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JAKOB: A Way to Overcome Bad Web Design
"Arguing in My Spare Time" No. 3.07
Arnold Kling

March 2, 2000

May not be reproduced commercially without permission of the author

My father has no concept of what I did for a living when I produced When Central Newspapers purchased 80 percent of our company in 1997, I told him that our new owners included the Quayle-Pulliam family. His eyes lit up, a smile of relief came to his face, and he said, "Maybe you'll become a speechwriter for Dan Quayle."

It's not that Dad is enamored of conservative Republicans--he probably will vote for "favorite son" Bill Bradley in the Missouri primary. But at least he understands what speechwriters do. The Web means nothing to him.

My father is very well educated and he has not lost a step mentally. However, he is intimidated by computers, he would be very flustered by a mouse, and his eyesight is not good enough to handle a computer screen.

I would like Dad to understand that what I do is at least as meaningful as writing speeches for Dan Quayle. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I might enable him to use the Internet.

Because he is going to have cataract surgery later this month, I can assume that his eyesight will be less of a handicap. However, I still have a hard time picturing him getting enjoyment out of Web surfing.

The mouse is an issue. He does not have the manual dexterity to handle it. In theory, voice recognition software could replace the mouse, but in practice you still have the hurdle of teaching my father computer jargon ("File/open" or "Edit/preferences"), so I do not see that as the answer. I think that for him the keyboard probably is the best interface available.

I think that a typical Web page would confuse and frustrate my father. He would find folder tabs and other navigation doo-dads confusing rather than intuitive. He would give up trying to read the tiny font sizes that web designers use in an attempt to cram the screen to the hilt. He would be paralyzed by the bewildering array of choices, and all of the flashy come-ons to "click here" would make him feel as if he'd taken a wrong turn and ended up in the red light district.

And those are just the normal sites. What if he landed on a site that uses frames, or that has a splash screen? Or imagine he did end up in the red light district. Once, I got into a porn site and I couldn't get out! When I tried to hit the back button, it spawned a new screen with another porn site. Then, when I closed that window, another one came up! It kept doing that! I had to go into my browser configuration and shut down Javascript so that I could get away. Somehow, I don't think my father would have realized that this was the solution.

What my father needs is a web page that is plain, simple to understand, and requires no mouse for navigation. Ideally, he could read what is on that page, and then when he is ready to leave the page he can push a "what's next?" button on the keyboard and get a new screen with a numbered menu of choices.

This menu screen would serve instead of links. It would provide detailed descriptions of the choices, instead of one-word titles. He then could jump to a new page by pressing the appropriate number on the keyboard.

For those of you who remember, the interface that I am proposing for my father is somewhat like the old Gopher interface. Maybe a bit less rigid, because the underlying structure would be web-like rather than hierarchical. Also, the explanations of the menu choices would be more verbose and more complete than what I recall with Gopher.

How could we achieve this type of web design? Perhaps I could write a book advocating it. However, people might not read the book. Moreover, even if they read it, web designers are quite stupid. I recently came across a site that had many usability flaws, and I recommended to the webmaster that she read Jakob Nielsen's book. She said, "Oh, we already have. We're big fans of Jakob Nielsen here." I thought to myself, so that explains why your site has a splash screen, frames, a huge noninformative graphic on the main page, and the article I was looking for was buried a couple of layers under a tab labeled "resources"?

So, with apologies to Shakespeare, I think the solution is to first kill all the Web designers. My proposal is to build a browser that over-rides actual Web designs and replaces them with good designs. I call this idea, Just A Killer Over-riding Browser, or JAKOB.

The basic algorithm for JAKOB would be an automated search-and-replace function, of the type that underlies Samuel Stoddard's "Dialectizer" at (Thanks to David Wolfe for telling me about this site.)

The idea would be to come up with search-and-replace rules that get rid of all of the nuisances and distractions on a web page, and leave only the content. In addition, JAKOB would implement the "what next?" functionality to which I alluded earlier. While you are reading a page, JAKOB would identify the most prominent links on that page, follow those links, and summarize the content on the following pages. When you pressed the "what next?" button on your keyboard (which could be the space bar), JAKOB would present the descriptive menu derived from the links.

Some examples of search-and-replace rules:

  1. Remove all graphics and instead include "view graphics" as a choice on the "what's next?" menu.
  2. Every time there are multiple links on a page that point to the same page, report this on the "what's next?" menu as, "the site designers are trying to get you to go here."
  3. When frames are used as a navigation scheme, get rid of them. Instead, include the links in the navigation frame on the "what's next?" menu.
  4. Automatically replace splash screens with the first real page on a site.
  5. Eliminate all "separator" graphics and replace all hard-coded table widths with flexible alternatives (such as percentages), so that the page expands or contracts to fit the screen.
  6. Replace small font sizes with readable fonts.
  7. Delete all menus and navigation links on the page, while leaving intact any link text that is part of a sentence. Instead, choose about 7 links to follow, and put these on the menu on the "what's next?" page. Fill in the descriptions of these menu choices using the META "description" information and/or the first paragraph from each target page.
  8. If the original page had more than 7 links, then while the user is reading the "what's next?" menu, follow the next 7 links. The user can see these choices by pushing the "what's next?" button again.

With enough search-and-replace rules, JAKOB could be successful in overcoming bad web design. The browser would do this by using rules that replace user-hostile design elements with better alternatives. If JAKOB existed, then I believe that my father could use the Web.