Bloggy and Clyde

The WSJ’s Lee Gomes, who needs some schooling in the ways of the customer-controlled internet, goes to the wrong teacher: Jakob Nielsen, the self-declared usability guru who has the ugliest, least-usable homepage I’ve seen since 1996 and who hasn’t advanced his shtick since about then. In their Q&A, Nielsen sticks to his guns pushing email newsletters (I haven’t subscribed to once since about 2002, myself and not being able to get rid of half of them that I no longer read I now mark them as spam and never open them) over these newfangled RSS feeds and blogs:

Q: Can’t blogs do the same thing [as email newsletters]?

A: Certainly you can have blogs that function as newsletters, updated on a regular basis. But they don’t tend to do that. They don’t tend to have that same sort of publishing discipline: having a publication schedule and surveying this week’s or this day’s events. They could, of course, but they don’t tend to.

Yes, it’s too bad you can’t rely on them to be updated.

Q:
What you are saying is heresy to some bloggers, who insist it’s very important to use blogs to have a “conversation” with customers.

A: That will work only for the people who are most fanatic, who are engaged so much that they will go and check out these blogs all the time. There are definitely some people who do that — they are a small fraction. A much larger part of the population is not into that so much. The Internet is not that important to them. It’s a support tool for them. Bloggers tend to be all one extreme edge. It’s really dangerous to design for a technical elite. We have to design for a broad majority of users.

Fanatics? Extreme? Dangerous? Makes us sound like outlaws. Blogs are just web pages (better designed and more usable than Nielsen’s own) and the tens of millions who write and read them are no longer the fanatic edge.

: LATER: In the comments, Nielsen responds:

You are making exactly the mistake I warned against in this interview: You are extrapolating from your personal experience. This is invalid. You are not an average user. The only way to get insights into these issues is to conduct user research with a broader set of people who have a range of backgrounds and levels of experience.

Also note that the interview is an ultra-short summary of a 544-page research report with 165 design guidelines for email newsletters, so there is much more depth to this research than those short quotes.

And I respond, in turn:

Jakob,

Thanks for the response.

I think you are extrapolating from your past. This, too, is invalid.

The media world is changing rabidly and I think it is a dangerous mistake to discourage media from changing, too. Who would have thought even a year ago that the BBC, The Guardian, CNN, CBS, and other major media would need to run to catch up with this wacky thing called the podcast — and that once they did catch up, they’d serve them to large and devoted audiences.

And who says we need to create for the average anymore? Who the hell is average? No one is. The beauty of this new world is that we can create and serve in many ways for many people and needs and interests.

You want to keep sending out email newsletters (though I’d challenge their effectiveness in a spammed technology where the open vs. send rates I’ve seen keep getting worse)? Absolutely. But why not also offer RSS? Why not also blog? Why tell people not to do these things and not to offer their public these options when they can so easily do it? That, I think, is dangerous advice.

And when are you going to take advantage of advances in web technology and aesthetics to at least update your homepage?

I’m not sure why I’d pay someone $398 for 165 design guidelines when this is his sense of design and usability.

As Kirk also points out in the comments, RSS is going mainstream in IE7 and lots of other technologies. Just as many people reading blogs don’t know or need to care whether they are reading blogs, so will many people use RSS and not know they’re using it. Don’t want to call it RSS? I’ll let you battle that one with Dave Winer. Call it what you will, it is a useful technology that spreading rapidly.

  • http://www.bunte.t-online.de Tom Kerschke

    Hi Jeff, this is really a weird opinion. Quote: “There are definitely some people who do that — they are a small fraction. A much larger part of the population is not into that so much. The Internet is not that important to them.” Well, so what about the millions of blogs, all the people who stay hours in communities etc.? Ok, there is a difference if you compare countries – there ARE more bloggers in the States than in Germany. But – this will change. Best example: all the new foto-/videocommunities like http://www.bunte-starshots.de (german YouTube) – would any of the publishers would publish such a site with an expected “small fraction”??
    Sunny Greetz from hot Berlin, Tom Kerschke :-)

  • http://everybuddy.org Matt Terenzio

    Hi Jeff, how’s it going?

    “ugliest, least-usable homepage I’ve seen since 1996″

    Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but I concur with the rest.
    You know, if he were to just install WordPress and pick a template, how could he justify those consulting fees and sell those usability studies.

  • http://unbeknownst.net Kirk

    “That will work only for the people who are most fanatic, who are engaged so much that they will go and check out these blogs all the time.”

    Feedreaders are going mainstream with IE7. People won’t even know they’re using RSS. He says the internet is not that important to most and he’s right in the sense that people are now able to focus on the content instead of the distribution systems thanks to the internet, RSS, etc.

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    Jeff, I find the man’s home page about as inviting as artificial vanilla. The man has no graphical sense. Even his font is an appreciation speedbumb.

    He reminds me of a famous scientist who, having made a momentous discovery, spends so much time admiring himself in the mirror he doesn’t have time to keep up with his field.

  • http://www.useit.com Jakob Nielsen

    You are making exactly the mistake I warned against in this interview: You are extrapolating from your personal experience. This is invalid. You are not an average user. The only way to get insights into these issues is to conduct user research with a broader set of people who have a range of backgrounds and levels of experience.

    Also note that the interview is an ultra-short summary of a 544-page research report with 165 design guidelines for email newsletters, so there is much more depth to this research than those short quotes.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Jakob,

    Thanks for the response.

    I think you are extrapolating from your past. This, too, is invalid.

    The media world is changing rabidly and I think it is a dangerous mistake to discourage media from changing, too. Who would have thought even a year ago that the BBC, The Guardian, CNN, CBS, and other major media would need to run to catch up with this wacky thing called the podcast — and that once they did catch up, they’d serve them to large and devoted audiences.

    And who says we need to create for the average anymore? Who the hell is average? No one is. The beauty of this new world is that we can create and serve in many ways for many people and needs and interests.

    You want to keep sending out email newsletters (though I’d challenge their effectiveness in a spammed technology where the open vs. send rates I’ve seen keep getting worse)? Absolutely. But why not also offer RSS? Why not also blog? Why tell people not to do these things and not to offer their public these options when they can so easily do it? That, I think, is dangerous advice.

    And with all due respect, when are you going to take advantage of advances in web technology and aesthetics to at least update your homepage? I don’t find it terribly usable.

  • http://www.cleverhack.com joy

    Jeff, you completely missed Jacob’s point, he’s selling a report about email newsletter research to professional Web Marketers like myself.

    This demographic that I belong to also reads MarketingSherpa, MarketingProfs.com, ClickZ – believe me, if any Web Marketer is serious about what they do, they’re already into (if not doing, then at least researching) blogs, RSS, podcasting, vlogging and newsletters.

    Just because Mr. Neilsen has a stake in a consulting firm that focuses on email newsletter research (rather than, say, blogs) doesn’t mean that Web Marketers are going to ignore blogging.

  • http://www.copyblogger.com Brian Clark

    I’ve been there, done that with email newsletters — quite well in fact.

    Blogs and RSS are better for readers, and better for publishers, end of story.

    Jakob tends to forget how hard it was for people to get online in the first place. Now that we’re past that hurdle, upgrading people to a beneficial content-delivery standard that eliminates spam, viruses, phishing, etc. is a much easier sell than AOL was in 1995-1999.

    And who can’t also deliver blog content via email? It’s just a publishing and content-managment platform, for pete’s sake! Anyone remember counting spaces and line breaks for text email newsletters?

    When Microsoft (finally) ships Vista, the naysayers will look foolish as the masses adopt a behind-the-scenes RSS subscription engine — simply because it’s better for them than email is.

    Unless, of course, you think that software monopolies invest heavily in fad technology.

  • http://managetochange.typepad.com/main/ ann michael

    OK – I’m sorry Matt – but that IS “the ugliest, least-usable homepage I’ve seen since 1996″. Is this a case of the shoe maker’s children having no shoes?? Or are there no shoes to be had by anyone???

    I admit – I’m new to blogging (and hardly fanatic, on the extreme edge OR technically elite) – but I don’t even open newsletters for the most part – and my even less fanatic, extreme and technically elite colleagues who don’t blog don’t open them either.

  • http://www.mythusmageopines.com/wp Alan Kellogg

    Jakob, write for yourself. You’ll find people who like what you produce. Not many, certainly not a majority of the population, but a few. And even if you only appeal to 0.1% of the world’s population, that’s still 6.5 million people.

    Produce what you find interesting, and show why you find it interesting

  • thibault roger de gardelle

    Is it profitable to “broadband” content over the Internet?

    Have you the first advertsing results of the free streaming full episods on ABC.com (sessions, prices, turnover)?

    Will large audience networks broadband federative audience content (easier for classical advertising) or will they play the long tail?

  • http://www.attentiongrab.com Jim Parker

    Ever since Nielsen said (pre-2000) that content on the internet would be paid for directly by internet users – that is, a user clicks on something and then his/her account is debited $.01 to $1.00 – I’ve been questioning his words.

    Though he does have a point that normal, common users of today might prefer email newsletters to other forms of communication. It is legitimate that a person might not want to browse to a website (blog) actively. Many do prefer a passive means of communication. And RSS is still too techie for many. As new browsers roll out, as mentioned above, that will be changing fast.

    Yet, internet/email usage reaches saturation in the United States, email newsletters are one a downward slope.

    Jakob is just on the wrong side of the curve…again.

  • http://librarytwopointzero.blogspot.com/ les

    Hi jeff. Great blog, and like some others I do think neilsens site is ugly. But I think his color scheme maybe to assist blind users. I might be wrong, but I think Neilsen at least considers these users equally for ALL users.

  • http://www.g7uk.com/ Gary

    Blogs are no match for a well-designed website that uses photography and design in an interesting way (and no I don’t mean Flash).

    Despite the various skins available, blogs all look alike. It’s dull and the basic layout is not a good one. I have been designing websites since 1996 and remember how confusing I found the navigation when I came across my first blog. It reminds me of the 216 websafe palette that we used to be restricted to. Designed by an engineer rather than a designer… In particular, the way blogs handling images is just clunky and appalling.

    I believe RSS will remain a niche thing. The beauty of email newsletters is that you can read them without being online. Try that with a blog.

  • http://www.copyblogger.com Brian Clark

    Gary, go to my blog, sign up for the email updates, and read them offline till your heart’s content.

    I’ve never seen so many people miss the forest for the trees…

    Blogs get SEO and direct link benefits that email newsletters do not, which means a larger audience for the content and more subscribers. They also allow for easier publishing and archiving, and yet that very same content can still be delivered by email to those who want it that way. And RSS for those who understand the benefits.

    How is that not better?

  • http://www.g7uk.com/ Gary

    I think there is something about the blog format that is a turn off for many people. The way it looks. The way images all look the same and most are the same size. The way blogs all look a bit similar. The web is not just text, it is images, video and design too. Why restrict yourself to one dull layout type that is manily about text? Sure it’s easy and yes Google likes blogs at the moment. That could change.

    Despite all the hype, blogs are actually not all that popular so far. I can’t find the link now but an article I read the other day said that only 5% of Britons read blogs regularly and almost none of them trust blogs. It is a bit different amongst Americans.

  • http://www.nevillehobson.com/ Neville Hobson

    Gary, you’re probably right re the look of a blog format being an off-putter for some people. You could say the same about any website, in fact.

    Here’s what I think – the look and feel of a website doesn’t matter a jot, notwithstanding everything Jakob Neilsen says about usability.

    I may or may not be typical (whatever that means) but I rarely visit websites or blogs except to participate in something, like the conversation here, becuase I read content via my RSS reader. Design elements have little interest to me as what I focus on is the content as delivered in the reader.

    So in my view, it’s not about blogs or websites which are purely sources for content. And the places that, currently, you have to go to to do things like leave comments.

  • http://www.copyblogger.com Brian Clark

    I’ll take the Pepsi Challenge any old day of the week with my blog template against most “websites.” But that’s only because I hired a good designer. :)

    And really, what’s wrong with having a static home page if you want? I’d agree that it can be confusing to first-time visitors. But we were talking about email newsletters before, not blogs vs. websites. Blogs are the total package — a website and a content delivery mechanism, plus they are interactive.

  • Ed Rusch

    “the BBC, The Guardian, CNN, CBS, and other major media would need to run to catch up with this wacky thing called the podcast ”

    What a load of hooey. More people listen to the BBC over the air in a hour than listen to podcasts in a month.

    Time to get offline for a month and see how real people interact with the Internet and the real world, Jeffo.

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  • Thinking It Through

    What’s overlooked here is the meme — the Beltway, conservative media like the WSJ and most conservative politicians, are desperate to discredit “bloggers” because they’re terrifed even more of their readership will start reading them and get the other side of the story (the fact based news that’s in very, very short supply in outlets like Fox.)

    The meme is very clear, and they’re perfectly willing to discredit business blogging to hammer their lie: bloggers are “dangerous,” “crazy,” “desperate” etc –

    via Peter Dau:
    “”In recent weeks, one member after another of the D.C. media establishment has gone out of his way to depict bloggers as hysterical, angry and destructive. To hear them tell it, bloggers sitting at their computers are akin to squalling brats in high-chairs chucking baby food at their sober, serious elders — i.e., major figures at the established news organizations.”

    As I sat down to craft a thoughtful post about [Richard] Cohen’s latest outburst, I got a call from a conservative blogger with whom I’m appearing at a blog workshop. He’d just read the Cohen piece and much as he said he enjoyed watching liberal bloggers get criticized, he articulated a response to Cohen that was far less polite (and shorter) than the one I intended to post: “Tough sh*t! So after thirty years of writing this stuff in a bubble, you’re finally getting feedback from people who are pissed off. Deal with it.”

    Nielsen, in supporting this meme, is a major loser here too. And while as a web designer I respect his research, his site is in fact very ugly and hard to use. Too bad.

  • http://www.instabloke.com Blog Bloke

    Thanks Jeff. I was beginning to worry that I was the only one who thought his comments were over the top. He sounds more like a dinosaur trying to protect his marked territory. Nice try Jakob but no cigar.

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  • http://www.dmwmedia.com Robert Spears

    Tag under: For What It’s Worth

    Here are links to a recent poll on blogs from SFGate, where the vast majority of voters view blogs as “the dumbest form of communication…”:
    Image Snapshot:http://sfgate.com/polls/2006/07/20/blogs/result.gif
    Poll Archive Page: http://sfgate.com/polls/

    Given that this comes from the tech-loving/early-adopting Bay Area, I find the one-sided results to be ironic. This leads to the more interesting discussion of why our blogs so polarizing?

    For the record, I like blogs, RSS, email newsletters, alerts, etc. I even still surf the web, which I presume makes me old school.