Designing Web Usability by Jakob Nielson is a must read book for anyone who designs, tests, or manages people who design or test websites. Early chapters of the book detail dos and don’ts of page, content and site design that will primarily be of interest to developers and designers. Later chapters provide strategy for the overall structure of internet, extranet and intranet sites which will be very helpful to managers who want to better understand how to leverage these technologies effectively. It is an excellent reference manual for anyone who is working on such products.
For the most part, the guidelines in this book still apply today, even though the book was published in 1999. However, Chapter 2 (Page Design) suffers more than most of the other design chapters from being out-of-date. Page resolution and site loading times are still important issues for designers, but widespread broadband internet and newer widescreen monitors make these issues less of a problem for many sites. To be fair, Nielson acknowledges that future technology advancements could have an effect on his recommendations by making predictions on what these advancements and their effects may be. Chapter 8 of the book is devoted entirely to these predictions. Despite these limitations, Chapter 2 is an excellent starting point for page design, even 10 years after publication.
Chapter 3 (Content Design) and Chapter 4 (Site Design) have aged a bit better than Chapter 2. Chapter 3 is an good resource for people who are responsible for the content of websites, particularly corporate websites. The book provides recommendations on best-practices for online text, headlines and documentation. Chapter 4 lays out guidelines for organizing and designing the overall layout of the site. Nielson writes that the two biggest mistakes of site design are not having a site design and organizing the site in the way that a company is organized, as opposed to in a user-centric fashion.
Chapters 2, 3, and 4 will make an excellent reference for those who are working on new corporate websites. An outline is provided at the beginning of each chapter which makes finding passages regarding particular components of design easy to find. These chapters on design are not quite as detailed as some books that are more focused on just design (like Don’t Make Me Think), though, so they may be most helpful to beginning designers, managers, or others who won’t actually be doing the “hands on” develoment.
The book moves away from public site design and into internal or extranet sites in Chapter 5 (Intranet Design). This chapter is primarily geared towards management; the highlight of this chapter is the discussion of how a well-designed intranet site can lead to significant productivity gains for an entire organization.
Chapters 6 and 7 deal with accessibility for users with disabilities and international users, respectively. These chapters will not be as useful as a reference as the the design chapters, but these issues should be considered by anyone creating a new site. As discussed, Nielson makes several predictions of web usability in the future in Chapter 8. This chapter isn’t particularly useful, but it is enjoyable to read the predictions for the web from an expert 10 years later. Chapter 9 concludes the book with a summary of some of the more important recommendations of the book.
The value of a quality web design/usability book such as this is that it makes you think about what makes sites good or bad. These books detail why certain design decisions are better than others. The foundation that these books provide is essential to anyone making design decisions; design based on intuition or on other web sites often leads to choosing flashy design over effective site usability. This book is a must-read for anyone working on the web.