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If This Column Were a Web Site, This Would Be Its Home Page

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Design guru:

· Web better, but still like ants on LSD .

My take:

· New book helps explain screensucking .

Okay, newspaper fans, that was the end of my column as Web site. I allotted myself only 20 words, because that's all most visitors read on any home page, according to Web design guru Jakob Nielsen.

Twenty words! Sheesh. I guess the next generation will popularize "Web bites" the way the baby boomers did with sound bites. Nielsen says three-quarters of visitors don't even bother scrolling down Web pages to see what's below the first screen.

There's nothing new about people info-snacking online. But Nielsen drills down more deeply into the phenomenon of hyperactive Web browsing than I've seen before in "Prioritizing Web Usability," a new book co-authored with Hoa Loranger.

Their key message is that while the Web has gotten easier to use, it still has far to go before becoming human-friendly. Partly that's because site designers don't take time to understand how people use the Web.

People spend an average of only 27 seconds on each page, mostly skimming for links and other visual clues about where to go next, Nielsen and Loranger report. People spend slightly more time on interior pages but still under a minute, even when viewing product details and lengthy articles.

Nielsen predicts site visits will continue to grow shorter, so he urges designers to abandon the "sticky site" approach of trying to keep people with more content. Instead, he says they should offer loyalty tools such as e-mail newsletters.

The good news is the Web's "success rate" has passed a crucial milestone, Nielsen and Loranger say, with more people succeeding than failing at basic tasks. That's a reversal from seven years ago, when most folks failed at anything they tried to do online.

But the bad news is designers still routinely ignore research about how people navigate the Web and drive visitors nuts by using pop-up windows and code that breaks a browser's "back" button.

"Unfortunately, much of the Web is like an anthill built by ants on LSD," the book states.

What I love about Nielsen's work is it's empirical. The former distinguished engineer for Sun Microsystems, now a Web consultant who practices what he preaches at http://www.useit.com/, has been testing Web users for years and statistically analyzing their behavior.

Nielsen's team gave users a variety of online tasks, such as going to the U.S. Postal Service site to find the cost of sending a postcard to China. The tasks were completed 66 percent of the time -- up from 40 percent in the late 1990s.

Nielsen released a follow-up report this week on sites catering to business and found their average success rate was lower than it was for consumer sites -- 58 percent overall. Task-completion rates were particularly low for health-care sites (40 percent) and banking sites (44 percent). "Compared to 1999, we cannot quite declare victory, but we can declare progress," Nielsen said in an interview.

So what about the Web has changed since he wrote his first design manifesto seven years ago?

Search engines have wised up, for one. Before Google, searching for information online felt hopeless, like hunting for a diamond dropped in the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, people relied more on trusted, familiar Web sites and spent a lot of time there. But after Google devised its clever way of implying site quality in 1998, Web search became the main way people got around online. The impact of those changes is still reverberating through the Internet.

The magnitude of the shift was apparent when Nielsen's team turned users loose to go anywhere to do things such as research a vacation. People went to a search engine first 88 percent of the time; only 12 percent of the time did they start at a specific site, such as Expedia.

That's different from the '90s, when people regularly used Yahoo to identify high-quality sites they would visit and bookmark for repeat use. Today, most people aren't looking for sites but answers to questions. And they don't bother with bookmarks, Nielsen said, because they see the Web not as a collection of 100 million sites, but as one big, unstructured place where they can search to find anything.

"It's almost like the Web is a swamp," Nielsen said. "People are fishing into that big swamp and dragging out something that hopefully will be a nugget of gold but could be an alligator."

This was pretty much how the Web operated when it was new, before super-sites such as Amazon.com and eBay were born. Early on, the fledgling Web was seen as a single, vast collection of cross-linked documents. Nielsen thinks we may be reverting to that original primordial soup, in which sites matter far less than the documents in them.

Nielsen's explanation of how people use search boxes rather than sites to do just about anything helped me understand my own online frustration. My Web routine all too often feels like "screensucking," a phrase coined by psychiatrist Edward Hallowell in another new book, "CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD."

Screensucking refers to wasting time in front of any screen.

I don't know about you, but I have trouble establishing any Web routine. No matter how hard I try, I rarely visit my favorite sites and usually wind up veering down trails of blue links to discover new ones, which keeps me in front of my computer even longer than I'd like. Nielsen's book helped me see this isn't necessarily wasting time; it may simply be the way of the Web.

Reading his account of how we mentally process information from many different sources online made me think people might learn as much -- or more -- meandering the Web as reading a good book. Whereas books impart internal cohesion in their ideas, the Web demands that we provide our own order to all the factoids we dredge up from its vast, unstructured swamp of ideas.

Since that requires original thinking, maybe screensucking isn't so bad, after all.

Leslie Walker welcomes e-mail at leslie@lesliewalker.com.

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