Prioritizing Web Usability
Dr. Jakob Nielsen is the guru of web usability. He has been studying, writing, and advocating for better web usability for decades, and his advice is generally accepted as truth when it comes to improving websites. If he is anything, he is thorough. At 432 pages, Prioritizing Web Usability is essentially the reference on website user interface design. I actually made the mistake of also reading his Designing Web Usability as well, but you shouldn't. It's another 432 page reference (is there some meaning in 432?), only from 7 years earlier, and it's pretty much obsolete.
Dr. Nielsen does cover a lot of ground, including a very interesting review of how the web has improved since Designing Web Usability, but I couldn't help but feel like his explanations were excessively drawn out. By the time I reached the chapter on "Writing for the Web" that contained the advice of cutting down the prose on websites to the bare necessities, I was thinking a fair amount of cutting might have improved the readability of this book. The authors did try to make the argument that the web required succinct writing while print did not because it was the nature of the medium. I was not convinced. Then I read Don't Make Me Think, with the advice to cut half the content and then cut half of what's left, and I thought even more that there's no reason that shouldn't apply to print as well. Cut anything that doesn't directly add to the reader's understanding of what you are saying. They will thank you for it!
As it stands, I ended up only reading the prose and skipping the picture captions. This method probably cut about a third of the length from the book, and a fair amount of the redundancy. After finishing, I figured I could have gotten just as much out of it by only reading the captions and skimming the prose for any other keen insights. Don't misunderstand me, this book contains a wealth of knowledge on how to build a better website, and it's all clearly explained with good examples. The problem is that the key advice is watered down with a lot of extra points and wordy arguments to back up the reasoning. A book that was half the size with more focused advice would have ended up being much stronger, as we will soon see.
Don't Make Me Think
At 216 pages, Steve Krug's book is actually exactly half the size of Prioritizing Web Usability. Now I'm wondering if that was a coincidence. Steve's writing is clear, concise, and entertaining. The layout of the book is excellent, with great examples of websites that are trimmed to show only the point that he's trying to get across. It's so well done that it will only take you a few hours to read through it, and it will open your mind. Once you are aware of the issues, you'll see them in every website you visit, good or bad. That awareness alone will make you a better designer.
Even my wife read through this book and enjoyed it, and she's not a technical person. Steve shows you what you need to know, and he does it in a way that is accessible to everyone. That is the sign of a great teacher, and a great book. My wife was so impressed with it that she went on and read Rocket Surgery Made Easy, which goes in depth on usability testing. She liked it just as much as Don't Make Me Think. I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning to. I don't have much else to say, except, you should read Don't Make Me Think. Get the print version. The layout and full color content of the book lends itself much better to print. You can also check out Steve's website for more great advice.
A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing
If I had to pick one idea from these books that could really make you a better web designer, it's that your intuitions about good web design are wrong. If you are designing websites, your technical expertise will get in the way of usability because what is obvious to you is not obvious to the majority of your users. On top of that, you know too much about your website, and you'll naturally organize it in a way that makes sense to you. But your users aren't coming to your website to learn everything you know. They're either coming to get something done, or to learn what they need to know. To help your users accomplish their goals, your site needs to be simple, clear, and obvious. These books can help, but the best way to achieve that is to get to know your users. You're designing for them, are you not?
So what to read?
If you haven't already decided, let me give one more perspective. My wife also tried reading Designing Web Usability. She couldn't get past the first 100 pages, and she was constantly asking me questions about what Dr. Nielsen was talking about, since she's a non-technical person. That experience has turned her off to reading Prioritizing Web Usability. I think she'll get around to it at some point, but she keeps putting it off. With Krug's books she could read straight through, understanding everything. Her recommendation is that everyone, whether they are design engineers at a huge corporation or Johnny down the street setting up a personal website, can gain a lot from reading Steve Krug's books. If you are a technical person with lots of time on your hands, or if you are searching for encyclopedic knowledge of web usability, then reading Nielson's book would get you there.