Readers' Comments on End of Web Design

by Jakob Nielsen on July 23, 2000

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on End of Web Design .

There is One Web

Jonathan O'Donnell writes:

In your latest column, you say "The days of the unified website are long gone".

This, and the ideas that accompany it, can be expressed better:

There is only one World Wide Web.
We are creating small pieces of a unified whole.
Once people understand this concept, the rest follows very naturally. By "the rest", I mean:
  • using unified design principals;
  • understanding the value of linking outwards; and
  • the curse of link rot.

Jakob's reply: You are pointing to the root cause of many of our problems: many people are not willing to accept that the Web is bigger than they are. But truly, we are creating a small piece of the larger whole.

The history of proprietary online services clearly shows that even the best service will fail if it is a stand-alone environment. Being part of a greater whole is what makes websites succeed. They need to acknowledge that.

Will Similar Designs Make the Web a Dull Place?

Tom du Pré writes:

Although in principle, I agree with the majority of your points, I think some are only effective and useful in an idealistic, marketless, and dare I say Communist world. If all websites did follow your guide lines exactly, the internet would be a very dull place, which people would not use. As the internet is moving more and more towards television, the justification for watching or logging on will become similar. The only reason why people turn on their TV is because they expect to see something different each time. Excluding high loyalty sites, the reasons why people log on to the internet is that they expect to find something new and interesting.

As you are coming from a pure usability point of view, I can understand your justifications that sites should be standardised ruthlessly, even down to the information architecture level to ensure that people can find the information they want to easily. I thought the potentially most interesting section of your article was the last, entitled What remains in Web Design, but I did not feel your explored this area in enough depth. I would like to approach this issue from slightly more of a marketing and production point of view, although with usability still at the front of my mind.

I think your rules work perfectly for sites like your own. However, a purely informational site is not the only kind of site on the web. Many sites are there to entertain, and to sell, and I do not think the advice in your last Alertbox reflected this, or was useful to this. I would like to concentrate particularly on those sites which are there to sell goods and services to consumers.

A vital part of selling is branding. My website must carry exactly the same branding, symbolism, messages and tone as the rest of my company's corporate ID. People will not buy my products unless they are strongly supported the my brand which they already know and trust. The entire reason why people have brands is to make themselves DIFFERENT from their competition, and not the same! We must push our competitive advantage, and that is never going to be, "Please buy our products, because they are just the same as everyone else's".

Secondly, as all sites are so different, and require the user to perform different tasks in order to extract whatever they require from the site. The central point of this, is what the user puts into the site depends entirely on what the user gets out of it. My site sells insurance, and my customer is going to have to enter different information in a very different way compared to how he behaves when he uses Hotmail, or is playing on Shockwave.com

Thirdly, I feel websites are a product which you ask people to buy, using their time and attention as currency. Users buy a product because they prefer it, and are stimulated by it. Receiving information is what people want, but they would prefer to receive that information and could use it better if it was tailored, and not standardised. If all breakfast cereals came in the same grey boxes, no-one would eat breakfast cereal. The reason why they would not eat it, is because they would not buy it because it looked boring. Sales of fruit would increase, because fruit comes in all sorts of interesting shapes and colours.

To conclude, I feel that web design will continue to be fundamental in getting people into a site, and keeping them interested and engaged in your site. The designer should tailor his site around what he is going to provide the user, and he must provide that in the best way for him. Of course he should follow protocols, however, if he builds his site in such a way that the user can understand immediately how to extract the information, he is not going to care if it is a blue underlined link, or any other form of interaction. People like to be engaged and interested, and treated as a discerning human, not a data searching programme.

Jakob's reply: These are all great points, and for sure, my proposal would fail if it made the Web overly dull. However, I do not think that standardizing the design will make the Web boring or uniform in those ways that matter for enjoyment:

Consider the analogies of television and newspapers: there is huge uniformity in the design of these products in terms of the user interface. Only the content differs. And I did note that the content would continue to be different for different sites.

Admittedly, there is a small amount of variation in user interface among newspapers: some are broadsheets and some are tabloids. Some have a big sports section and others have a few sports pages that are not bound separately and thus require extra work to find. But almost all newspapers have the same information architecture in terms of the very concept of sections and in terms of the names of the main sections (national news, international, local, sports, business, culture). The interaction technique is always the same: you get the next page by - turning the page. Not by unfolding an origami of a crane.

Newspapers also have virtually identical appearance design: sure, they each have their house typeface, but they all use bigger fonts for the headlines and smaller fonts for the classified ads. When you see a newspaper in a language you don't read, you can still identify the main components exactly because there is almost no variation in newspaper design. Those small differences that do remain are sufficient to give each newspaper its own identity without reducing usability.

Or another analogy: any human language has a high degree of consistency between speakers, which is why people in a given country can understand each other. The way you put the words together will differ, but the definition of a word will be well-defined and the pronunciation will be much the same.

I claim that the way websites remain exciting is by what they have to say (or what products you can buy, in the case of e-commerce sites). Not by causing users to spend extra time to find out how or where it is being said.

You certainly want products to be differentiated. But continuing on the cereal box analogy, all cereal boxes are virtually identical in design. They are all boxes of about the same size that are opened in the same way. And they all have labels that explain what's inside and list the nutritional values. You do not find cereal boxes that requires you to install the newest version of Flash before you can eat the content. Or cereal that ships in a locked safe that can only be opened after solving a puzzle to discover the secret combination.

See also Barbara Kaye's analysis of the history of standards for physical (written/printed) communication .

Standardized Navigation Through XML

Robert Mull writes:

Why couldn't all navigation, search and other UI aids be notated with some sort of special tags using XML. Then browsers could be made that allow a user to place navigation aids where they want them on a page and the XML would be interpreted as each page is viewed and the navigation aids would point wherever the XML told them too. In other words, users determine the layout of the tools, the web site designers determine where those tools link to on their specific site. That way the user always has the same set of tools to use on every site.

Obviously this has some problems:

  1. How does one determine what the base set of navigation categories will be?
  2. Where do you allow the user to place these customizable tools?
  3. What about people who refuse to design their sites to make use of this ability?
  4. Users have to have a portable UI "profile" that they can take with them to use on different platforms.

Jakob's reply: This is an excellent idea. We need to define a small number of standardized navigational dimensions and a standard way of encoding them. This would remove much of the navigation overhead from page designs.

There is already a beginning to this in terms of the HTML LINK tags that can optionally be included in the page headers. Unfortunately these tags are currently only used by the iCab browser for the Macintosh.


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