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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
How well can you use the web? - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

The web is getting easier to use - but many of the difficulties encountered are partly down to users themselves, says usability guru Dr Jakob Nielsen.

Dr Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen/Norman Group
Sites are improving, says Nielsen
First the good news. The net is getting easier to use.

So says Dr Jakob Nielsen, usability evangelist and advocate of simplicity over style, drawing on the results of the annual survey the Nielsen Norman Group runs to find out how people use the web.

The survey asks those taking part to complete a few simple tasks such as booking a holiday online and searching for information. When it was first run seven years ago, 60% of respondents failed to complete the set tasks.

"The only reason it worked at all was because people were doing online what they used to do elsewhere," Dr Nielsen says.

Today, by contrast, two-thirds of those surveyed succeed.

Now for the not so good news. This has not come about because net users have become lightening-fingered web masters with an in-depth knowledge of search syntax.

Computer mouse, Eyewire
But many users have yet to pick up tips on smart searching
No, says Dr Nielsen, it's largely down to improvements in search engines - the tools that 88% of those surveyed turned to for help in carrying out their tasks. These need to be efficient and reliable, because the survey found that few users know how best to use them.

Six in 10 of those surveyed typed in just one word in order to find what they were looking for - a big ask, when market leader Google, for instance, indexes 4,285,199,774 documents.

Add in those who use two words, and that's four-fifths of searchers. Only 3% tie words together with quote marks, and 1% use other advanced search techniques to get better results.

And when results are returned, few people look beyond the initial links provided. "If it is beyond the first page, it is as if it did not exist," Dr Nielsen says.

While general search engines have improved, those on individual websites rarely perform as well. The survey found that few people use these to find information buried on a site, relying instead on general search engines.

Style v substance

What some sites are now getting right is their basic design. Dr Nielsen says many designers and developers have at last dropped their obsession with style over substance, and are doing a better job of making sites easy to navigate.

Content-free content is still very prevalent - a lot of companies are not willing to be plain spoken
Dr Jakob Nielsen
He cites examples as sign-up or check-out systems which tell the user how far through the process they are.

But, he says, it's not all progress. There are still too few willing to test out a design, via paper prototyping or simply by asking users, before a site is committed to code.

It's not just the design that can frustrate. Words can be opaque too.

"Content-free content is still very prevalent. We still see that a lot of companies are not willing to be plain spoken," Dr Nielsen says. "They think they add value by smothering their true value in all these confusing terms."

Despite this, he's pleased that advances have been made, as website design is not as easy as it seems.

The paradox that needs to be mastered, he says, is for simple information to be immediately available, with more depth available for those who want more.

"The beauty of the web is that you can provide infinite depth," Dr Nielsen says. "You have to allow people to focus on what they want, and if they want it then they should be able to get much deeper information."

But how long might it take for these moves towards plain speaking and real depth to be available? About a decade, is Dr Nielsen's estimate.

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