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Age Old Wisdom: Usability
By Eric Lander - August 06, 2001

Earlier this morning, I had a short conversation with Erik Petersen, COO of Orbidex Inc. In that conversation, we were reviewing my article from earlier this morning, entitled: "Help a Client, Help Yourself".

Petersen, quick to agree to many points addressed my debut article, referenced "perhaps the best known design and usability guru on the Internet", Jakob Nielsen.

After we began looking through Nielsen's profile page, we came across an article that he had written on November 14, 1999. Nielsen's When Bad Design Elements Become the Standard, was quick to point out the key facts in relation to user studies. In a hope to refresh us all on such lessons, here's my quick recap.

1) If 90% of the big sites are all doing something in one way, it becomes the standard. Your designs must comply with this same standard to keep up.

2) If 60 to 90% of big sites all do something with their information delivery - it can be adopted as a strong convention.

3) If less than 60% of these same big sites, there is no clear convention to be applied, so typical standards are suggested.

Now, I'm only going to highlight those three points in regards to web usability standards. After all, if you want the information as Nielsen wrote is, simply access the Nov. 14, 1999 article.

Of course, even the three rules that I have highlighted are completely open to interpretations based upon what I have called "big sites", "standards", and "typical".

So, in defense of any misunderstandings, this is how I define them:

"Big Sites"
In my interpretation, a big site is simply one receiving amounts of traffic that would make me worry. Essentially, if another site can dwarf yours with ease, and they are also reputable. For example, your site is the online presence of a local newspaper. The New York Time, to you, is a big site. If you are a local ISP, check out what Earthlink may be doing. They too are a big site. But as with everything, it has it's context.

In fear that Nielsen may cringe at any lengthy definition I may provide here, I will simply say that a standard is something that when used, does not require thought. Let's face it, any user interface that takes some coaching or time with to understand it, shouldn't be used.

Nothing on the Internet is simply typical, and I know from some feedback already that this is what many of you believe. And, I agree. Typical though, in this case, is more like a default. For example, underlining links, keeping clear navigational choices, and using common font choices - all typical.

…Now, I want to be clear that this is not any sort of plagiarism at all. Jakob Nielsen, in my mind is one of the most clear and concise writers and researchers in regards to web usability. Nielsen is after all, one of the most influential people having an affect on the Internet even today. And, his article is clearly referenced above.

Please, read his articles and study his other writings. If you are interested in web usability, you will be happily rewarded.