22 Feb 2007 1837H

Prioritizing Web Usability, Homepage Usability: a review

Before Paper Prototyping, I’d read Jakob Nielsen’s and Hoa Loranger’s book, Prioritizing Web Usability (2006), which updates Jakob’s original Designing Web Usability (2000), a classic in the field. Like its predecessor, Prioritizing is voluminous, primarily because of the necessary illustrations, but it can be gotten through in one day with some effort. Here the authors have taken 69 users from the US and the UK and run them through a battery of 25 websites on a hunt for usability problems. They didn’t need to hunt very hard.

The first third of the book uses this body of evidence to review and update recommendations in the original book as they are reevaluated in terms of their severity. This section also describes how NN prioritizes and calculates the severity of a usability problem, which is a pretty useful metric to have, as I’ve noted in previous posts. In the past, I’ve used a pass/fail system for heuristic evaluations to avoid the rather arbitrary, subjective nature of ranking severity, which introduces observational error and poses a threat to validity, but this measure does not give you a sense of the severity of the problem: the algorithm presented helps to minimize this type of error.

I also like the approach the authors have taken in clustering another group of usability problems, discovered through a much larger group of users and websites, into five major problem areas and devoting the rest of the book towards illustrating what those problems are and how they can be attacked. Some of the problems described do seem dogmatic, however, and of course, the examples themselves are at constant risk of being obsolete, and in fact do seem dated, even though the problems illustrated are chronic, but without much prescription: this book, which will be written by some future interaction designer, will probably identify and evaluate these emergent design patterns. People who have read his previous book, Homepage Usability (2002), co-authored with Marie Tahir, will find some, if not many of his recommendations quite familiar, although it deals with a much more limited subject, the highly contentious home page, battleground for different silos within an organization. Actually, of all his books, I like Homepage the best, primarily because the content was designed so intelligently: it is a large format book that could go on a coffee table, has illustrated sections of a home page called out directly, and is comparatively pleasurable to read, but the book itself does not lend itself to a clustering of usability problems as Prioritizing does.

Although many of the 50 homepage examples themselves are long out of date, it’s funny (alright, tragic really) how many of these problems still continue to come up in discussions within an organization; I may well keep a stack of these on-hand at my desk when consulting for a new client if only to hand a new stakeholder for every discussion we have about the homepage.

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