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banner Monday, 18 February, 2002, 11:23 GMT
Keep the web simple, stupid
Jakob Nielsen
Nielsen: The real point is respect
Should websites have trendy designs? Or should they be as simple as possible? A debate has been raging...but could it really lead to fisticuffs? BBC News Online's John Walton writes.

Sites are often too pretty for their own good - that is the basic gist of Jakob Nielsen's critique of current web design. This stance has seen the net guru threatened with a punch on the nose.

One of the leading figures in the web industry, Nielsen, contacted after reading one of our stories in which his views had been given very short shrift by top web artist Joshua Davis.

I'd beat [Nielsen] up if I saw him

Joshua Davis
In a salvo against all those who damn cutting edge web design, Davis speculated that his vision of the net was so far removed from that of Nielsen that the two might engage in fisticuffs should they ever meet.

Davis fears Nielsen's advocacy of set rules on how the internet should look will stifle creativity and force everyone to travel at the speed of the slowest.

"He wants to hand-hold everyone through their experience of the internet - it's like saying everybody's stupid and that if the average idiot can use a website then a professor can use it too."

Jakob Nielsen
Ignore the user at your peril
Davis, whose background is in fine art and whose work includes esoteric, said: "I don't want to assume that everyone is the average idiot."

In reply, Nielsen told BBC News Online that by championing web usability - the mechanics of making sites work for the user - he is the defender of simplicity, fulfillment and humanity itself.

Designers can often take their work too seriously, with the result that websites are less easy to use and ultimately less satisfying, he says.

After confessing that he has not seen Davis's "ground-breaking" exhibition at London's Design Museum he says art, "is one thing I think the web is not suited for and web design really should not to be put in a museum".

Use it!

"The real point is respect for people. That is what I think it is really about. Trying to design for humans instead of for yourself."

2001 was a good year for the internet. We finally got a reality check

Jakob Nielsen
So putting sites together with little regard for how people might actually use them just so long as they look good is a big no-no as far as Nielsen is concerned.

He cites the financial disaster, but striking look, of sporting goods e-tailer as the ultimate case in point.

"I was glad that we got to run a user test of that just before they died. It was such a horror to watch people shop there and try and find some clothes."

TV envy

Nielsen says's designers were too ambitious for the web as it was two or three years ago.

"Half the case against them was that crashed your computer or took ages to download, now these things are actually getting better."

Jakob Nielsen
Keep it simple
This failure on the part of some sites to connect with users' needs goes some way to explaining the troubles experienced in the technology sector in recent times, says Nielsen.

"I think we really had that false start - it was television envy - that's my metaphor for what was wrong with a lot of websites."

With many sites struggling to survive and others having gone under, Nielsen insists: "2001 was a good year for the internet. We finally got a reality check."

After this harsh shake-up he feels the days of looking towards the TV as a model for the web are over, and is confident about the future of the internet as a medium growing in stature and maturity.

Coming together

But whatever their differences, the opposing visions of the web set out by Nielsen and Davis may not be as far apart as it first seems.

Both men have recently relaunched their websites.

Davis's has warmed in tone. It is still a site that demands persistence, but now it actually has a page setting out what the site is all about.

A concession to usability perhaps?

On the other side of the fence, Nielsen has updated his site Of course, it is still as usable as ever, but now it actually looks much nicer too.

The design is crisper and clearer and the formerly barren homepage now even boasts a picture of the great man himself.

However tiny the steps, their two views on how the web should work look to be inching closer together - and without a grazed knuckle or fat lip in sight.

See also:

03 Dec 01 | dot life
A web of visions
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