Reader Usability Wisdom From a Web Guru

By: Steve Outing

With the printed newspaper, you don't really have usability problems. The ability to turn the page, or follow a jump line to an inside page, is pretty much universal without teaching the reader these skills. There are no resolution problems; the printed page is easy on the eyes and type is crisp. The printed page doesn't subtly flash before your eyes.

But enter the computer into the equation, and things aren't so simple or ideal any more. Content read on computer screens is harder to read, words can't be comprehended as fast on screen, and users not only have to master skills to manipulate information using the standard PC interface, but they must learn the individual Web publication's interface as well.

In the online publishing environment, then, usability is a key factor in the ultimate success of a Web site. Jakob Nielsen, a distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems and the company's chief Web usability guru, thinks that every Web publisher should do at least a quick usability study to determine how gracefully users interact with its site. Too many news sites, he says, make common mistakes that some quick empirical research would point out.

Consider that text read on a present-day computer screen is on average read 25% slower than the same text on paper. The low resolution (typically 72 dpi) and slow refresh rate (75Hz) of today's standard computer monitor makes it difficult for consumers to process a lot of information. The lesson for Web site publishers, Nielsen says, is to design with this in mind, which means writing shorter and presenting content in screen-sized bites, for example. And don't present text in 9-point type, which will slow down your readers far more than 25%.

Users also don't like to scroll, Nielsen points out. Usability studies conducted by his group clearly demonstrate that users are reluctant to scroll down to see parts of a Web page that aren't visible immediately. For a full-text article this isn't so critical, but a Web news site's "front page" that includes a headline table of contents of what's "inside" the site is a bad idea if most of your users see only the top part of the page. "It's like having a newspaper that you couldn't unfold," Nielsen says.

With a newspaper or magazine, he points out, the consumer understands that it will be out again with a new edition tomorrow, or next week, or next month. But with Web news sites, many times consumers aren't given a clue as to whether they should visit in a few hours or a few days to see a new "edition." Web publishers need to tell their readers how often to come back for new content, because it's not implicitly obvious.

Do it yourself usability study

Web publishers need to know how consumers are interacting with their sites, so Nielsen recommends that everyone invest in at least a basic, one-day usability study which can be conducted in-house. (He's written a book that includes explanations of how to do it, entitled "Usability Engineering," published by AP Professional.) He recommends:

Limit public participants to five, and have them represent a range of the public who use or might use your site. This can be accomplished in a single day. Using more participants will result in too many notepads full of information. Videotape the sessions, so you can go back over them later. Sit your participants in front of a PC to observe what they do. It's important to have an environment that is free from distractions and relatively quiet. You don't need to create a faux living room environment, but use a room where you can close the door. Allow only one or two observers to sit with the study participant. Any more, put them behind a one-way mirror. First, give the participants exploratory time. Let them go wherever they like on your site, and simply observe what they do and where they seem to get tripped up. After the exploratory phase, give the participants directed tasks. Ask them to find a specific movie review, or a columnist, or instruct them to write an electronic letter to the editor. Then see if they can do it without getting stymied and watch for interface or usability problems. Don't answer if participants ask for help. Nielsen calls this the "shut-up rule." If a participant asks how to do something, answer with another question, such as, "Where would you think that button would be?" In general, don't interfere with the participant in any way while she is using your site -- for that will ruin the validity of your study. Nielsen recommends getting some novice computer users in the mix, but they should have at least some computer experience. You don't want someone who has never sat down before a computer before, because basic computer usability issues will overshadow the Web site usability issues that you are trying to study.

And here's a bonus usability study tip that can be used on a regular basis: Nielsen suggests writing two headlines and splitting them between site visitors, so half see one headline and the other half the second headline. (Advertisers can do the same thing. Or you can offer up different Web page designs.) Watch the clickthroughs, "and after 10 minutes, you know which one to run the rest of the day."

A tablet in your future?

Recently, Nielsen has been studying the future of online news, with the idea in mind that Sun will be creating products that news organizations can use for their Web sites to enhance the online news experience. He remains convinced that small digital tablets for reading online news publications will become prevalent in a few more years, and was "very discouraged" to see Knight-Ridder pull the plug on its Information Design lab in 1995, which focused on developing the tablet-based "newspaper of the future." (IDL's former director, Roger Fidler, has taken his vision for the tablet news publication to Kent State University in Ohio, where work on the concept continues.)

IDL was ahead of its time, says Nielsen, and the tablet technology still has serious shortcomings like poor screen resolution and short battery life. "But we know that hardware engineers will fix them; it just takes time, but they will be fixed." Sun wants to be ready for when that day comes, and Nielsen urges publishers to be prepared for the day when publishing to portable digital tablets is a reality. Today's Web usability studies will apply to tomorrow's tablet news device.

In addition to his Usability book, Nielsen also has authored another title, "Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet and Beyond" (AP Professional, $29.95).

Contact: Jakob Nielsen,

July 4 holiday

There will be no regular column on Friday, due to the Independence Day holiday in the U.S. Stop The Presses! will return on Monday, July 7. (I will be at the NetMedia conference in London later this week, and expect to report on issues raised at this meeting.)


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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