pages
  • Don't use nonstandard content
  • Installation Inertia: browser upgrade speed is 1%/week so wait 1-2 years before using new technology on your site

Separating Meaning and Presentation
As you can no longer predict the user's configuration, use stylesheets to enable you to optimize for different displays and for speech.

Response Times
Usability studies have shown that fast response times are the most important design criterion for Web pages. Speed is paramount. Here's what usability studies have shown for various response times:

< .1 second = instantaneous
< 1 sec. = uninterrupted flow through an information space
< 10 seconds = limit to keep users attention on the dialog

  • Have Predictable Response Times: low variability is also important for consistent response times and expectations.
    • Keep page response time variability to a minimum
    • Show the size of larger files that will download in 10 seconds or more at prevalent bandwidth (50Kbytes at 56Kbps)
  • Speedy downloads, speedy connections:
    • Minimize HTML, the number and size of graphics, and multimedia
    • Use colored table cells and fronts
    • Reuse images within your pages and site
  • Users like fast pages
    • Ideally you want a 1 second response time for maximum "flow" (5 KB page at 56 Kbps)
    • Realistically you want to shoot for For pages > 34 KB the user "bailout rate" increases (though Dr. Nielsen recommends 20-30K max in his interview)
  • Glimpsing the first screenfull
    • The top of your page should be meaningful and fast (use width and height on images and tables)
    • Use meaningful ALT text
    • Simplify complex tables as they display slower. Split large tables into several tables (they display in order, and appear on screen faster).


  • Use trailing slashes "/" for directories (they display faster)
  • Use link descriptions: 2-4 words long
  • Include link TITLEs to explain links WebRef
    • Use name of site (external), subsite name, and any warnings (registration required)
    • Titles should be 60-80 characters max
  • Coloring your links: don't use nonstandard link colors (they contribute to 16% of task success)
    • Use unvisited = blue and visited = purple or red
  • Link expectations: links are double-ended
    • Departure: explain why they should leave
    • Arrival: situate users in new context, provide them with value
    • Don't open up new browser windows (it disables the back button, and they can do it themselves)
  • External links create a value added part of your content, and are cheap
  • Incoming links: support them
    • Permanent URLs
    • Have great focused content
  • Don't require subscriptions and registration
  • Advertising: link directly to payoff page, not your home page (20-30% hit back button otherwise)

Style Sheets
Use them to separate presentation and content.
  • Use a single linked stylesheet for all pages in your site, designed by a single, central, design group
  • Subsites/authors can use individual stylesheets, recommends embedded
  • Make sure stylesheets work
    • Try disabling and reload
    • Use no more than two fonts (possibly a third for computer code)
    • Use relative font size not absolute size
    • Don't use "!important" in style sheets
    • Use the same CLASS names for the same concept for multiple stylesheets

Frames: Just say no.

Credibility: Good-looking clean design equals credibility.

Printing: Provide printable versions of any long documents.

Conclusion: Simplicity is the goal of page design. Users focus on content.

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Created: Dec. 13, 1999
Revised: Dec. 17, 1999