Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2003 #6 through 10 Explained

IMHO, Items 6 through 10 of Jakob Nielsen’s Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2003 are written proof that users should not confuse web design with sex. What do I mean by that? While these issues might seem nitpicking at first read, between the lines, they make two very important points that those of us creating and maintaining church websites.

First is a point Nielsen asserts himself at the end of the top ten list when he writes:

“Many of this year’s top design mistakes actually indicate a happy phenomenon: we are making progress in Web usability.”

Proof of this at the church website level can be found in my critique of the “Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI.” A site so well designed by Mike Boyink that most, if not all my criticisms had more to do with “tweaking towards perfection” as opposed to discussing basic blunders (of which there were none I could find on his site).

The second point, and this one should scare those of you digging in your heels over issues of usability and accessibility, is that users are indeed purpose driven. That is they don’t want to be put in the mood. They don’t want their church website to mimic TV, Movies or Video Games. They don’t even really care if the church website looks or feels like a church. What they want and expect is their data. NOW!

Proof of this are woven throughout points 6 through 10 of Nielsen’s 2003 list. Not convinced? Well perhaps you’ll see things differently if I explain his points as they relate to church and charity websites:

6. No “What-If” Support

“Comparing and choosing between alternatives is the basis for most critical Web tasks, yet most websites don’t support users who want to consider alternatives.”

The issue here is helping the user to obtain the exact result they’re looking for, instead of a ‘near-enough’ result. Nielsen offers some good examples, all related to e-commerce. I’d suggest reading them if you’re selling books, prayer cloths, snake-oil or other fun stuff. For the rest of us, here are a few more examples to think about anytime you seek user input, especially where the result isn’t as simple as buying bottle of Jan Crouch Tear-Proof Mascara (it only comes in one color – coals of satan black):

The first example that comes to mind is one inspired by deficiencies I’ve encountered with the search feature at the Redland Baptist Sermons archive. Does your search feature allow you to search against subsets? Can your site generate new searches based upon the abstract of a particular sermon, or in English, does it provide a “Similar pages” search a-la-Google? Better yet, can your website display the search results in a comparative fashion? Yeah, neither does mine.

Another variation would be any not-so-simple input where several options are involved. This could include the use of online forms to take donations, establish reservations or even to communicate information to some parties, but not others. Basically, anything online that requires a sequence of input forms and/or has any sort of decision logic that determines the end results. Based on my own 20 years experience as a programmer, I would strongly suggest walking through any such process on paper first, simplifying it, and then testing the new process on paper until perfect before a single line of code is written.

Finally, I might add as a postscript to Nielsen’s points is that mistakes happen, and the thought that you can’t please all the people all of the time. For the first, assume the user will make mistakes using online forms and provide them options to recover. Second, and of greater importance to those of us running church and charity websites, provide a point of human contact if a user cannot obtain get their desired result online.

7. Long Lists that Can’t Be Winnowed by Attributes

“One of the main usability guidelines for category pages is to let users winnow items according to attributes of interest. To “winnow” a list basically means to filter out elements that don’t meet specified criteria, leaving a shorter list that’s easier to manage and understand.”

The above can be accomplished with navigation that is based on a realistic and reasonable outline of the data and/or services your site is offering.

All too often, I’ve visited a church website that has 20 or 30 menu options strewn along the left column. Don’t get me wrong, this is so much better than one long page that tries to include everything under the sun, but what would be better is to provide sub-categories. A good example of this can be found on the “About Us” page at the aforementioned Ridge Point Community Church, Holland, MI.

Again, the trick here is to think through your informational architecture, from the user’s perspective, before you write a single line of code. Whether dealing with sermons, snake-oil or staff pages, this will give your users to quickly ‘winnow’ down to the level of information they want and need.

8. Products Sorted Only by Brand

“Sites that offer many items ought to provide winnowing and sorting, which is a highly useful way to deal with lists and is fortunately fairly common. Unfortunately, many sites only let users sort items by brand.” [emphasis mine]

This comes under the category of “I’ll know it when I see it.” Imagine a Sunday School teacher who already has in mind what they’re teaching and what they need fill in the blanks, but haven’t a clue as to whether or not your sermons archives can provide them with the information needed to get the job done

So while the Redland page lists sermons by category (provided the sermon is part of a series), it would probably be incredibly helpful if I offered a provision to sort the selection by related scripture, by time of year, by topical keywords. Of course, if I built this in, I could then allow a user to ‘winnow’ down to the sermon they need (see point #7).

9. Overly Restrictive Form Entry

“Put the burden on the computer, not the human …”

Amen! For example, taking phone numbers for an event registration, use regular expressions to validate the phone number so you can accommodate parentheses, decimal points and other errant punctuation.

Another beef I have along a similar line are those entry forms that first require you to register. If the user isn’t registered, then build it into the process instead of abruptly whisking them to another set of forms. I realize this means more programming and worse, more sitting down and thinking through the user experience from their perspective.

10. Pages That Link to Themselves

Kinda hard to put up a big fight over this one. When possible, do it. If you’re a programmer geek type, definitely do it, especially if you’re using a server-side scripting language to render your pages.

Why? Users get confused and/or annoyed. When they get confused they go away. When they get annoyed, they go away mad. When they leave your site, they don’t visit your church. When they don’t visit your church, they don’t put money in the collection plate. When they don’t put money in the collection plate, your church folds because it can’t pay the rent. When your church folds, you severely limit your collective ability to share the Good News.

One other thought

You’ll notice that for several of these points, I suggest sitting down and thinking through your information. I realize this makes web design more like programming and less like an art project, but so long as users are task-oriented in nature, then you need to be servant-hearted in response.

The best way to do this is to think before you code. Or as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:26:

“Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.”