When will Jakob Nielsen shut up?

We’re at our wits’ end with Jakob Nielsen, the “usability guru” who casually name-drops his upcoming presentation before the World Economic Forum in Davos while dissing real people’s efforts to communicate on the Web.

Jakob Nielsen is a snob masquerading as a dedicated professional committed to Web usability.

We rebuked the casual elitist for his unfeasible, hare-brained declarations on the “right” kinds of Web writing. Now he offers grand dismissal of real people’s content on the Web – at least when he’s not contradicting himself.

Nielsen’s Alertbox column “Content Creation for Average People,” which we’ll call the Nielsen Declaration, manages to assert all of the following:

  1. “[M]ost people are (and always have been) bad content creators.... When an average person tries to create content, they typically don’t have much to say and what they do say is often said badly. The vast wasteland of Geocities confirms this.”
  2. Yet: “Many people have interesting stories to tell or have expertise in highly specialized fields. Even when people don’t have material that the world might find of interest, they often have content to share that is very important to a few people, such as their family and friends.”
  3. “[S]chools have taught writing for centuries, and writing quality has scarcely evolved at all. On the other hand, many people can in fact write memos that get their point across.”
  4. And: “Even with much-improved video-editing tools, the average person will never win an Academy Award for editing – though they will tend to use such editing as their benchmark in viewing. When watching film, viewers inevitably compare it with production values they see on television and in the movie theater. Home video? No, no, no. Unbearable to watch.”

Let’s translate, shall we?

  1. Non-experts are lousy creators...
  2. ...except when they aren’t, and even when they are lousy at it, that doesn’t really matter if the audience is small, understanding, familiar, or indulgent.
  3. Even after decades of schooling, people’s writing skills are minimal, except when they are perfectly suited to the actual requirements.
  4. But audiences demand professional-level polish in videos.

Shortly, we’ll get to the parts of Nielsen’s latest screed that we actually agree with. In reality, creators and audiences have always tolerated a hierarchy of quality in media – more so in some (e.g., print) than in others (e.g., network television).

Even in professional television, standards are changing.

Standards evolve.

Indeed, online, the world is upturned.

Just as Nielsen’s diktats about online writing styles are valid and useful part of the time but not always, sometimes people demand high production values, professionalism, and richness in online content but not always.

We’re not exempt

contenu.nu, for example, has a relatively crappy Web site. This NUblog isn’t half as technically sophisticated as the Weblogs of individual people who don’t even work in computers. Heck, we don’t have so much as left-hand navigation, let alone a content-management system, a back end, advertising, or any kind of programming at all, really. And jeez, the colours!

Compared to other sites on usability, content, and the like, we’re not superstars. We’re actually quite backward. But it hasn’t done us harm. People come here for the content and deem the presentation acceptable or tolerable. (Actually, we’ve received compliments.)

Similarly, in the Geocities example, freebie homepages can look atrocious yet be unique and valuable. We can think of two, both in the telecom field: Steve’s Toronto Area Cellular/PCS Site Guide and LincMad Telephone Area Codes & Splits (which started out as a freebie and retains that æsthetic). They’re complete crap to look at and we don’t care, because they give us what we want and we understand that they’re homespun, el-cheapo creations.

Nielsen Hhimself admits there are “gems” dispersed amidst the coal. And that’s the whole point: It’s unrealistic and condescending to expect professional quality. Not all figure skaters can be Nancy Kerrigan. Some are Tonya Harding.

It’s a big Web. There’s room for everybody.

Nielsen to Webloggers: Drop dead

Our other complaint – and this is something we are not apt to forgive – is one that’s well-articulated on the endless Metafilter discussion of the Nielsen Declaration: As far as he’s concerned, Weblogs don’t count. They don’t even count enough for a mention in the Declaration, while Geocities-style free homepages do – despite being vastly more complex from a technical standpoint. (Even the URLs are kludgy. Is your site in WestHollywood or Rainforest?)

Nielsen constantly kvetches about unusable software created by, and tested by, highly-educated computer professionals as opposed to real people, and here we’ve got literally tens of thousands of real people pumping out original text, graphics, sound and video day in and day out, worldwide, and we count for nothing.

And let’s not give Nielsen the benefit of the doubt. He knows all about Weblogs, and dismisses them.

Apparently, evidence that disproves a theory is best ignored.

What we like

Nielsen, as is his maddening habit, makes a lot of sense in other snippets of his Declaration. Giving people little hints does help them create; we call them templates. We should teach kids how to create online content, except that they’ll figure it out themselves; in reality, Nielsen is saying “if kids today were like me at that age, we’d need to teach them.” The kids are way ahead of us.

Photography works well, even for the peons, as we’ve explained before. “You just snap away and get 10–20 photos of an event, then look at a page with all the photos and select the best shots to publish on the Web. [That] will never make somebody a great photographer, but it will guarantee that the published photo is fairly decent. Selecting the best photo from a group of shots is an easy job.”

We implore the exalted Jakob Nielsen to get out more, to dig within himself to find greater empathy for the vast spectrum of online content that’s actually out there – and to give up expecting the whole online universe to conform to his highbrow demands.

Posted on 2000-10-10