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When more is more

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my conversation with Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen. His belief that you should keep your Web site basic and simple has helped build his business into a multi-continent consulting practice.

In fact, a few of you were so impressed, you wrote me requesting information about how to get a hold of Nielsen. To your entreaties, I responded that he is reachable through his Web site,

But not everyone totally agrees with Nielsen. I have just read some plausible counterarguments to simplicity in Surviving the Adolescent Internet, a new white paper from New York-based Catalyst Group Design.

While anyone can publish a white paper, Catalyst comes to the game with considerable cachet. Its Web-strategy media clients include Bertelesmann Online, Web content syndicator Screaming Media, USA and Scholastic Inc.

Catalyst essentially says that if you keep your site too
simple, you may insult the intelligence of your experienced Web end-users.

In Catalyst's view, the Web and your site have been around awhile. Those site visitors who, through experience, have acquired the ability to understand cool features can be just as easily turned off by simplicity, as the new users in Nielsen's model can be alienated by bells and whistles. Kind of a yin-yang, but both philosophies ring true.

As users' experience and familiarity with a site's design increases, their needs and expectations evolve, Catalyst says. "Sites certainly need to be designed to deliver great expectations to new users, but, as a site's audience grows, there will also be valuable opportunities to reward the best customers by offering design features and functions that are specifically catered to their advanced needs."

When I spoke with Nielsen, he told me that the reason sites like Yahoo! and immediately drew lots of traffic is that they stuck with simple interfaces. Catalyst seems to think that the lessons learned from these successes have been somewhat trumped by the passage of time. "With so many more experienced Internet users in the current population, it's no longer enough to design a simple site that is easy to understand and use the first time."

Cited in its report, stats from nonprofit e-commerce consortium CommerceNet noted that while in 1998 the experienced Internet users (two years or more) accounted for only 2.2% of total users; that figure had risen to 18.4% in 1999. Surely, it is much higher now.

Catalyst frames the simplicity versus sophistication debate in terms of conversion versus

retention. Conversion means creating a comfortable enough environment to welcome first-time users and have them return often. Retention means keeping things interesting and useful enough for veteran users, who are what Catalyst calls "practiced users."

Catalyst recommends five content elements that balance the scale between conversion and retention and that are voluntary so that advanced users can choose them, while new visitors need not.

  • "Accelerators," such as the one-click ordering options on and the savable search options on job-search site, are optional amenities that help users save time by speeding up the buying or information search process.

  • "Shortcuts" encompass such bonuses as allowing the visitor to configure his or own "Start" page. For broadcasters, this would mean a link that permits the visitor to design a customized news page, arranged with links to stories in areas they care about. Note that I said "permits," not "requires," the visitor.
  • "Don't Show Me This Again" is Catalyst's worthy idea of a box or link that, when checked or clicked by the visitor, will hide newbie-oriented instructions or pitches from view. An example would be a "don't show me this again" link to turn off a teaser icon with an entreaty to sign up for your e-mail newsletter.
  • "Progressively Reveal Advanced Features" can mean a clickable "advanced users" tab with a link to a part of the site where multi-media and other bells and whistles are available.
  • "Clear, informative feedback" is just that. Catalyst cites an example from, which returns a "no results" page from an unsuccessful text search with suggestions about how users can improve their search. For a news site with a keyword-searchable archive of previous stories, "clear, informative feedback" could mean tips on how to broaden the search or link to the searchable archives of your local newspaper media partner.