Jacob Nielsen, the unchallenged web usability guru, has a strong word of warning in his Alertbox this week. Over-hyped Web 2.0 technology developments risk diverting resources from the high-ROI design issues that really matter to users.
Nielsen has previously aired his scepticism to excessive use of new technologies, but admits that Web 2.0 ideas are not inherently bad for users.
"They can be highly effective; we sometimes see examples of usability-enhancing Web 2.0 designs in our studies. But it's more common to find Web 2.0 ideas that either hurt users or simply don't matter to users' core needs. While the latter case might seem innocent, irrelevant website "enhancements" diminish profits because they indicate a failure to focus on those simpler design issues that actually increase sales and leads."
Nielsen notes that community features are particularly useful on intranets The reasons communities work better on intranets also explains why they're often less useful on the open Internet:
- A company's employees are an actual community with a crucial shared interest: succeeding in business.
- Employees are pre-vetted: they've been hired and thus presumably have a minimum quality level. In contrast, on the Web, most people are bozos and not worth listening to.
- Although some intranet communities — such as those around internal classified ads — are aimed at lightening up the workplace, most intranet communities are tightly focused on company projects. Discussions stay on topic rather than wandering all over the map.
- Intranet users are accountable for their postings and care about their reputation among colleagues and bosses. As a result, postings aim to be productive instead of destructive or flaming.
- Small groups of people who know each other are less susceptible to social loafing, so more users contribute to intranet community features. In contrast, Internet communities suffer from participation inequality, where most users never contribute and the most active 1% of people dominate the discussions.
As an extremely rough guideline, here's Nielsen's advice as to what the percentage of Web 2.0 infusion that might benefit different types of user experience:
- Informational/Marketing website (whether corporate, government, or non-profit): 10%
- E-commerce site: 20%
- Media site: 30%
- Intranets: 40%
- Applications: 50%
Applications score so high because users perform actions repeatedly and thus truly benefit from rich UI possibilities. In contrast, mainstream websites have very few repeated actions that justify the added complexity of a full GUI's shortcuts.
For website usability, the problem is not whether a specific operation takes 1 second or 10 seconds; people typically perform each operation only once or twice. The problem for websites is the 5-10 minutes users lose when they do something wrong because the site is too complicated. (After such an experience, they usually leave — and you lose the business.) Simplicity is more important than efficiency for done-once actions.
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