Better Than Reality: A Fundamental Internet Principle

by Jakob Nielsen on March 8, 1998

Summary: Instead of emulating the real world, websites should build on the strengths of the medium and go beyond what's possible in physical reality: be non-linear, customize service, ignore geography.


Web designs sometimes emulate the physical world thinking that doing so will make users feel at home. But technical limitations make these approximations weak and inaccurate. For example, some sites provide three-dimensional sitemaps, which invariably make users lost in space when displayed on a 2-D monitor.

Similarly, it is an utter waste to look at jerky and pixelating postage size stamp Internet video that purportedly shows some smart person delivering an important keynote. Not only is the video useless; because it is so bad, it actually distracts from the audio message. Spend the available bandwidth on high-fidelity audio supplemented with slowly changing high-resolution photos of the speaker, the audience, and (most important) the visuals used in the talk. Even better: deliver something that can't be done in the physical world by indexing the talk and allowing the user to jump directly to segments of interest while reading short abstracts of the other parts. Then integrate the speaker's original content with hypertext links to background information and annotations and comments by other authorities in the field.

Instead of impoverished facsimiles of reality, design from a basis of strength and go beyond reality to things that are impossible in the physical world. It is painful to use the Web, so we need to reward users: give them something new and better that they didn't get before.

Internet malls make no sense, but in the early years of the Web, several companies built sites that approximated real-world shopping malls. In the physical world, malls help by offering one-stop parking and allowing visits to several shops without having to walk outdoors through rain, snow, or glaring sun. On the Web, any shop in the world is a single click away, so there is not much benefit from aggregating different shops on a single site.

Instead of malls, Web shopping is enriched by linking arrangements that allow the smallest website to have the world's largest inventory and allows cross-selling of related products at other sites. A good example is the "affiliate programs" pioneered by Amazon.com where any site with a targeted topic area suddenly turns into a full-service bookstore selling books related to the site's focus without the need to store any books. A butcher can sell cookbooks and a florist can sell books on flower arrangements. The key insight is that things do not need to be on the same website to be integrated: the hypertext link allows new forms of customer service that are impossible when people have to move in meatspace.

Transcripts of Realtime Chats Don't Work

As another example of the problems with overly close imitations of reality, consider Barnes&Noble's interview with Esther Dyson, author of the book Release 2.0. This interview (no longer online as of Feb. 2004) is simply a transcript of a chat session and makes for poor reading. It is filled with quotes like "I won't be passing through Knoxville" (on a book tour several months ago - useless info to read now). In general, I view chat negatively since it tends to degenerate into name-calling and very low-quality comments. The B&N author interviews are better than most Internet chat because there is a moderator to filter the questions and because authors are above-average writers. Even so, a real interview that would be interesting to read would have required an editor to cut out about half of the chat transcript. On the Web, you do not need the inefficiency of sitting through a linear stream of good and bad stuff intermixed randomly. Let's be better than eavesdropping on a group conversation: asynchronous Web access allows the editor time to filter the content, and hypertext allows for a non-linear presentation.

Amazon.com has a robot that interviews authors: in reality, this means that authors get asked a standard set of questions and end up editing the interviews themselves. The downside is that the questions are not specific to the individual author's book and interests. The huge upside is that it becomes feasible to interview thousands of authors. In contrast, B&N has a very small number of author interviews. Doing interviews in a way that wouldn't work in the physical world has allowed Amazon to feature a much richer service.

Furthermore, Amazon links its page for each book to its interview with the author, meaning that users don't have to specifically search for author interviews to find them. In contrast, B&N keeps the interviews in a separate part of their site, so if you find a book you will never discover whether there is an author interview available. This difference in linking shows the benefits of thinking beyond reality. In a physical bookstore, it would be too much work to add a sticker to all the books with a reference to an interview that was kept at the sales counter. But on a computer, the link is simply one more field in the database: as soon as the database is updated, all future users will see a link to the author interview whenever they are interested in a book.

(Update 2007: electronic gift certificates are another example where the Web is better than the physical world: an e-certificate can be sent immediately to anybody in the world, making it a great last-minute gift.)

Internet Business Requires Internet Thinking

It bothers me to mention Amazon.com in this column since I have previously warned against the danger of using atypical examples like Amazon when analyzing the Web. Unfortunately, Amazon is still one of the only companies that understands how to do business on the Web, so it is a rich source of examples. Other sites will differ from Amazon's , so it will rarely be a good idea to copy them directly. Instead, view them as a source of inspiration.

Most companies understand Web business very poorly . Everybody involved in Web design or Web strategy should do as much of their personal business on the Web as possible to get direct experience with the "Web lifestyle." Following this philosophy, I recently bought a present for my nephew from the website of a famous toy store. After completing the order, I received a confirmation email that listed the name of the toy and its price. So far, so good. The email then went on to say, "if we have the toy in stock, you will receive it in about one week; if it is not in stock, you will receive it in three to four weeks." Have these guys never heard of integrating order processing with inventory management? Don't send an IF-THEN-ELSE statement to your customers: that's what computers are good for.

In the physical world, sales clerks may have to tell customers that they don't know when an order will ship. But the Web should be better than reality: check inventory and shipping schedules in the background and hold the email confirmation until you know the ship date. If you can't find out within a few hours, then send a preliminary confirmation followed by more precise information the minute you know. Again we can go beyond the real world: sending an extra message when a condition is triggered is virtually free on the Internet. Also, since the message doesn't go by snail mail, it will reach the customer in time to do some good.

Ways to Be Better Than Reality

  • be non-linear: don't force users to live through a stream of time that they can't control
  • customize service: computers can do different things for different people
  • be asynchronous: a customized link to check the status of an order allows a customer to resume a "conversation" many hours later without spending any time on reestablishing context
  • support anonymity: if people don't have to reveal who they are, they may be more willing to do certain things
  • link liberally: links are the foundation of the Web and can make anything into an extension of your own service
  • support search and multiple views: different people have different preferences, and there is no need to be limited to a single way of doing things on the Web
  • be small and cheap: because of the efficiency of computers it is possible to deal in much smaller units than before
  • be free: it costs very little to offer free samples over the Web, so a book publisher could offer a free chapter and a consultant could offer free advice on some frequently asked questions (while charging for the full product or service, of course)
  • ignore geography: support users who access your site from home, the office, the car, while away on business trips or vacations, and from anywhere in the world

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