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.

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:


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.