Assume your users have slow modems, bad phone lines, and obsolete software; keep your pages compact and test how fast they download and how they display under suboptimal conditions.
Given the splashy graphic and sound capabilities of the web, it may seem counterintuitive that users are overwhelmingly interested in TEXT -- and in getting to the specific piece of information they need as quickly as possible. This places enormous demands on your navigation system to make sense in the users' terms, allowing a browser to swiftly choose logical places to go to get their questions answered (one stunning nugget of research showed users finding what they wanted 80% of the time when the site matched their mental model, and 9% of the time when it was organized to match organizational structure). It also requires a search capability, because 50% of users prefer to type a query in a search box when one is available.
Those of us who are old hands on the net may have forgotten the seasick feeling new surfers can have, wandering from page to page with no clear idea of where they are at any given time, but Nielsen reminds us that one of the basic questions any web page has to answer is "Where am I?" This places a premium on clear navigation schemes, repeated on every page, and clear organization of each page, using heads and subheads, because users trying to find specific pieces of information do not READ a screen (an unpleasant experience in any case) but SCAN it.
There is a lot of specific, and sometimes startling user research here, and a number of useful guidelines derived from it. In addition Nielsen offers numerous screen shots of real web sites, some of them before and after designs, and critiques them for the ways they impede swift user understanding. (This is one place where a picture really IS worth a thousand words.)
What this book does ultimately is offer an entire thought process to go through when you begin to design or redesign your web site, including analyzing what your users want to accomplish, carefully working out file structures, making navigation and organization clear and user-centered, and always, always, always answering on each and every page the user questions: Where am I? and What will this page do for me? It offers suggestions for testing your designs to see if they work on your real-life users. I can't think of a more valuable resource for both amateur and experienced webmasters, although I would very much recommend that you routinely check out his biweekly column on usability, AlertBox http://www.useit.com/alertbox/.
REVIEW: HIGH TECH HERETIC
Clifford Stoll. High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. Doubleday, 1999
How nice to find a scientist who thinks good teachers, skilled librarians, and large, cataloged and indexed collections of books and journals are more important than computers for learning. Stoll is an astronomer, and quite comfortable using computers, but he doesn't buy into the idea that young children need to become computer-literate.
In part this is because he thinks it's far more important for them to become book-literate first, a skill that he sees as being pushed aside as both money and valuable teaching time are dedicated to teaching computer skills. But he also thinks that what is being passed off as computer literacy is in fact nothing resembling genuine skills. In his view students are getting programmed teaching modules that offer glitz and next to no content, that try to turn skill-building into games even when the games are pointless, repetitive and totally unrelated to the knowledge they are supposedly instilling. As a scientist, he is offended that REAL experiences with nature and science are being replaced with internet adventures, because you do in fact learn from being there, from conducting your own experiments with optics and magnets, from dissecting real earthworms rather than virtual ones, from actually mixing chemicals and watching them interact.
Most of all, he is offended by the mindlessness of school bureaucracies that take it as an article of faith that having every classroom wired is not a MEANS to educating students, but a GOAL in and of itself. Nobody in administration seems to have thought out what curriculum purposes will be served by the new machines, and how they will be used. He is outraged that teachers and librarians are being laid off, and library books and texbooks are not being bought, all in order to pay for equipment that is poorly understood and used, and will become obsolete in five years. It bothers him that good teachers must waste so much of their teaching time to assist students with the mechanics of computer operation.
The man's got a point. I wouldn't want our libraries to be without the internet, because I see it as a valuable adjunct to our book and journal and reference collections. But none of us want it to replace our libraries. And all of us know that without librarians and information mavens to find and organize the good stuff, the internet is like the Milky Way, full of whirling stars and comets and cosmic dust, but relatively few signs of intelligent life.
Information isn't power. Who's got the most information in your neighborhood? Librarians, and they're famous for having no power at all. Who has the most power in your community? Politicians, of course. And they're notorious for being ill-informed.
But the internet, for all its promise, doesn't deliver much information -- it's mainly a data highway.
Data isn't information. There's a wide gulf between data -- bits, bytes, numbers and words -- and information. Information, unlike data, has accuracy. It's reliable. It's timely. Understandable. Information comes with a pedigree...you know the source. Information, unlike data, is useful.
both from High Tech Heretic
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.