Plain vanilla, please

Simplicity, not splashiness, is key to site usability, says Web guru

If I have to sit through one more two-minute splash-page presentation on a Web site, I'm gonna hurl. It's wrong, and I have some Nielsen data to back me up. For those of you who don't know, a splash page is an opening-page screen on a Web site that shows a series of graphics, some which morph from one to the next. Some sites that use splash pages offer a "Skip Intro" link on the splash page that, when clicked, will take the site visitor to the content he or she really wants to read. But the splash page is unnecessary, and Nielsen agrees.

"Nielsen" is not the audience-measurement company but Jakob Nielsen, hailed by The New York Times
as the "guru of Web page usability."

Nielsen travels all over the world giving lectures about how you don't need fancy, edgy stuff to make Web sites work. His latest book is Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity. Read it.

He charges that fancy, extraneous effects on Web sites "exist for plain ego. That's the Web site's way of saying, 'We are so important, we can impose on you this extra step.' That is contrary to the nature of the Web, which is user oriented: 'I offer something, you click on a link and go get it.'"

I think that part of the problem is that the designers of these sites live in a world of supercharged apps, peer pressure to be cooler than rival sites, fast connections, etc. At the same time, when it comes to television network, station and individual show sites, the site-design concept needs to be bought into by visually oriented people. They work in television, and they are predisposed to like the glitzier presentation, as opposed to plain vanilla. They carry those prejudices with them to the Web.

Not only that, but there's a mentality out there that, if you pay a Web-design house a fairly substantial chunk of change, you should get at least some eye candy for your efforts.

Television Web-site developers and the executives who oversee or contract for their services must realize "a Web site is not a television show," Nielsen notes. "You have got to recognize that each medium is used for different purposes."

Nielsen makes the distinction that, although most television shows have entertainment as a goal, the Web sites that are about these shows are not entertainment but are best-positioned as offering "solutions" or "answers." These "answers" need not be thundering truths but may be something as simple as brief biographies of show cast members without cascading screens and thunderous music.

The usability guru also sees several other deadly sins, including slow-loading pages and irritating pop-ups and "interstitials."

Many television-program sites are optimized for users with broadband connections, "but most people don't have broadband. It should not be the core design goal," Nielsen advises.

Nielsen thinks the maximum download time over a dial-up modem connection should be 10 seconds-and preferably less. If it's any longer than 10 seconds, he says, the human attention span wanders.

Again he is so right. The problem is a cultural one, I think. Design shops that test Web concepts before they are posted have at least T1-speed Internet connections and large monitors with great resolution.

I didn't specifically ask Nielsen about this, but there's also the problem that Web-design-assessment focus groups are self-selected for keen interest in cool stuff.

Nielsen suggests a better method would be to test your Web page on a laptop at dial-up modem speed.

"The freedom of movement-I click on something and get what I want-is what makes the Web live. Interstitials destroy the feeling I am in control," Nielsen says. "Plus, there's a risk the interstitial may crash the user's browser. If you crash the system, they won't be back."