37Signals to see that the 'simple' design approach is alive and well. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that 37Signals frontman Jason Fried is the new Jakob Nielsen. But instead of acknowledging that he has fallen behind the times, Nielsen insists on continuing to blame web 2.0 itself - with broad attacks and little in the way of specific examples.Over the past few years, web usability guru Jakob Nielsen's star has been waning. Ever since the web 2.0 trend started to become popular (around 2004 till now), Nielsen's 'keep it simple' design philosophy has failed to ignite the new generation of designers. But it's not the 'keep it simple' philosophy in general that is the cause of this decline in Nielsen's influence - you only need to look at the enormously popular
Nielsen's latest tirade has been broadcast by the BBC, in a piece entitled Web 2.0 'neglecting good design'. I came across this via Hitesh Mehta, a Communication Designer who sent a passionate email to firstname.lastname@example.org, upset at Mr Nielsen's views on web 2.0 design.
Let's look at the BBC article. Nielsen told the Beeb that web 2.0 design often neglects "the basics". But the problem I have with Mr Nielsen's complaints is that he talks in generalities and does not offer any specific examples. Take this quote:
"They should get the basics right first," he said. "Sadly most websites do not have those primary things right."
There was a risk, he said, of a return to the dotcom boom days when many sites, such as Boo.com, looked great but were terrible to use.
"That was just bad," he said. "The idea of community, user generated content and more dynamic web pages are not inherently bad in the same way, they should be secondary to the primary things sites should get right."
"The main criticism or problem is that I do not think these things are as useful as the primary things," he said.
You see what he's done there? By broadly comparing web 2.0 sites to one of the worst offenders in the dot com era (boo.com), he's basically saying that web 2.0 = dot com. But he doesn't mention a single web 2.0 site as evidence. Frankly, I fail to see any similarity between YouTube's easy to use, user content-focused design (for example) and the bloated, interactive-before-its-time design of boo.com. Can you? The "primary thing" of YouTube is for users to watch and contribute video, and foster conversations around that video. And to my mind, YouTube's design succeeds wonderfully in that "primary thing". So what "basics" is YouTube not doing right?
OK Nielsen may have a point if we used MySpace as an example, because it is true that MySpace is not overly usable - its design is crowded and cluttered. But it works... unlike boo.com! I'm sure 37Signals would say that MySpace is also an example of bad web 2.0 design, but I'm also sure they wouldn't tarnish all of web 2.0 design with the MySpace brush. And that is what annoys me about Nielsen - he makes broad, general statements decreeing web 2.0 design is 'bad'. But if he looked a bit closer, he'd see very well designed sites/apps like 37Signals' Basecamp or blogger.com. Not to mention huge mainstream sites like YouTube and Wikipedia, which may not be winning any design awards - but they are more than adequate designs. Certainly not boo.com-like.
When he focuses in on specific usability issues, Mr Nielsen begins to sound a little more reasonable. For example he says:
"While some sites with particular demographics, such as MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, have large involved communities of users that will not hold true for all sites, he said.
"Most people just want to get in, get it and get out," said Mr Nielsen. "For them the web is not a goal in itself. It is a tool."
Web firms rushing to serve the small, committed minority might find they make a site far less useful to the vast majority who come to a site for a specific purpose."
Of course it is true that most people will not contribute content to a site, they just want to "get in and get out" - i.e. get what they came for and browse off to another site. But once again, where are the examples of small web 2.0 sites that "serve the small, committed minority" and overlook the majority? Nielsen leaves that to our imagination. I can think of a few such sites - e.g. you could argue that del.icio.us is too hard for "the vast majority" of people to use. But I don't think any web designer would use del.icio.us as a template for a small business website, although they might certainly take aspects of del.icio.us and integrate them.
Hitesh Mehta provides an excellent counter-example to Nielsen:
"One of the finest example of web2.0 'personalization tool' is NetVibes.com and without neglecting the good design and usability. I have been using netvibes.com right from the beginning. Every minute I get fresh news, fresh feeds from the dozens of sites I subscribed at netvibes. This is simply amazing and is getting better and better everyday."
I agree with Hitesh, there are many ways that web 2.0 sites are implementing good design - but at the same time taking advantage of new trends such as personalization and user-generated content.
So once again, broad brush Mr Nielsen! You can do better. I've read your books for years, ever since I was a webmaster back in the 90's. But I think you have lost the plot. Why not subscribe to a few web 2.0 blogs, including 37Signals, and discover some of the excellent 'simple' web 2.0 design that is out there. Stop comparing web 2.0 to boo.com - it is both short-sighted and very misleading for the great number of web designers that still follow your work.
Image credit: heather