A few people (including Dawud Miracle) have blogged about Jacob Nielsen (it is law that I have to use the term ‘usability guru’ here) and his interview with the BBC where he suggested web 2.0 was neglecting good design. Nielsen speaks good sense sometimes (I particularly like his top 10 UI bloopers in Hollywood), but I’ve always found his design rules rather steadfast, or rather that people taken them and apply them too rigourously. I remember sitting in a meeting with the ill-fated UKeU and someone gave us a lecture on usability, based entirely on Nielsen, which was to form the basis of their VLE design. I pointed out that a VLE was not like a shopping site where users want to get in and out quickly, but was somewhere users spent a lot of time – weeks, months even. They would sacrifice some of the principles of good design over utility – e.g. they’ll happily have lots of information on the page if it saves them lots of clicks to get back to the same point.
Anyway, although Nielsen is sort of right, and users tend to add widgets and content to sites with the same respect for design as you’ll find for plot in say, a William Burroughs novel, I think he’s also missing the point. MySpace sites are truly awful in their design, and yet there is something refreshing in their chaotic assemblage. Not being tied down by design laws has really liberated all those people (okay, all those teenagers) who want to create a site they feel reflects them. A teenager’s mind isn’t a very orderly place, and the sites reflect that. But this take it and mix it all up in a novel, unpredicatble way is part of the essence of web 2.0, and if design suffers a bit through that, it may be a price worth paying as from the mess genuinely exciting things emerge.
The other point is that Nielsen has been critical of RSS and blogs, and I wonder if he’s not still stuck on stickability as it were. As Tim O’Reilly argues the shift from stickiness to syndication is one of the web 2.0 transformations. Nielsen made his name in a stickability world, and in many ways it’s in his interest to keep promoting this view as this is where his company make their money. But in a syndication world, I am in charge of the design in my Netvibes, Pageflakes, or whatever site. I want others to provide good content, but I don’t need them to provide the design. In rather the same way that the internet unbundled the information about a product from the product itself, so web 2.0 unbundles design and content.