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Norman vs. Nielsen – Web Design Smackdown

Don 'Juiced' Norman meets Jakob 'Amish' Nielsen Read human factors guru Don Norman’s latest book, Emotional Design, and it’s evident that Norman and his partner, web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen, must be turning into The Odd Couple.

Nielsen has always been an advocate of web designs so simple that they go beyond functional and utilitarian and become positively Spartan. His personal site, useit.com, has no photos, no graphics, and virtually no text formatting. The first time you load it up, you might well assume that for some reason the style sheet hasn’t loaded and you are seeing the raw, unformatted HTML. After a few seconds, you realize whatever style sheet exists has, indeed, loaded and the simple rows of text and links are the finished design of the site.

The business site of the usability duo draws on the Nielsen design philosophy, although there are a few design elements – a logo, a colored navigation bar, some columns for organization, and even a photo if one scrolls down a bit.

I’m not necessarily critical of Nielsen – every consultant has to have a gimmick, and I’d agree that many, many sites look great but are impossible to figure out how to use. I’m also sure that many Nielsen Norman clients like to see their sites reduced to most basic functions, optimized at that non-designed level, and then add in some design content to create a blend of performance and function.

In the world of physical objects, Don Norman’s writings have had a lot in common with Nielsen’s web concepts. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, now a usability classic, pointed out how many designs that were aesthetically appealing were, in fact, difficult to use. Imagine a set of glass doors that have an identical handle on both sides of the door – the individual who approaches them has no clue as to whether he can walk confidently forward and push it open or must pause in advance to pull the door open. (Or perhaps even get smacked in the face as someone comes charging through from the other side.) A sleek remote control may look great on a coffee table, but lack of easily-seen and interpreted button labels may render it very confusing.

With this similarity of thought focused on two distinct areas of design, a Norman-Nielsen partnership seemed perfectly natural, like two electrons sliding into orbit around the same nucleus.

Norman’s revelations in Emotional Design throw a wrench into the works. Like a cleric who preached celibacy for years before suddenly renouncing his vows, Norman discovers plenty of evidence that people often like and enjoy things that are attractively designed, find those things easier to use (even when they aren’t really, and are often willing to cut these items some slack if they prove to be a less functional or usable than purely utilitarian products. Norman cites a study that tested people with several different control panel simulations – to their surprise, researchers found that people rated a stylish design with a confusing button layout as being easier to use than a logical layout on an unstyled box.

In what must seem to be the height of schizophrenia for an evangelist of logical and functional design, Norman takes delight in a Phillipe Stark juicer that is absurdly expensive, far from intuitive as to purpose and use, and which even cautions owners NOT to use for making juice lest they harm the finish. Why would Norman let a usability abomination like this in his house? Simply put, the juicer is beautiful. It’s sleek and shiny, hovers like a glowing metallic arachnid high above the table, and invites comment and conversation.

So what does this mean for the Nielsen-Norman School of Web Design? Now that his right brain hemisphere has been activated by Phillipe Starck, Michael Graves, et al, can Don Norman still look at useit.com and say, “That’s great design, Jakob. Really functional. Plain. Simple. I love it.”

With the scientific evidence in hand that beautiful design has a powerful impact on user perception of what they are viewing, can Norman still promote web content unincumbered by the help of a graphic artist?

If people DO react viscerally to design values, shouldn’t the sites of N-N clients embody both beauty and function? Implying that great design will hinder usability is rather like saying that an attractive office building or hospital must, by definition, work less efficiently than an ugly one. While certainly great architects have designed buildings that are gorgeous but ill suited for their intended purpose, there’s no reason to think that is true in the vast majority of cases. Similarly, well-designed graphic elements may actually ADD to the functionality of a website when compared with Nielsen’s minimally formatted text , and a stylish layout need not be confusing.

At first I thought that Norman’s conversion to a more emotional design perspective might spell the end of the partnership. After all, the duo now seem more like matter and antimatter than electrons in the same orbit. Upon reflection, though, it’s brilliant business strategy. Now, the firm can offer whole-brain design consulting. Web customers who might have been put off by Nielsen’s idea of unmitigated functionality now know that Norman will bring to the table both emotional considerations and a love of design for its own sake. This is one case where having The Odd Couple as business partners may spell even greater success.

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