As I grow older (and hopefully wiser…although I think the progress on this front has been somewhat slower than I hoped), one thing is becoming more and more apparent to me:
The answer to all of life’s questions is “it depends”.
What I mean by that is one of the strengths of humanity is the ability to adapt. Our brains let us look at many different situations and decide the preferable course of action for each one of them. A good education emphasizes and hopefully improves on that ability: “catch a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Based upon what I’ve read of his writing on useit.com and elsewhere, Jakob Nielsen is merely feeding people instead of teaching them to fish. He provides rules in situations where a more flexible outlook is needed. Web designers and builders need mental tools to help them solve the varied and complex problems encountered when designing Web sites and applications, not a set of one-size-fits-all instructions. I agree with what much of Dale Dougherty writes in Invasion of the Usability Experts:
“I worry that a creative process of asking questions will be replaced by simple recall of easy answers.”
You can hardly fault Jakob for his approach; the folks that he feeds will get hungry and come back for more (at the rate of hundreds of dollars per hour) whereas the folks who know how to fish themselves won’t come back. It’s quite the lucrative deal. The problem is that I have to professionally deal with those folks who feel that they have all the answers to a problem that they haven’t even looked at closely.
Disclaimer: Like Dale, I think that what Jakob does is very important. He’s very often right about the things he writes about and is certainly no dummy. I just think that he is doing a great disservice to the Web building community with his insistence on quoting rules rather than helpful guidelines.
Addendum: I’m currently reading The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. In one of the essays, Feynman, who is one of the 20th century’s smartest people, cautions against just this sort of thing in talking about the teaching of science to children:
“The book has some [other answers] - ‘gravity makes it fall’; ‘the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction.’ Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction is sad, because it’s not science.”