Web Usability

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Highlights and commentary on Jakob Nielsen's biweekly Alertbox column which began in June 1995. Briefly, web usability is what works and what doesn't in web site design. The material on this page are highlights, of select articles, along with my thoughts--which may or may not agree with Nielsen's. The full articles are more in depth and usually link to further resources. Dr. Nielsen has a suggested micropayment for the Alertbox articles.

Select Articles

Guidelines for Multimedia on the Web (December 1995)

This article illustrates good use of multimedia. While it is now several years old, many up and coming web authors are trying to put multimedia on there sites now. Perhaps more now than when the article was written since higher bandwidth connections are becoming more common (at least in some areas). And of course, animation and multimedia are misused by numerous sites today.

Nielsen discusses animation (via GIF, Java, Flash, etc.) as well as the use of audio and video files. I assume it predates streaming audio and video.

Also, Flash: 99% Bad (October 2000), focuses on the abuse of Flash.

Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design (May 1996)

A classic in web usability, which were revisited in May 1999. Key points discussed are:

International Web Usability (August 1996)

Discusses ideas to consider when designing for an international audience. This may or may not be of importance to you. But even if you want to target, for example, the United States you should state the time zone whenever you are giving a time.

The Rise of the Sub-Site (September 1996)

Discusses site structure in general. Not necessarily how the files are stored but how they fit together to create the site and the methods of linking them. Touches on the notion of sub-site in particular, i.e. collecting pages that share a common topic, navigation method, and style together. And which may not be related to other sub-sites. I use sub-sites on

How Users Read on the Web (October 1997)

"They don't...they scan."

Also, Eyetracking Study of Web Readers (May 2000) discusses a study supporting the idea that users scan rather then read web pages. A key point is that eyes are drawn to text before images and that users prefer simple headings. The article also discusses the common practice of viewing more than one page at a time.

Web Pages Must Live Forever (November 1998)

Emphasizes the importance of keeping links alive, what to do with old content, and how to handle a site redesign by using server side redirects. This might be the first time someone comes to your site, a broken link is not a good impression to make.

Cool URIs Don't Change discusses why links get changed and how to avoid and or solve these dilemmas before they occur. Discusses why designing good URIs is important. Highlights using content negotiation on Apache to eliminate using file extensions to further avoid future URI dilemmas. (1998 Tim Berners-Lee)

If you're hosted on Apache see mod_alias to set up a redirect.

Print Design vs. Web Design (January 1999)

Considers the fundamental differences between these two mediums. A key point is that layout is merely a suggestion and what works for print will usually not work for the web.

Top-10 New Mistakes of Web Design (May 1999)

Nielsen states that while the original Top 10 mistakes are still common--new ones have arisen.

Ten Good Deeds in Web Design (October 1999)

Rather than focusing on mistakes, this article points out 10 things that can help usability.

Some techniques for using images are discussed, including "relevance-enhanced image reduction". Nielsen suggests following the lead of popular sites, whether the design is bad or not. This is further discussed in When Bad Design Elements Become the Standard (November 1999).

Reset and Cancel Buttons (April 2000)

The usefulness, or rather uselessness, of a Reset button on forms is explored. Reset clears a form completely, or rather it returns the form to its original state, most often its quicker to just edit the input. In some cases even the Submit button can be left off. The article considers when to use the extra buttons on a form and when you may want to leave them off.

Mailing List Usability (August 2000)

Just what it says--improving the usability of a mailing list. Including advice on building and using the list.

I use ezmlm / qmail for mailing lists on The ezmlm software does many of the things that Jakob Nielsen recommends to improve usability. However, before rushing to get these installed, something to consider is the volume of mail you are sending. You don't want to bog down your web server to send mail. You may need a dedicated machine or perhaps outsource your mailing list, e.g. SparkLIST, to deliver email and your site as quickly as possible.

Drop Down Menus: Use Sparingly (November 2000)

Discusses some reasons to avoid using a drop down menu. The article mentions that you may need to do more backend validation in comparison to a simple text input area.

However, one should be doing that anyhow since your form can be easily modified. That is, if you give me a list with the choices 'Pink' and 'Purple' I can probably submit the value 'Peach'.

Search: Visible and Simple (May 2001)

Considers why users choose the search option as well as how to integrate search capability into your site. Whether to use a text field or link and the values of advanced or scoped searching.

Avoid PDF for On-Screen Reading (June 2001)

Guidelines for offering PDF on the web.

Your end user may have a plugin to view the PDF in the browser. Whether they choose to do this or save the file, either from the plugin or by some other means (e.g. right-click > save as), is their choice. Do not attempt to 'force a download'. Attempting this involves lying about the MIME type and it still may not work.

Error Message Guidelines (June 2001)

Advice on constructing useful error messages. What you might include to help users find what they were looking for.

Considering the sparse cryptic message from servers or the less useful, in my opinion, attempt by Internet Explorer to create error messages. Creating, at least, a custom 404 message, as Nielsen recommends, is a good idea. I have done just that on with the aid of http_errors.cgi.

Change the Color of Visited Links (May 2004)

To some this may seem like common sense. But Nielsen reports a quarter of websites fail to change link colors on a visited link. I'm not certain if only text links were examined or if image based links were also included. However, using images as links (without the border), or perhaps the DHTML hierarchial menus (that open like menus in windowed applications), makes showing visited links colors difficult at best.

Guidelines for Visualizing Links (May 2004)

Guidelines for how to present textual links. E.g. colors, brightness, shades of the same color, underlined or not, hover effects.

Scrolling and Scrollbars (July 2005)
Shows examples of good and poorly designed scrollbars; applicable to web or software design. Explains the difficulties associated with poor scrollbar designs and the four requirements of a good scrollbar.

I am in no way affiliated with the Nielsen Norman Group.

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