Foreword to Rosenfeld and Morville's Book on Information Architecture (1st edition)

by Jakob Nielsen on January 1, 1998

Foreword to  Information Architecture (1st edition)

by Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer

(See also my foreword to the second edition of the book.)

In 1987, I conducted a survey of people who had read a small report I had written in the pioneering Guide hypertext system (the first commercial hypertext product for personal computers). Fifty-six percent of the respondents agreed with the statement, "When reading the report, I was often confused about 'where I was.'" One user commented: "I soon realized that if I did not read something when I stumbled across it, then I would not be able to find it later."

I had certainly tried to make the hypertext document as easy to use as I could, and it was very small, as were most hypertexts in the early days. But even in this small information space of fewer than fifty "pages", users reported severe disorientation problems. Around 1990, fairly large hypertexts with thousands of pages became available on CD-ROM, and usability studies by myself and others again found disorientation to be a serious issue. Some of the better CD-ROMs attacked the problem with good structure, clean navigation, well-integrated search, and a consistent user interface and achieved reasonable usability as a result. Other CD-ROMs were a mess.

Fast-forward to the end of the century: No longer are we designing for a few thousand pages of information: a large web site like www.sun.com can easily contain 25,000 pages or more. Even worse, it is constantly growing, with categories of information coming and going depending on corporate needs. Designing in this environment is much harder than the happy CD-ROM days where the finished product would be static and was under strict control of a single program manager.

It is a sobering experience to observe usability studies of Web users: if you give people a specific problem to solve on the Web, they will only rarely succeed in arriving at the correct solution. Instead, users often end up very close to the solution without knowing it. Poor information architecture on many sites often makes "being close" completely worthless.

In five years of lecturing about Web design at events in thirteen countries on four continents, I have met Web staff from hundreds of companies who have almost all made the same mistakes in their projects. Worse; I have made these mistakes myself. I finally came to realize that the reason for these mistakes is not that I am stupid or that every single customer company is clueless. The reason is that the Web intrinsically leads you down the wrong path if you approach it without knowing its special characteristics. The natural way most people run Web projects leads to mistakes at all levels:

  • Business model: treating the Web as a marcom brochure and not as a fundamental shift that will change the way we conduct business in the network economy
  • Project management: outsourcing to multiple agencies without coordination, forgetting the maintenance budget, and generally not knowing how to manage a development project
  • Information architecture: sites are frequently structured like the company's own org chart instead of reflecting the users' view of the service
  • Page layout: heavy graphics are preferred because they look gorgeous on the art director's high-end color monitor where they are downloaded over a direct line to the server (users, of course, turn away in disgust because of the slow download)
  • Content authoring: writers don't realize the need to cut their copy in half for online readers; neither do they modularize the text into multiple hypertext nodes
  • Linking: banning external links in an attempt to imprison the user on your own site (get over it: the user owns the mouse and controls navigation)

On all these levels, any company's first Web project is doomed to failure . They are destined to repeat history and make all the same mistakes as everybody else. Unless, that is, they learn from those of us who have been in the trenches for some time and seen these problems again and again. If Rosenfeld and Morville were WebMarines, their uniforms would be crowded with medals for the battles they have fought and often won. Please listen to their war stories instead of getting wounded yourself.

Jakob Nielsen
Atherton, California, January 1998


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