Relationships on the Web

by Jakob Nielsen on January 1, 1996

Welcome to 1996. What will be the key to web-site survival this year? My bet is the establishment of relationships between the site and its users.

Let's start by looking at the dominating styles for websites for the last few years:

  • 1993 : Just having a server on the Web was enough to show that you were a pioneer! I remember faithfully going to "What's New With NCSA Mosaic" every day to see who were putting stuff up on the Web: the pages may have sucked like a vacuum but they came to us from the other side of the world which caused a major novelty effect.
  • 1994 : The main thing in 1994 was to show users how much information you had. This was the year of home pages that were no more than glorified hotlists with long bulleted lists of links. At this relatively early stage of the Web, people were still easily impressed by anybody who had real, useful content.
  • 1995 : Focused value-added information became key as users suffered under ever-increasing information overload. The preferred style for home page design in 1995 was to provide a clear sense of priority for the user and to showcase a small set of high-quality information, recognizing that users normally cover no more than about five pages when they visit a site. The design of Sun's home page was done according to this principle. Less is more definitely became a key design strategy.

Now, in 1996, I think that web-surfing is dead . Sure, users may check out a few new sites every now and then, just as they may buy a new magazine from the newsstand when they are stranded in O'Hare. But to continue the magazine analogy, most users will probably spend the majority of their time with a small number of websites that meet their requirements with respect to quality and content. Hotlists can only grow so big (especially with the lousy user interfaces for bookmark management in current webbrowsers), so only a few websites will be graced with substantial numbers of repeat visitors.

Not only will users have a relationship with a small number of key websites, the websites will also have to start treating their users as individuals rather than as a nestful of hungry GET-requests all of whose mouths get stuffed with bits of the same juicy worm.

The relationship between a website and a user can be enhanced, for example, by allowing the user to indicate an interest in a specific information object and then inform that user when the object changes or has been significantly updated (you don't want to bother users every time you fix a typo). We have done this at Sun for some time with our bug fixes. Subscribing customers who are particularly bothered by a certain bug can mark the SunSolve page for that specific problem and get notified when a patch is available.

Much as I hate praising HotWired 's user interface, they do deserve credit for their customized What's New page. Not only does HotWired keep track of when each user last visited so that new stories can be highlighted, they also allow users to customize the What's New page to list only stories within those sections of the site that interest them. An excellent way to cut through information overload and focus (and thus capture) a user's attention.

An even more interesting way of supporting user relationships is the personalized view of Ziff-Davis' ZD Net . Users can store an interest profile on the server so that subsequent visits will produce a list of new stories that match their interests. Of course, simplistic information filtering based on keyword matching will never do a perfect job, but they do seem to direct my attention to stories that mostly interest me, so the feature has succeeded in enhancing the relationship between me and Ziff. Future personalized view servers can be expected to use advanced information filtering methods like relevance feedback and various synonym matching ideas and may also allow users to help each other find relevant information.

A final example of relationship-building is the notification service for new books run by the Amazon Bookstore which can be used, for example, if you want to be told when my next book comes out. Getting customers before the products are even available is a great way to use the web to benefit both vendor and user.

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