Preface to the 2002 Reprint of "Coordinating User Interfaces for Consistency"

by Jakob Nielsen on January 1, 2002

Preface to Coordinating User Interfaces for Consistency.

How can a computer book written in 1989 be reprinted in 2002? Is it not completely obsolete?

The answer is no, for two different reasons.

The first, and least interesting, reason is that this is still the best book on user interface consistency and design standards, if I do say so myself. It's admittedly also the only book on consistency. So letting the book go out of print would mean that there would be no place to learn about this important topic.

The second, and more fundamental, reason is that usability methods are much more durable than the average computer technology. Usability concerns human capabilities and behavior. If you wanted to estimate how much the average IQ has increased from 1989 to 2002, the answer would probably be less than 1%. Small improvements do happen as a result of better nutrition and such, but basically people are quite the same today as they were 13 years ago.

This book has proven even more durable than most usability books because it is really a meta-design book. It doesn't provide primary design guidelines about how you should structure your task flow or how you should lay out your dialog boxes or how you should write your web pages. Other good books exist for each of these topics and many other issues in user interface design. This book is about the methods needed to coordinate the efforts of multiple designers (or even one designer working over time) so that the resulting designs form a coherent whole where users can transfer their learning from one design element to the next.

The methods for coordination are remarkably constant. Rereading the chapters of this book more than a decade after they were written reveals that everything is just as applicable to web design and the design of information appliances or interactive TV as they were to the specific products used as examples by the contributors. Try to coordinate the people who are adding content and weblications to your intranet and you will find that you can use most of the same tricks that Apple used to enhance the usability of the Macintosh in the early 1980s.

The main change over the years is that consistency and design standards are of considerably bigger economic significance now. Back in the 1980s, market research found that Macintosh users bought more software packages than DOS users for the simple reason that it was easier for them to learn additional software packages because of Apple's emphasis on consistency. Worth millions of dollars, for sure, but still a small part of the world economy. Today, almost all large and mid-sized companies have an intranet and employees spend a large percentage of their time accessing information and services on the intranet. Much of that time is a complete waste due to inconsistent design that reduces employee productivity. World-wide, the losses are in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

For the World Wide Web at large, the numbers may be even greater. One of the biggest changes in computing in the second half of the 1990s was that people changed from using a handful of software applications on their own PC to using thousands of websites from all over the world. True freedom of movement on the Web is only possible if users understand what they can do as they arrive on a new website. Another change is that most major websites are constructed by the collaborative efforts of hundreds of people, often in widely scattered departments and job functions across the company. The need for coordination and consistency has grown dramatically as a result of these changes.

The methods are the same as when we wrote the book. All that has changed is that the need for following the advice and the economic payoff from doing so are much bigger.


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