Would Jakob Nielsen please shut up?

We owe a debt to Jakob Nielsen. We really do. We’ve read all his Alertbox columns. We agree with much of what he says, particularly his pleas for visitor-focused design and accessibility. (Nielsen’s advice on creating thumbnails is very clever and entirely ignored.)

But jeez, this guy ought to stop pretending he knows everything about online reading.

In response to a now-famous study by the Poynter Institute on the habits of news-site readers, Nielsen writes:

Web content is intellectually bankrupt

– in itself a self-incriminating overstatement, akin to Roger Black’s notorious claim that “There’s hardly any good work on the Internet at all,” as if he, a Web designer, weren’t complicit in that fact if true –

and almost never designed to comply with the way users behave online. Almost all websites contain content that would have worked just as well in print. Even online-only webzines are filled with linear articles with traditional blocks-of-text layouts. No hyperlinks, no scannability. New forms of content that are optimized for online are exceedingly rare, and I keep returning to the same four examples when I am asked to name good writing for the Web: Tomalak’s Realm, AnchorDesk, the Feed Daily mini-column, and Yahoo Full Coverage.

Except that linear articles do indeed function online in many cases. But hold that thought. The usability arbiter authority continues:

[T]he most common behavior is to hunt for information and be ruthless in ignoring details. But once the prey has been caught, users will sometimes dive in more deeply. Thus, Web content needs to support both aspects of information access: foraging and consumption. Text needs to be scannable, but it also needs to provide the answers users seek.

Well, either it needs to be scannable or it doesn’t. Nielsen pays obeisance here to the unstated principle that the Web is for E-commerce or discrete information tidbits. Service-oriented sites are the most popular on the Web (Amazon, search sites – you know the scene). But they’re not the only kind of written content.

In the Poynter study, seasoned news-site visitors were asked to read news as they usually would. But news is decomposable. You can sum it up in a headline, or boil it down to a couple of sentences.

It’s a mistake to expand the newswriting model to apply to everything on the Web. At a newspaper site, for example, cultural reviews are much less likely to be skimmed, as are gripping news stories that really mean a lot to you – like water contamination in Walkerton, where you hang on every word.

Other kinds of writing – including the now-ubiquitous Weblog format you are presently enjoying – often call for thorough reading, particularly when the writers are good. (Current fave: Ryan Gantz, Sixfoot6.com.)

But here’s the biggie: The four sites Nielsen loves the most aren’t even Web writing sites, let alone news sites. They are links to other articles – real articles, the kind you have to sit and read.

What Jakob Nielsen likes isn’t content, it’s meta-content. And we’re supposed to trust his advice when applied to the entire Web? As the kids used to say in the latter days of the passing century, homey don’t play dat.

So what do we do instead?

Nielsen is not entirely wrong. We strongly agree that many forms of online content should be chunked up, using tags like <STRONG> and Cascading Stylesheet parameters that let you box or overline-and-underline text you wish to highlight. We use it here, and the essential CSS is:

SPAN.hilite { border: solid 1px #FF6600; padding: 1px }

That markup looks pretty awful in Netscape, as so much that even resembles standards-compliant HTML increasingly does.

But when you need to present 3,000 words, or even 250, because that’s how many words you need, what you do is refuse to throw the baby out with the bathwater and engage in best practices for online reading:

So which is better: Presenting as much text as you need to present, but responsibly and readably, or listening to a pundit whose fave Web sites are little more than file cards linking to books in a great library?

(If you think we’re being rough on those four sites, don’t. We adore Tomalak’s Realm and could not live without it, and Lawrence Lee’s ability to manage vast oceans of content, all of it seemingly at his fingertips, is so impressive it’s Orwellian. And best of all, this blog entry looks a lot like an Alertbox screed. Ironic, huh?)

Posted on 2000-06-05