Stifling the Net's creative spirit

Emanuela Agni takes issue with comments by usability guru Jakob Nielsen made in Computer Weekly's 9 November issue


Emanuela Agni takes issue with comments by usability guru Jakob Nielsen made in Computer Weekly's 9 November issue

Jakob Nielsen's controversial ideas are at the centre of a raging battle on the Internet between Web designers and usability advocates. Nielsen's idea of Web design places a premium on usability over style. This is exemplified by his Web site http ://, which consists of two coloured squares densely filled with text.

However usability and information design should not ignore aesthetic concerns. A truly user-friendly site can be beautifully designed and elegantly structured. Creative design not only enhances the message but provides the user with a more memorable experience which is likely to lead to repeat visits. The principal goal of effective communication is clarity. Too often, simplicity is seen as synonymous with clarity. This unfortunate mistake is responsible for dumbing down information rather than illuminating it.

The Web is still a new and experimental space, which is shaped, daily, by users' needs. It is used by an array of people ranging from the tech-savvy to the techno-illiterate; a combination of well-informed and helpless visitors whose interaction to sites is dictated by cultural dispositions and sensory abilities. What all these visitors have in common is a short attention span, a problem that is exacerbated by the increasing number of media competing for our time. We need to be challenged through a combination of constantly changing visual and mental stimuli.

Material that is perceived as static and dull is often overlooked as unimportant. Our capacity for concentration deteriorates when there is nothing to stimulate it. Where there is no change, a state of sensory deprivation occurs. Nielsen maintains that the reason people spend more time on other sites is because they have poor usability. But the real reason these sites score low ratings on usability is that they fail to excite and entice users because of poor design.

In the current environment of sensory overload, the Internet is just one of many media competing for our attention. To get it, the Net needs to do more than give information. It should create a rewarding experience for users. To encourage users to return, a Web site must be more than simply useful, it should be fun and personalised as well. One way to achieve this is through interactive and sensory design. Both are essentially story-telling devices which employ techniques based on sensory communication.

The use of visual design (typography, graphic design, illustration, video, photography, sound and music) enhances our experience of the Net and is often the most effective way to communicate a particular message.

The Internet is currently unregulated and reflects the diversity of its users. In this environment, Nielsen's rigid fixation on usability is impractical and not much different from a teacher trying to placate a classroom full of unruly children. It is useless to impose a uniform structure on a chaotic medium, which is basically Nielsen's crusade. Surely, his efforts to creat a vanilla-flavoured Net will be in vain as his unbending logic ignores that the Net is still a new medium and the rules we apply today may be invalid in the future as new technologies and creative ideas emerge.

Usability experts, designers, computer scientists and online gurus need more than the anecdotal information provided by usability tests in order to create guidelines for good design.

By imposing his own rigid guidelines for Web design, Nielsen is stifling the creative process and the free exchange of ideas. The truth is that nobody really knows precisely how the mind works.

What we do know is that people have many different cognitive styles and they interact to Web sites in different ways. Therefore, people need different tools, interfaces and designs that fit how they think rather than one set of rules that fits how Nielsen thinks.

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