Extracted from an email discussion I had (Back when I was a UsabilityTsar. I think around 2001) for a client who was criticising JakobNielsen. Should still make sense out of context.

Read these first :

And then imagine the client pushing back against the claims and recommending EmilRuder's [Typography http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/3721200438/thoughtstorms-20 Typography]] book.

In the Print vs. Web article, he is generalizing rather than reporting on a particular piece of research.

Now, when Nielsen says, "the web is more compelling than print" There are obviously many times where print engages, and many times where the web doesn't. What he is encouraging you to do is to understand and take advantage of a strength that the web has, which isn't available to print designers. That of the dynamics of the reader's movement through it.

At one point you write this :

The way I see this, the only difference between the web and print is the tool for moving, not a some new schema involving N-Dimensional Space. ... In fact the web presents itself as a series of flat 2 dimensional spaces which have no more freeform elements than shuffling through the pages of a newspaper or magazine.

The point I think you are missing is that the tool for moving is a design element in a far far stronger way than it is in print. In print, yes I can chose to move from one article to another. But traditional print is far from the sheer physicality of the web.

Consider your example from the Ruder book :

  • I think Ruder and Nielson are coming from the same place (useability). But Nielson's web pages violate everything which the Ruder book (now back in print called [Typography... http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/3721200438/thoughtstorms-20 Typography]...] highly recommended) cautions against.*

Yes. Nielsen and Ruder are both about usability. And no-one would complain that Ruder's advice isn't valid. But the fact that two people, both expert, both with good intentions, and both having the same aim, come to contrary positions is NOT some weird paradox. It is a perfect example of how different the media of print and the web are!

The media differ in the resources available to the designer, the expectations of the reader behaviour, the elements over which the designer has absolute control, even the responsibility and ettiquette of such ownership.

Some of the presumptions of print design are these ...

  • A reader will spend considerable time on a page containing a lot of information.
  • A reader will "move around" the page with her eyes, directing her gaze first at one object, then another. The main sensation of movement is in a horizontal plane, across the page.
  • Because of this movement, white space helps to organize and delimit these objects and helps the reader's eye find where the next is.
  • The designer has absolute control and responsibility for font size, shape, position.

But the presumptions of web design are very different :

  • A reader is on a page to find something. Often a reader enters a page, homes in on the first link that seems to progress the task and follows it out. Readers spend very little time on a particular page, surveying all its resources.

(See for example : SteveKrug : http://www.circle.com/krugbook/chaptertwo.html))

  • Thus the main sensation of movement is forward. Drilling down into the page. Through the next link and beyond. This tendency is exacerbated because the reader typically arrives on a page holding a mouse in her hand, her finger poised over the button, ready to click. When your foot hovers continually over the gas peddle, you are always trying to inch forward.
  • Because the reader spends little time on a page, she doesn't think of the page as containing many chunks of information. Each page is one chunk. Information objects are delimited NOT BY WHITE SPACE but by clicking on links (even if these jump to another section of the same page). Hence links are the things that must sort out and guide the reader to the next information object.
  • The designer has less control (and therefore less responsibility) over font size, shape, position, and length of lines of text.

: The designer NEVER has complete control over the font available to the reader because :

** a) the reader may not have that font on her computer;

** b) she may have selected a browser option to ignore font specification in favour of her own prefered font;

** c) different versions of the "same" font still have different properties such as character width etc.

  • The designer doesn't have control over the basic size and shape of the page. For example, on my 15 inch PC monitor, I maximize my browser. On my 19 inch work monitor I tend to keep my browser portrait shaped, and floating at the left of my screen.

Given this lack of control, the designer can also accept fewer responsibilities.

For example, you blame Nielsen for your 22 inch lines of text. But Nielsen, like a good web designer doesn't specify any particular length. He leaves the freedom (and responsibilty) to you, the reader. If you want shorter lines, narrow your browser window.

This is good ettiquette. You might think you are doing the reader a service by specifying that the line be about 60 characters wide, but what if the reader needs to view two pages at once, as two columns, crammed into a 14 inch laptop screen? Then you do her a greater service by NOT constraining her preference to narrow the lines to 30 characters each.

Experienced users will find, by trial and error, the fonts and page shape that is comfortable for them to read. You as a designer very likely CAN'T improve on this preference for any particular reader.

(See also DesignersDilemma)

One problem with print influenced designers on the web is that they believe that they should regain both the power and responsibilty for these things. And they count on technologies such as CSS to give them this. But CSS is still entirely dependent on the fonts that are installed in the operating system.

When "standard" technologies fails to deliver, a print influenced designer's next instinct is to try to restrict the user's choice of browser to one which is closest to the designers' own. Typically to the most modern, state of the art. I imagine that the mindset that finds this natural is rather like the star designer who demands that her work appears on quality paper.

But here the imposition is not on the publisher of the work, but the reader. We'd find it strange if a television designer insisted that her work only be shown on 22 inch widescreen televisions. Or a book designer thought she could specify that her book be read only in daylight. Yet you find it acceptable to specify that your site must be restricted to those who have bought or upgraded their web browsing set-up within the last two years! (Based on your demand for 5+ browser.) (Editor's note, remember this is an email from around 2001)

See also :