Jakob Nielsen, one of the best-known Web design consultants, and his partner Donald Norman were a big draw at this week's Miller Freeman Web Design and Development '99 conference in San Francisco.
They are usability experts, the guys who try to keep people from getting lost while surfing the Net. More than 200 fans packed the lecture hall during their keynote address, diligently taking notes on their laptops.
Other Web design experts also presented tips. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
Nielsen outlined his HOME principle, what he says is the backbone of a successful site. The acronym stands for:
* High-quality content.
* Often-updated content.
* Minimal download time of a Web page.
* Ease of use of the site.
Nielsen noted that incentives such as coupons or community chat features do entice some users. But he warned that gimmicks and complex features won't make up for frustrations with the sluggish Net. If users decide it wasn't worth the wait of a download the first time around, they're not likely to return.
"Every single click is a user's vote," Nielsen said in an interview. With more than 6 million Web sites out there, competition is intense.
Nielsen's partner Norman, who wrote the respected "Psychology of Everyday Things," pointed to another fatal design flaw: making the user feel stupid.
"Technology has changed a lot, but people don't," said Norman. If users think that a site is too complex for them, they won't return, he said.
Jared Spool, founding principal of Massachusetts-based User Interface Engineering, agreed. He recently tested how Web users navigated Disney's site. Users were asked to find the cheapest hotel along the monorail at Walt Disney World. About 20 percent of them found a hotel on the site, all right--but it was along the monorail at Disneyland in California, not Florida's Disney World.
"They had no idea," Spool said. "They thought they had a good experience." But had those folks reserved a room at Disneyland for their vacation at Disney World, they would have been surprised at check-in time and wouldn't use the site again, he said.
The experts generally agree that well-intentioned designers and developers, who may not anticipate users' problems, build poor Web sites. Users, after all, are the ones who keep Web-based companies afloat and they have better instincts than Web professionals, said Nielsen, who with Norman gave the conference's aptly named keynote address, "The Customer Is Always First."
He recommended that designers watch users surf through their site and test how well they perform specific tasks before releasing their site to the public.
Bad design is another fatal flaw. The experts defined "bad" sites as those that put aesthetics ahead of usability.
"We take art and the mastery of art and put it into daily life," Spool said of Web designers. "The only problem is art doesn't need to function."
Nielsen and Norman said the next big challenge for Web designers is to address "banner blindness," the increasing tendency of users to ignore the advertisements at the top of their browsers.