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Web usability guru pitches better design in Asia

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen says sites have ignored the user
Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen says sites have ignored the user  

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What can a Webmaster do?

The Web is getting worse.

Issues for Asian web sites.

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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Eminent Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen visited Hong Kong this week to offer his insights on how to make the Web work for Asian surfers.

"If a Web site is not easy to use, people simply leave. But if a camera is not easy to use, people will figure it out because they hold a physical object in their hand that they've invested in," says Nielsen.

Usability is often seen merely as a nice add-on for most software products, but with the Web it has become a critical success factor -- a factor that is widely disregarded in Asia.

"What we actually know from our studies is that the average user experience on the Web is that of failure," says Nielsen.

Although the dot com crash was due to a variety of factors, Nielsen says when people have a bad experience on a commerce site they leave.

"People don't spend most of their time trying to do new things. They will return to Web sites that they have found to be at least reasonably easy to use and go back, again and again to those sites."

What can a Webmaster do?

The design expert says that there are two things that a site can do to improve its usability.

"You can run a very simple user test in three days... just get some real users in."

The second method is professional analysis, which requires an expert with many years of experience to assess a Web site's design and structure.

But many Web site managers still neglect to ensure the usability of their product, for multiple reasons.

"First is that they just neglect the entire issue because they think their own Web site is easy to use because they designed it so they don't understand the need for usability testing," says Nielsen.

"The second reason is that even if they recognize the need for usability, they think 'we've got to bring in a team of five Ph. Ds, build a special laboratory with one way mirrors and test fifty users' -- no you don't."

The Web is getting worse.

Since the Internet surfing experience exploded onto the scene, Nielsen thinks the Web has detiorated in quality.

"It has mainly gotten worse because the complexity has gone up in terms of all the things that can now be done -- the number of Web sites, the number of things people are trying to accomplish on the Web."

"In the old days is was just 'let me write an article' and the Web browser is actually fairly good at allowing you to read an article and link to the next article," he added.

Nielsen also believes that the Web browser is limited in its functionality.

"It is only mediocre at allowing e-commerce. The Web browser is incredibly bad at supporting real work-flow applications that a lot of people are trying to do now."

"It's a browser. That's what it's called, that's what it does!"

Issues for Asian web sites.

Nielsen finds that Asian cultures are less likely to accept the critical analysis needed to generate better user interface design.

"In Japan, we heard a lot that it was not really considered polite to invite criticism," says Nielsen.

"If the design didn't work, the approach was to just throw it away and do a new thing, which might be a great way to do electronic gadgets but to get good usability it requires you to test with real users and to accept the criticism."

"We always find great usability difficulties when overseas users have to use the sites." - Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

Nielsen suggests regarding a usability design critique as a form of constructive assistance, to prevent loss of face for Asian designers.

"The real loss of face is not that you sit in a meeting and point out how to improve."

"The real loss of face is that you put something out in the world that actually represents your company poorly or gives bad customer service."

Nielsen also warns of Web site design that translates poorly when imported to foreign markets.

"We always find great usability difficulties when overseas users have to use the sites. It's several things: the language, the culture, and the translation have been done poorly."

"It may be a very good translation of the words, but the navigation may not translate."

Jakob Nielsen is a principle of the Nielsen Norman group and is currently running a "User Experience World Tour" throughout Asia.

Nielsen Norman group
Web usability reference
Designing Web Usability book
Bruce Tognazzini on usability

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