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In 1987, I wrote a small report using the Guide hypertext system. Guide was the first commercial hypertext product for personal computers, predating the Web by five years. I tried to make the hypertext document as easy to use as I could, and it was very small, as most hypertexts were in the early days. But even in this small information space of fewer than 50 pages, users reported severe disorientation problems. Around 1990, fairly large hypertexts with thousands of pages became available on CD-ROM, and usability studies by myself and others again found dissorientation to be a serious issue.

Fast-forward to the end of the century. A large web site like www.sun.com can easily contain 25,000 pages or more. Futhermore, designing in this environment is much harder than on a CD-ROM, where the finished product is static and under strict control of a single program manager.

It is a sobering experience to observe usability studies of Web users. If you give people a specific problem to solve on the Web, they will only rarely succeed in arriving at the correct solution. Instead, users often end up very close to the solution without knowing it, and with poor information architecture, "being close" is completely worthless.

In five years of lecturing about Web design at events in thirteen countries on four continents, I have met hundreds of customers who have almost all made the same mistakes in their Web projects. Worse, I have made these mistakes myself. I finally came to realize that the reason for these mistakes is that the Web intrinsically leads you down the wrong path if you approach it without knowing its special characteristics. The natural way most people run Web projects leads to misatkes at all levels:

  • Business model: treating the Web as a marketing brochure and not as a fundamental shift that is changing the way we conduct business in the network economy.

  • Project management: outsourcing to multiple agencies without coordination.

  • Information architecture: structuring the site like the company's own org chart instead of reflecting the users' view of the service.

  • Page layout: using heavy graphics because they look gorgeous on the art director's high-end color monitor where they are downloaded over a direct line to the server.

  • Content authoring: writers don't realize the need to cut their copy in half for online readers. Neither do they modularize the text into multiple hypertext nodes.

  • Linking: banning external links in an attempt to imprison your users on your own site.

A web site must grow from a carefully planned information architecture for users to be successful in finding pages and accomplishing tasks. Confused users, lost users, and dissatisfied users can quickly turn into no users.

Companies that are new to the Web are destined to make all the same mistakes as everybody else, unless they learn from those of us who have been in the trenches for some time and seen these problems again and again. If Rosenfeld and Morville were Web Marines, their uniforms would be filled with medals for the battles they have fought and often won. Please listen to their war stories instead of getting wounded yourself.

Jakob Nielsen
Atherton, California
January 1998

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