The contempt flows like water

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Is NUblog falling prey to rote Nielsen-bashing? Let’s ask!

“Is this ratings sweeps month for Weblogs, too?” – John Driscoll

Jakob Nielsen, like celebrities everywhere, is tightly insulated from outside currents. Aides and sycophants remind him of his greatness from dawn till dusk, ensuring he will remain forever ignorant of how much he is DESPISED by the little people.

We are aware that Nielsen-bashing is rote and chliché in the demimonde of nouveaux médias, but the NUblog is in fact a Weblog and must respond to current events. So here we go. In a recent publisher panegyric pushing the newest Danielle Steele–style potboiler sure to be found on the laps of the frosted-hair/pickup-truck set from Fargo to Boise, Nielsen and his cohort Marie Tahir give themselves quite enough rope.

Q. I am curious about the point you made about people confusing a usable site with one that is not necessarily æsthetically pleasing. Jakob, your site,, is very much just functional information.

Nielsen: The two dimensions are almost independent in the sense that they are both interesting criteria for design that looks good and works well. Those are both criteria. For any individual project, you might emphasize one or the other, and because I’m certainly not a graphic designer, I tend not to emphasize graphics on my Web site.... But they tend to forget about the ease of use, because that’s the job of usability professionals [sic]. The designers then go overboard on the graphics, which leads to several usability problems such as download time. Perhaps that is one of the reasons some people believe there is an opposition between æsthetics and usability. They think you can achieve an æsthetic site with big beautiful pictures. This approach hurts usability in an environment where you have a slow-speed Internet connection.

Tahir: Right. A lot of people who are doing design on the Web are prejudiced against usability because they think it’s robbing them of their freedom to be creative and do interesting things. I think you should get the usability right first. That’s the fundamental thing that users need and what they want. Let people go to a museum to see beautiful artwork. If you can have beauty on top of having a good usable, functional site, that’s fantastic. I’m for that.

Blatant revisionism, anyone?

Newsflash, Marie Tahir: “A lot of people who are doing design on the Web” are prejudiced against the incompetent graphic design and substandard information architecture of Jakob Nielsen’s sites.

“A lot of people who are doing design on the Web” hate Jakob Nielsen and the horse he rode in on. It is explicitly personal.

It’s really very simple. Jakob Nielsen is a word person. Like twee, bookish intellectuals everywhere (Michael Kinsley, come on down!), Nielsen is literally unable to imagine understanding the world through pictures. Since intellectuals like him are obviously our superiors, he feels justified in insisting that designers and other members of the lower orders communicate his way, and will concoct ever-more-threadbare pretexts (“Increased download times”) to invalidate the use of graphics online.

Yet curiously, the new pulp blockbuster is claimed to use a graphical layout, rather like a Dorling Kindersley manual on cat breeds. The cover certainly does not resemble 1990-era laser printing, as its predecessor, with the outright lie of a title Designing Web Usability, did.

It gets worse:

Nielsen: ...I am very much into the design of Web sites that are fast and to the point. One site that I particularly like is called Tomalak’s Realm. It’s a very nice Web site that basically provides an overview of what good articles are on the Web with a little one-paragraph summary of each of them. That’s a great example of use of the new medium in an appropriate format because there are links to all these articles. You can go and read the full article. In an old medium, print media, it would be a very unsatisfying experience to get a newsletter that had one-paragraph summaries of other people’s articles, because you would want to get the whole thing. But online, you can scan those little summaries quickly, so I would never bother, for example, going to Salon magazine,, and having to wade through stuff because the articles I’m interested in have a one-paragraph summary on Tomalak’s Realm. After reading the summaries, I can decide if I want this article or not. If yes, that’s a great use of the Web.

A year after dissing Weblogs as, on average, “unreadable” (NUblog passim), Nielsen finally almost brings himself to uttering the word “Weblog,” circumlocutorily wasting an entire paragraph defining what they are. Yes, lord, we already know you’re in tight with Tomalak’s Realm and wish the whole Web were nothing but cloned Tomalak’s Realms.

Indeed, if Jakob Nielsen took over the World Wide Web, the only permissible sites would be text-only news Weblogs and text-only homepages. “A great and wise decision, my liege,” Marie Tahir cries, as our leader commands her to peel him a grape.

Posted on 2001-11-07