Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, August 30, 2004:

Mastery, Mystery, and Misery: The Ideologies of Web Design

Simple, unobtrusive designs that support users are successful because they abide by the Web's nature -- and they make people feel good.

Behind a website's superficial appearance lies its fundamental understanding of user behavior in an interactive service. Choices such as whether the "buy" button is red or orange or whether the navigation menu runs across the top or down the left side are much debated, but make at most a few percent difference in usability. In contrast, the design ideology can make or break a site.

I see three contrasting approaches to design, which I have dubbed mastery, mystery, and misery.

Mastery: Empowering Users

The original ideology of hypertext and the World Wide Web, as expressed by Vannevar Bush (1945), Ted Nelson (1960), and Tim Berners-Lee (1991) makes individual users the masters of the content and lets them access and manipulate it in any way they please. User empowerment requires perfect usability and simplicity: only if users know what every design element means will they feel in control of the medium.

Search engines are the archetypical embodiment of the mastery ideology. They place users firmly in the driver's seat and take them where they want to go. You can get anywhere on the Web using a subservient interface that accepts any words you throw at it and serves up a simple, linear list of rank-ordered choices.

Not coincidentally, ever since the WebCrawler debut in 1994, users have proclaimed search as one of their main activities on the Web. Being in control feels good.

Complying with design standards and conventions is one of the main strategies for strengthening users' feelings of mastery. Understanding what they're being shown and knowing what they must do to achieve a desired effect -- that's the stuff of mastery.

In the mastery ideology, the designer's job is to provide the features users need in a transparent interface that gets out of the way and lets users focus on the task at hand. Leading e-commerce sites typically understand this; they sell more when users focus on products rather than on puzzling out the design's surface manifestation.

Mystery: Obfuscating Choices

Many Web designers prefer more "exciting" designs that challenge users to explore sites using novel interaction elements. This school of thought laments the trend of having all sites look like Yahoo. "Killer Sites" was an early exponent of mystery; boo.com was an archetype of the glitzy site: more in-your-face than useful.

A simple user interface is not boring. It excites users because it lets them connect with the content and engage the company behind the site.

Website designers stare at their designs all day, every day. In contrast, users visit for four minutes and then leave. Very different experiences in terms of what's boring and exciting. Don't aim at an exceptional experience for yourself and your team members.

Our testing of the usability of Flash designs clearly demonstrated the fallacy of the mystery ideology. Almost every time a design employed a non-standard scrollbar, users failed. Our test users typically overlooked numerous options because they didn't realize that the highly decorated or otherwise unusual scrollbars actually served a function.

Users don't want to admire the scrollbars. Truth be told, they don't even want scrollbars as such, they just want to access content and have the interface get out of the way.

Even designers who believe in user mastery can be tempted to taint their designs with shades of mystery. It's easy to delude yourself that an ornamental feature will attract users. For example, most users disliked the category name "lifestyle" on bbc.co.uk according to the British government's user research. One user said, "Lifestyle, what the hell's that? I like gardening, it's not my 'lifestyle.'" Another user said, "I would never have looked at a lifestyle section, it doesn't mean anything to me." (It's long been a usability guideline to refrain from using fancy terms to label navigation categories; use specific, everyday language instead.)

Users don't like websites that patronize them or tell them what to do. They like websites that support the goals of their visit.

The website of J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter books) might be an exception to the avoiding-mystery rule. The site feels more like an adventure game, but that’s appropriate because its primary purpose is to feed fans rumors about Rowling’s next book. The site contains many an oblique element. There's no way, for example, that you'd ever guess that a bunch of paper clips are a link to the FAQ. The site violates most guidelines for hypertext links: it has no perceived affordance of clickability and only the most tenuous of metaphors maps the reference domain to the target domain.

Excerpt of graphical homepage that depicts a cluttered desktop with items like paper clips and a calendar
Upper right hand corner of jkrowling.com's homepage

User research with children shows that they often have problems using websites if links and buttons don't look clickable. At the same time, using a virtual environment as a main navigation interface does work well with kids, even though it's rarely appreciated by adults (outside of games). Also, children have more patience for hunting down links and rolling over interesting parts of a page to see what they do. On balance, the mystery approach to design succeeds for Rowling -- just don't try it for sites that are not about teenage wizards.

Misery: Oppressing Users

The third prevailing ideology of Web design is oppression, as mainly espoused by certain analysts who wish the Web would turn into television and offer users no real choices at all. Splash pages, pop-ups, and breaking the Back button are typical examples of the misery ideology.

One of misery design's most insidious recent examples is the idea of embedding links to advertising on the actual words of an article using a service like IntelliTxt. By sullying the very concept of navigation, such ads not only damage the user experience on the host site, they poison the well for all websites. Such links make users even less likely to navigate sites, and more likely to turn to trusted search engines to guide them to the next page.

Like much Web advertising, embedded ad links rely on interruption marketing, intruding as much as possible on users and preventing them from doing what they want to do. As such, many of these ads have been failures. The most successful Web ads empower -- rather than annoy -- users. Examples include search engine advertising, sites with classified ads, and request marketing.

There are times when it makes sense to constrain users' choices, but it must be done in a way that feels supportive and not limiting. For example, during the checkout process on an e-commerce site, you should not distract users by including links to all possible site areas. Highlight the proceed to checkout button and provide only those additional features that users might need (such as return to shopping, privacy policy, and so on).

Although such checkout designs drastically reduce the number of links, they don't restrict users because people want to do one of two things after initiating checkout: complete their purchase or abandon/delay it.

Most misery designs feel miserable. People recognize when they're being manipulated, and they resent it. They resent it even more on the Web, where they're used to freedom of movement.

Mastery Wins in the End

The mastery ideology provides the best match with the Web's fundamental nature: it lets users go where they want. Web users want instant gratification and have little patience for the mystery approach's detours and puzzles. Users are getting ever-more goal-driven in their approach to the Web, which they see more as a tool than an environment. Surfing to check out cool sites is a thing of the past.

Misery may seem a tempting way to squeeze an extra dollar out of unsuspecting and naïve users. But in the long term, users discover which sites treat them well and those are the sites they return to. Most of a website's true value comes from loyal users, and mastery sites stand much the best chance of fostering loyalty.

Designs that support user empowerment are the best way to make money on the Internet. It's an easier sell when you give people what they want than when you try to cheat them.

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Copyright 2004 Jakob Nielsen