WebReference.com - New Riders Interview with Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (4/6)
Making the World a Happier Place, One Web Site at a Time
NR: Jakob, you did a critique of the White House site, which prompted the White House to make some much-needed revisions. Do both of you hope that this book has that type of influence on companies or is it two-foldÂthat you're influencing companies and educating designers?
JAKOB: The main purpose of the book is to impact everybody, not just the 50 websites we examine, which would be overkill. However, I would also say, mostly in fun but with a grain of seriousness, that those 50 sites should be grateful they are getting free consulting. And I would hope, again, with all due respect, that those particular homepages will never be seen again, that the image in the book is the last time that homepage will ever be seen because obviously they should all redesign their websites and take advantage of the advice they're getting in the book. But that's not the primary goal of the book. I suppose it's a side benefit of the book that these 50 can improve their homepages.
NR: Are you amazed when things like what happened with the White House site happen, where you offer your opinion or critique on a site and those in charge of the site immediately turn around and take your advice?
JAKOB: I'm very gratified when it happens that quickly. It's rare, but I've seen it happen. Of course, it's particularly nice when it's a prominent site like The White House. It shows that they do listen, which is actually much more important, because anybody can make a design mistake. There's no perfect web- site in the world, and no shame in making a mistake on your website. The only thing that is shameful is if, after it's been pointed out, you don't fix it. Fixing these design mistakes is not admitting defeat. It's just moving ahead and having a more positive outlook on the future. That's one of the really satisfying aspects of our jobÂwe are making the world a happier place, one website at a time. And when we point out mistakes, it leads to improvement. It leads to people having an easier time, a happier time, a more satisfying time on the Internet.
NR: We see .COM companies dying all around us. How would you justify to a company with an online presence that it needs to spend more on usability, consultants, and testing when its stocks are nose-diving and it's losing employees left and right?
JAKOB: I think there are two different questions. One is whether you should invest in the Internet at all. That is an interesting, separate discussion. But if you are investing in the Internet, that entire investment will be wasted unless the website is also easy to use. That is the way to look at itÂeverything else you're spending is something that you only get benefit from if it is also easy to use. And typically, usability is one of the cheapest components in a web project, because it's pretty fast and cheap to get this type of user input. Usually, you can at least double the impact of the project if you spend 10 percent of the project budget on usability. The return is huge, so if the answer to "Do you invest in a website?" is "yes", then the answer to the second question, "Should you invest 10% of that money in usability" should be a "yes" as well. I think there are two reasons for the number of failures on the Internet. One is that many do not know how to run a business, which is a separate issue. The other reason is that visibility suffers. They only have a fraction of the customers that they ought to have because most people come to the website, look at it, and then leave. When we talk about homepages, we're talking about the first impression. The first ten seconds determine if you are ever going to get a customer out of that visitor. That's where visibility is the deciding factor. Are you doing everything you can to convert people from unique visitors to loyal customers? Only if it's easy to use.
NR: In terms of the sites that you critiqued for Homepage Usability, was there one homepage in particular that was exemplary in terms of its usability and functionality, and was there one that failed spectacularly on all levels?
MARIE: It's easier to think of the worst examples rather than the best. And I'm a little hesitant to put the gold star on any one homepage. There were a few that stand out because they followed some good principles of balancing simplicity with giving enough information and revealing enough of their site's content, which is a key thing that good sites do well. I think Drugstore.com does that well, although we of course had suggestions for improvement as well. The best homepages reveal a lot of the site's content in a manageable and simple way and that's a very critical part of a homepage. If it's an e-commerce site, they need to show pictures of the products with a good link to draw people in to that area of the site. Think of an e-commerce site as being a store. If you can glance at the homepage, it's sort of like looking into the door of a store and being able to look around quickly and say, "Oh I know what this store sells," and there are no big surprises in the corners. People all over the world know Disney and what it is. They have ideas about what the company means, what the theme parks are, and what the stores are, yet I can't think of a homepage that more poorly communicates the breadth of its product line and how it's differentiated and unique. The Disney homepage looks like a lot of substandard kid sites, where they rely on some big cartoonish, animated junk with bad names that are hard to figure out, so that you can't figure out what the categories mean. You have to click everywhere to go anywhere, which is not good for such a very important site. You can plan your whole vacation to the Disney theme parks on that site. You can buy merchandise. That site is the gateway to I don't know how much potential money. And yet you'd never know it by looking at it. You'd never know that that homepage stands for a company of that size and importance.
Created: October 15, 2001
Revised: October 15, 2001