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3.8 out of 5 stars
Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed
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on May 29, 2003
According to this book, users spend most of their time on other sites than your site... When a user visits your site, he/she will be bringing a large load of mental baggage accumulated from prior visits to thousands of other home pages. So by the time they reach your web site, users have accumulate a generic mental model of the way a homepages are supposed to work, based on their experience on these other sites.
It is a very interesting point. According to authors of the book, there are few large web sites that might count themselves among the first 10 to 20 sites visited by new users. And design of these web sites dictate the design conventions that a user will expect when he/she visits other web sites.
Example of some of these conventions mentioned in the book are:
upper-left corner is the best place for a site logo
upper-right corner are more generic locations for search widgets and "help" links
Navigation of the site is best usable either as a tab-style (such as in or as a column on left side of the page (such as in
Links should be blue-underlined, and visited links should be purple-underlined
footer navigation links should be only for "foot-note-related" content and should be limited to no more than 7 links
on and on it goes
So how do authors derive these conclusions? The process is actually very interesting. They conduct studies of top 50 chosen web sites and group their findings into conventions.
The book also "deconstructs" those 50 chosen Home Pages, and provides annotated analysis. You may find it interesting. Among those are such sites as,,, BBC Online, CNET, Disney, eBay, Microsoft, IBM and many more.
Although majority of the book is on annotating home pages, authors also give some generic tips on home page design. Some of those tips I recall are:
liquid page layout is preferred over fixed sized tables
the most optimal page width is 760 pixels (for fixed layout)
page length of the homepage should be around two full screens, but not more than four
frames suck big time
horizontal scrolling is the curse
"Guest Books" are not for pros
Do not use exclamation marks!
and on and on it goes
While reading homepage annotations, I felt very strong emphasis on the title of the homepages (the one between <title> and </title> tags). These tags are easily left un-noticed, one would think. But properly chosen titles make big difference while bookmarking your page. Try it yourself.
In other words, do not start your titles with "The" and "Welcome", because in person's favorites lists, it would be misplaced in the alphabetical order.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone venturing in Web Designs.
P.S. Although the book is on Home Page usability, the book itself doesn't seem "usable" at all. Size of the book is so clumsy that doesn't fit in a standard sized book shelf.
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on April 23, 2004
Nielsen, the usability guru (extremist?) and Tahir goes on a crusade against well-known sites, attacking the weak points in terms of usability of each site (they call it "deconstructing").
In spite of the somewhat extreme view of homepage design (what did you expect from Nielsen?), this book is very useful to get a purely-usability viewpoint.
The first part of the book gives statistical data on the placement of various components of a homepage, such as the logo, search, etc. This is important in usability since users will spend more time on other sites than on yours. The data gives a good guideline on the basic page structure of a usable web page.
The other part of the book is the part that "deconstructs" the homepages of the 50 sites. This part is well-illustrated, with first a clean screenshot of the page followed by one with the weaknesses pointed out. This part is an excellent way to learn usability inductively; the 50 case studies are ample for one to practice her usability critiquing skills, which would be useful to use on one's own site.
This book is focused on usability -- not entirely helpful if you are trying to design a pretty site. Also, don't try too hard to satisfy all of Jakob's usability requirements, or your site might end up looking like
This book belongs to the bookshelf of every web designer.
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on January 12, 2004
In his first book, "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity", published two years earlier (December 1999), Jakob Nielsen presented a comprehensive stylebook for presenting web pages. Although a tough read for one sitting, it was one of the few books that presented an overall methodology to an organization's web presence. Since that book presented a lot of information most of which I believe was passed over in search of techniques that directly related to the reader; he stated in his first book that he would follow up with a more illustrative volume.
This book narrows the field down somewhat by only concentrating on homepages. The first part of the book consists of a chapter on "Homepage Guidelines" which encompasses the first 52 pages. The following 250 pages or so show screen shots of various homepages from large organizations. Some examples are Citigroup, ExxonMobil, FedEX, General Motors, and Microsoft. There is some satisfaction however in seeing some large company with a richly funded web program stumble or just plain get it wrong. It makes my mistakes a little more tolerable.
The first page of a typical "deconstruct" is a screen shot of the company's homepage. This is followed by a description of the company, a short critique, a color map of the page showing areas devoted to content of interest, self promotion, advertising, navigation, filler, browser controls etc. A breakdown of the actual percentages is illustrated with a pie chart. The third page shows the homepage with numbers representing each of the points (mostly mistakes) that the author is trying to highlight. Yes, as other reviewers stated some of the mistakes he points out can be a bit repetitive, such as logo placements, taglines, and redundant navigations buttons, in general he (along with Marie Tahir) he gives you specific examples with which you can learn from.
Both his books have helped me, if only in thinking of web pages as one avenue of communication. Is your webpage communicating to others in a straightforward, consistent matter in the least amount of time as possible? Two main themes do shine through in both his books; make the file size small and the presentation clear so that users have to spend the minimum amount of time navigating your site, and don't over sell your links. Once users click to a link and it is not what they expected they just might not come back to your site in the future.
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on July 1, 2003
My first exposure to this book was from a handout in a class on web design. The handout was a photocopy of a couple pages of statistics on where to place search and what to label it. It makes sense to put our web page elements in expected places so that users will have an easier time finding the information they need.
I felt the guidelines in the first chapter were good. They were easy to understand and organized effectively. I wish, however, that there was a summarized checklist-format of these. The topics have an introductory paragraph that can help convince bosses and customers of the importance of the following suggested rules. For example, search is said to be important and easy to use and find. The numbered tips on how to do just that are easily implemented (and also easy to finally form into words why a site's search isn't "doing it for you"). Since I surf the web a lot, it didn't surprise me that input boxes should be big enough. I have seen search fields way too small on places I wouldn't expect it ....
The most valuable - and most easily outdated - part of the book is the Homepage Design Statistics. For example, it is suggested we design for the median page width of 770 pixels. But how long will this be true? The authors make a good point for having a page that resizes to your window (liquid layout), but it should still work for those with smaller browser windows. I prefer liquid and was surprised that only 18% of the 50 homepages surveyed used a liquid layout. Perhaps this number has changed since the book's printing. Most of the information is timeless like calling the link to job openings "Careers" instead of "Join Our Staff."
The rest of the book is dedicated to actual reviews of various well-known sites. The points found and discussed are labeled on a screen shot of the site so that it's easy to see what the authors are talking about. ...
I will reference the tips often and have already started using some of the terms I discovered in this book ("Smiling Ladies"). But, I felt like I was repeatedly being sold Nielsen's usability reports or testing. I felt that here are some great tips but not even half of what you need so go to the online store and buy more. ... Another problem I have with the book is the actual book. Why is it too cumbersome? It is attractive to look at but doesn't fit well on my desk shelf with the other frequently used books. The binding is also already starting to complain from use. Another problem I have is that it seems geared for corporate websites, but I know it is not. Perhaps next edition can have more small, not-for-profit website reviews so that it's easier for readers to convince their bosses that this applies to all, not just Ebay.
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After reading some of the reviews here, I almost didn't buy this book. But I'm glad I did. I agree that some people might find some of the critiques nit-picking. I also agree that the authors are not qualified to give copywriting advice.
But the point about exclamation marks on the homepage is a good one. They are overused. I've overused them myself. And they do make a page look like so much hype in many cases. Copywriters get carried away with hype and the web is no place for that.
I don't think we can take anyone's advice in total all the time. But I can tell you this. After I read only a few pages in this book I saw changes that I needed to make.
After looking at the critiques in the book, I can easily see the small very fine details that can make all the difference in the world in usability and, moreover, in marketing.
Jakob does extensive testing with real people and I have a lot of faith in his findings. His word is not the last word. But I trust him and I think people who are involved with designing or writing Web sites should read what he writes.
They don't have to agree with everything. But not to read him would be a mistake.
The changes I've made due to his advice have paid big dividends. I don't hold 100 percent to everything he says. But I believe I have a site that is very user-friendly in part because I apply his principals and I pass them on to my clients.
If people would just read the intricate detail in each critique, they would see what one small change could make and why it should be done the way the authors suggest.
I would have given the book five stars but the book itself had some misspelled words and it used the word "website" instead of "Web site" which is the accepted way to write it. I don't necessarily blame the authors for that. It was probably a low level editor who let those errors happen. But they shouldn't be there. Especially in a slick, well designed book and a book about usability and perfection.
But to anyone involved in making decisions about a Web site --- especially designers and copywriters --- I highly recommend this book.
Susanna K. Hutcheson
Owner and Executive Copy Director LLC
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on February 12, 2002
Web site usability has come a long way. For proof, just consider the strange case of Dr Jakob Nielsen.
Back in 1995, Dr Nielsen was a Sun Microsystem Usability software usability expert with a string of published papers and books on topics such as "heuristic evaluation". Nielsen had spent a chunk of his career analysing the benefits of quick-and-dirty usability methods such as heuristic evaluation, where a group of experts rate a system's compliance with established usability norms. But such methods remained generally underappreciated, and Dr Nielsen's books and papers were read by a relatively small group of fellow specialists. In 1995, with Web sites becoming a popular new type of "software", Dr Nielsen started publishing his thoughts at his own Web site,
Now move forward seven years, and here is Dr Nielsen again, peering out of the front of a book through neat glasses, wearing a red tie and perfectly mismatched greenish-blue shirt, with hair just long enough to mark him as a child of the 1960s. Except now Dr Nielsen is famous and runs sell-out executive lecture sessions on Web site usability. And the book out of which he is peering is not a scholarly tome but a big, glossy, full-colour 320-page compendium of heuristic evaluations on some of the world's best-known Web sites. It's called "Homepage Usability".
Yes, it's the world's first coffee-table usability book.
And if you can get over the price, "Homepage Usability" is both a useful contribution to the discipline, and more fun than you'd think. It's a set of design rules centred around an examination of the home pages for 50 major sites, including the highly-valued (Amazon, Yahoo, eBay, Google), the worthy (PBS, Art Institute of Chicago) and the famous (CNN, Google, BBC Online).
"Homepage Usability" is particularly useful because Nielsen and collaborator Marie Tahir use these 50 sites not just as a gimmick but also to help define the "standard" treatments of elements on a Web page. They do so in the belief that rather than learning a new interface on every site, users prefer your site to work the same way as the last dozen they were on.
Others, notably Michael Bernard from the Software Usability Research Laboratory at Wichita State University, have researched the placement of basics like navigation and search. Nielsen and Tahir analyse their 50 pages statistically and confirm and extend Bernard's work. For instance, their analysis of links to privacy information suggests that people will expect to see such a link on a site's home page (43 of the 50 had it there), and that it should be labelled "Privacy Policy" (20 of the 43 did this).
On top of the 15 pages of statistical analysis, Neilsen and Tahir also offer 25 pages of heuristics - rules - on eveything from displaying logos to communicating site problems. Many of these rules will be familiar to Web design veterans and to readers of Nielsen's last book, "Designing Web Usability".
Once the rules are finished with, Nielsen and Tahir take you into the instructive and oddly entertaining 240-page dissection of those 50 sites. They seek out and pull apart every misplaced button and vague label. The label "MTV news gallery" obscures the richness of the MTV site's feature articles. probably thought the term "shopping bag" appropriate, but "shopping cart" has become an accepted term. And ExxonMobil might have thought their front page oil rig photo looked arty, but "oil companies would best avoid photos that show large shadows in the water next to their rigs". Heh, heh.
The home pages themselves are displayed at full-page size. Some of the comments verge on pedantry, but there's praise too - the informative headlines on CNN, the well-described sign-in at Amazon. And the sheer weight of commentary eventually starts pushing you to think more rigorously about how users see your own pages.
Many Web designers, especially the less pragmatic and those without formal training, hate Nielsen's approach. They can see it leaching the originality out of Web design. Neilsen makes no apologies for this; he believes the content should outshine the look, and he once wrote an essay entitled "The End Of Web Design".
Commercial operators may see a different reason for suspicion. The likes of Amazon and Yahoo have been around long enough, and have experimented enough, to know exactly what produces commercial results for them. Heuristic evaluations never ask what is working in a particular case; they just apply standards. As Graham Hamer notes in his review below: if Amazon wants to label a link "Friends and Favorites", it's probably because the link is known to provoke the desired book-buyer behaviour - regardless of what Jakob Nielsen thinks. Heuristic evaluation has its limits.
Within those limits, heuristics have real power. Usability commentators like Steve Krug, author of the excellent "Don't Make Me Think", argue that the average user is a myth and all Web use is essentially idiosyncratic, so the only way to design is to test. But the truth is that almost every designer uses heuristics at some point, adopting elements because they are familiar and because there isn't the time or the budget to test. They're too useful to resist. So is this book.
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on June 18, 2002
The value of this book comes from the sheer volume of insight it contains: Jakob and Marie leave no stone unturned listing all the things that make for well-designed home pages.
A few downsides:
- The home page reviews are comprehensive, but the "problems" the authors find get somewhat repetitive after a while. In fact, after reading through about 20 reviews I was able to find more than half of the "problems" before reading the review (simply by looking at the screnshots).
- Another thing the authors could have done to make the reviews more useful: separate serious problems from trivial ones instead of listing them all in a single list.
While the book does have its quirks, it is a solid reference overall and will make a great addition to any web designer's library.
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on January 25, 2002
This is an excellent book giving guidelines for communicating the purpose of websites, communicating information about the company whose site it is, revealing content through examples, archives, accessing past content, links, navigation, search, tools, task shortcuts, graphics, animation, graphic design, UI widgets, title tags, URLs, news, press releases, popup windows, intermediate pages, advertising, welcomes, technical problems and much more. The first 52 pages are worth their weight in gold to any web professional.
The rest of the book is taken up with indepth analyses of specific web pages, and this I found rather boring & much less useful, though I can see that for people who need real-life examples reiterated it can be a good thing.
But overall pretty recommended.
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on November 11, 2001
This book does a good job at deconstructing 50 home pages and gives the reasons behind the problems found on each page. It contains a summary of all the guidelines, around 130, for home page design, which is a useful tool for rating your own web page against. It also has a star rating for the importance for adherence to the individual guidelines, which helps you prioritise work to improve your home page.
There are some guidelines which I felt were objective dislikes rather than real usability problems, e.g. not putting a "powered by xxxx" label on the home page. But this makes it all the more interesting for the user who needs to understand the issues as they apply to them.
Overall a great read, with lots of good information. Good solid stuff.
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on February 10, 2003
As fifty web sites are deconstructed (mostly criticized for poor design and lack of content), the main takeaway is a mental list of "don'ts" with some hints of what to do instead. The book could have analyzed only half the number of sites and still been useful: after the 20th or 30th, the critiques become redundant, and it's tiring to read the same problems (and solutions) over and over. However, the 113-point checklist at the beginning of the book makes for a great reference: use the list to systematically review your own site or next project, and see how it stacks up. You won't agree with every requirement of the authors, but at least you'll have to think and justify the times when you do something they wouldn't.
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