Usability vs. Learnability

In this 1996 Alertbox, Jakob Nielsen champions writing for the web in an inverted pyramid style:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

There is another implicit point in that story. Who the user is matters quite a bit. When you concentrate on satisfying a very specific type of user, the critera for ‘good’ design changes.

Alan Cooper’s book a href=""

has a great forumulation of this (Personas). It’s worth a read if you can get past the preachy tone. It contains a reasonable argument that concentrating on a specific type of user provides a better result for all potential users.

what are the other two books in top three list?

For UI, definitely

  1. Don’t Make Me Think (Krug)
  2. About Face 2.0 (Cooper)
  3. UI Design for Programmers (Spolsky)

It’s all on the recommended reading page, in order of preference (eg best at top)

Here’s a list of the 8 new chapters in the “User Interface Design for Programmers” book:

It’s hard to tell because the HTML page…

… has them listed in a different order and sometimes with different “chapter” names, but I cross-checked and I believe this is correct:

Chapter 5: Broken Metaphors
Chapter 7: Putting the User in Charge
Chapter 13: Those Pesky Usability Tests
Chapter 14: Relativity: Understanding UI Time Warps
Chapter 15: "But… How Do It Know?"
Chapter 16: Tricks of the Trade
Chapter 17: Designing for the Web
Chapter 18: Programming for Humans

Thank you very much for the info. I agree about the other two (still waiting for the preordered second edition of “Don’t make me think”).

Joel’s book goes to the amazon’s basket too :slight_smile:

There’s another Alertbox related to this one,
“Changes in Web Usability Since 1994” (posted in 1997)…

… which has a link to a 1994 web usability study…

… which has a hilarious picture of Microsoft’s internet site circa 1994:

Guys, guys, guys… before listing these books, check to see if I already have it listed on my recommended developer reading list! It’s linked A) from the post B) from these comments C) on the blog homepage.

I’m just sayin’!

When reading a lot of sites, particularly ‘magazine’ type sites, the thing I look for is the “Print view” or similar link. This should really be called the “Hide the crap and put all the text on one scrollable page” link. Or perhaps the “Reading layout” link?

BTW, have you ever had the fun job of trying to persuade a bunch of science types to abandon the “detective story” style of writing/presenting, and move to the inverted pyramid. Aaarrrhhhhhh!

Hmmmm, this isn’t thought through too much.

The car example is bad because we all know when self-driving cars come along they will be a massive improvement in terms of usability. The problem is that the current car is bound by technical limitations - it is not because the car manufacturers cannot be bothered to invest in a better interface. Software interfaces however do not have those limitations so lazy programmers use cars as an excuse! Apples and Oranges.

A good user interface will be able to accomodate, even adapt, to both types of users mentioned here (beginner and advanced). To say it has to be one way or the other is the classic mistake.

Take My mother can use it easily to buy books. I can query its database via its Web API and have it automatically place items in the basket. It goes as “deep” as the individual user needs, without sacrificing the beginner. The interface should grow with you. You should not have to grow with the interface.

Can’t wait for self surfing browser.
I’d argue, that people who would use self-driving cars are already using public transport :wink:

Jeff, what are the other two books in top three list?

Well, it’s not that I’m losing revenue… I’m just mildly offended that people would think I had never heard of “The Design of Everyday Things”, or “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”-- both classics!

I too am a bit puzzled by the car example - was I atypical? I already knew how to drive from an early age because I had watched my parents do it everyday for as long as I can remember. It was just a matter of getting the feel for the controls, rather than the know-how.

On the subject of web pages, I never heard the one about ‘users never scroll’ but there was another one that I was told which I think is still relevant - it is harder to keep track of where you are on a screen, so pages need to be shorter. That is, it is tiring and difficult to read large amounts of fine text on a screen. Making it larger does not help, as there is a size where ‘word-recognition’ no longer ‘works’. Of course, some websites make it even worse by insisting on black pages with white or yellow text, etc.

“Can’t wait for self surfing browser.”

They already have that for porn sites, don’t they? (;-P) (malware)

I have to agree with you Jeff, Spolskys book is very good. What I liked most about it was how easy to read it is.

No elaborate case studies, just short and sweet
arguments with the occasional jokes here and there.

It’s by far one of the funniest and most lighthearted books I’ve read on a computer science subject so far.


I think the problem with the “users don’t scroll” dictum is that it confuses something mechanical (scrolling) with the more fundamental issue that users want to do the least amount of work requires to achieve their goals. The point is not how many clicks it requires (cf the example of someone’s mom on Amazon, excellent point) but on how much work it is to get the task done vis-a-vis how motivated the user is. This is a huge factor in documentation, where many, many users go immediately to the code example, never mind the long blather preceding it. The code example can be at the bottom; people will find it (especially if it’s called out in some fashion). As for different kinds of users, another good point, it’s that people are different kinds of users under different circumstances. If I want the syntax of a method, I’m a show-me-now user; if I’m looking at a page on the basics of crypto, say, I will keep reading, top to bottom, as long as the information continues to be useful and comprehensible to me.

I’ll ask again: am I the only one who thinks that Nielsen’s has the world’s ugliest Web site? :slight_smile:

many, many users go immediately to the code example, never mind the long blather preceding it

Well, that’s exactly what I do. I may go back to the surrounding text if the code sample behaves strangely or isn’t illuminating enough.

How about a documentation style that is almost exclusively code samples? That’d be kinda cool, definitely an interesting experiment.

Here’s some fascinating recent data on user scrolling:

Blasting the Myth of the Fold

I’m a fan of The Design of Everyday Things:

It’s not geared specifically towards UI development, but still a recommended read for UI developers.

D’oh, I’m sorry. I forget that you probably get click-throughs from amazon on your recommended reading list. I knew “…Everyday Things” was on your list, but I was just putting my vote in for it. Feel free to kill my comment(or change it to your click-thru URL), I definitely don’t want to take away from any small amount of revenue you are getting from it.