102: Jacob Nielsen Anti-UX?

I’ve read Jacob Nielsen’s stuff and watched video interviews with him, etc. I agree with much of his philosophy and he is intelligent but he is so militantly anti-design (prejudiced?) that I –like other User Experience (UX) pros– find him an obnoxious snob. He’s been preaching usability for decades now.

I’ve seen UX slide shows where they poke fun at Nielsen as an undiscerning nerd. I’m sorry to say it’s pretty funny. He makes lots of money since he appeals to left-brain web programmers and developers –and not right-brain designers.

Here are the flaws in his opinions:

1) Nielsen is a usability expert. He focuses on Spartan decoration to the extreme and sees that method as a panacea. UX views usability as a component in a bigger picture. I say that even as I presently focus on a piece of usability which is “user satisfaction”. Which came first?

2. Nielsen sees only one flaw: bad usability. I see there are three hurdles to good user satisfaction and they are not equally weighted. He doesn’t recognize their value nor does he “weight” them. Here they are:

a) OBSTRUCTION -BIG
First: Obstruction like speed, accessibility, and brokenness. If a viewer won’t wait for the page load (scarcity of attention) or can’t “see”, they will bail on the site. So it doesn’t matter how beautiful a site is or how good the content. Speed is the first deal killer. Two seconds maximum wait is tolerated. So Nielson says, “Eliminate decoration.” Wait. Not so fast. Read on.

b) DECORATION -MEDIUM
Second: If the viewer can get past obstruction, the next hurdle is the site aesthetic. Lab research shows people pass judgment (first-impression) on a site in less than 50 milliseconds. The biggest influence is the use of color combinations and type (aka theme). It bypasses all cognitive mental process. It’s visceral. This causes a halo bias. Everything is judged after that to reinforce the first impression. Other research shows that even though people SAY they are most influenced by usability and content that isn’t true. They are most influenced by a “pretty screen” for credibility (credibility = trustworthiness + expertise + leadership). Nielsen’s solution is to eliminate all decoration and even provide full-measure screen text. Uh. Proven bad for credibility. Self-defeating “logical” behavior.

c) FRICTION -LOW
Lastly, the final hurdle is “friction” which includes all of the things that make us feel we are in the right or wrong place (cuing). These include content relevance, readability, navigation, expectations, etc. These are the details that can frustrate us if they aren’t obvious or transparent. But they happen AFTER obstruction and decoration judgments. They are frequently subconscious irritation or pleasure.

My goal is SATISFACTION (like hotel hospitality for the web). It is impossible to eliminate all these hurdles completely but they can be optimized to improve website success. First impressions can be voted on and then ranked. (It isn’t necessary to overkill to zero when 0.40 will do the trick.) The goal is improved efficiency. In other words, how quickly can the barriers be reduced with the least amount of time and money.

I don’t really WANT “plain-Jane” sites. I feel there are decorative elements that can be leveraged and balanced with speed and still give “branding”. That requires compromise.

Extreme light page weights (20K to 25K) have suddenly become important again with tablet and smartphone web browsers. The “old” I’ve been fanatic about is “new” again. I don’t look so dumb to programmers now. This makes me feel happy. :) But decoration should not be discarded completely.

So if you say Nielsen reminds you about “me” and my thinking it is happily a compliment –and sadly an insult. I thought I’d set the record straight on the idea differences be they only subtle nuance.