Jakob Nielsen is a leader in the usability profession. His website, useit.com is generally considered as a bible for people in usability, like me. However, to me he doesn’t have it all in one of his new posts on mental models. A mental model (yes, I’m going to get mental on you) is what and how a user expects a website to work in their mind. Cognitive dissonances between how a user expects a website to work and how it actually works result from these mental models. They can’t find what they’re looking for, so they leave. In a complicated website, the user’s mental model is usually significantly different than the designer’s mental model that was used to design the site. As my father used to say, other people are strange. Here’s a quote from Nielsen’s latest post on mental models.
For example, the word “Google” is usually the top query at other search engines, and words like “Yahoo” and “Bing” score high on Google. Why, oh why, do people searchfor a website if they already know its name? Why not just type, say, www.bing.com into the URL field?
The reason is that many users have never formed an accurate model of how the “type-in boxes” on their screen function. When they type stuff into a box, they sometimes get where they want to go. What to type where and exactly how each type-in box functions, however, are often beyond their keen.
That’s a reasonable expectation and a reasonable conclusion to make from the data he talks about. And I think it’s wrong because I’ve done that and that’s not why I did what I did nor why what happened happened. There are several ways to search for something on Google. One is to go there and search. The other is to install the Google tool bar in your browser and search from that. That’s how my browser is set up. The problem I have with Nielsen’s “they don’t know how the type in boxes function” isn’t a matter of what to type and where. It’s a function of how the browser environment itself works. If you have the toolbar installed even if you have clicked your cursor in the address bar instead of the Google search box, accidental mouse movements or keyboard actions can transfer your cursor’s focus from the address box into the Google search box.
This happens to me frequently. At the time it happens, I’m busy typing away on the keyboard and somehow, despite having clicked in the address bar, the next thing I know I’m at Google with search results instead of going to the site I was typing in. Looking at research that says “google” is a significant frequent search on Bing or Yahoo means that there is something going on which is odd, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people intend to type google into a search box. It may mean they expected it would be typed in an entirely different box. I know I never make mistakes.