WebReference.com - New Riders Interview with Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (6/6)
Making the World a Happier Place, One Web Site at a Time
NR: What do you two read or what sites do you visit?
MARIE: I'm on the web constantly during work time, but during personal time, I go to a lot of news sites. I mostly get news from the web. I also go to CNN.com, The Washington Post, and The New York Times site. Those are all good and the first places I go for big news. I like The Washington Post because of the focus on politics. I'm a big Sopranos and Sex in the City fan, so I do spend some time checking out programming on the HBO website. I also enjoy Marshall Brain's howstuffworks website. I try to make myself buy as much as I can off the web. Even for big purchases, like my car and refrigerator, I attempted to shop online (although bought both in the end through traditional channels.). Beyond that, I'm a lifelong bookworm, but have a penchant for new fiction over more practical fare.
JAKOB: I read a lot of science fiction booksÂpartly because it's fun, but also because you can view them as a prototyping tool about the future of technology. Often that type of storytelling, using the human imagination as the way to depict or visualize things, works very well and provides a lot of interesting new ideas about how people might live in the future or how they would use new technology. Some of those books have been really good in thinking about future trends. When it comes to websites, I am very much into the design of websites that are fast and to the point. One site that I particularly like is called Tomalak's Realm, which is at Tomalak.org. It's a very nice website that basically provides an overview of what good articles are on the Web with a little one-paragraph summary of each of them. That's a great example of use of the new medium in an appropriate format because there are links to all these articles. You can go and read the full article. In an old medium, print media, it would be a very unsatisfying experience to get a newsletter that had one-paragraph summaries of other people's articles, because you would want to get the whole thing. But online, you can scan those little summaries quickly, so I would never bother, for example, going to Salon magazine, salon.com, and having to wade through stuff because the articles I'm interested in have a one-paragraph summary on Tomalak's Realm. After reading the summaries, I can decide if I want this article or not. If yes, that's a great use of the web.
Just as Marie said, I try to buy as much as I can online. I'm on my way to South Africa later this week and I just bought a stabilizing set of binoculars. It's a new technology, so that's an example of something that I went online to find and found a cheap place to get it. I bought it from some little shop up in the state of Washington that I would have never been able to go and buy from. It's a website called buytelescopes.com. Buy telescopes? It's binoculars, but I guess they carry several things. And it's a great example of how a small business can really expand its outreach through the Internet to serve customers like me. I think it's very professional to live as much of your life online as you can. When you need a product yourself, go to the website to buy it and get that user experienceÂsee what's good and what's bad. To really judge usability, you must have a real purpose for using the web. So whenever you do need something, it's great to try to buy it online.
NR: Where do you see the future of web usability? Do you foresee significant changes in adapting to things like Flash or new big names on the horizon?
JAKOB: I think we are pressing toward the stage where usability becomes the driving component of the design that determines what should be done in the first place. This is typically not the case today. Today, there are two main cases when it comes to usability on the web. First, it's ignored. That's the case for so many websites, but that's fading. Any company that is serious about the InternetÂthat's really investing in itÂis starting to understand that they need usability. Quite often, the way they do usability is as a quality control processÂthey make a design based on their best guess and then come to people like us and say, "Okay, tell us what's wrong, and how we should improve." That's great. That's fine. That's much better than the other situation, which just putting stuff out for the users to suffer. At the same time, to get high quality design, you must have usability-directed design where you start out with studying users' needs and let that decide where you're going to go. That more integrated approach, where usability permeates throughout the lifecycle and becomes the way a company designs interfaces, I would say that is exceedingly rare. Basically, it almost never happens that way. I recommend that is the direction things should move because whenever products or websites are designed that way, they become so dramatically superior that they take over and gain some substantial market shares. So it's self-perpetuating. When it's done that way, the benefits snowball. It's just not done very much right now. Right now, we have a tiny, tiny little snowballÂa snowflake really. My biggest prediction is having usability integrated in and be the driver that sets the directions for the project. If that happens, we definitely will have more multimedia on the Internet in the future. We will have higher bandwidth and we will have more mobile devices, but not just sitting in your office. They will be with you. Most changes add new concerns to usability. For example, with mobility and having access at all times comes the issue of avoiding interruptions and completely overloading the users with a constant attack on all senses. I think we've got to scale back a little and allow people a little peace and quiet, rather than saying that they are continuously online. How to manage people's time, I think, will become a bigger concern in the future. Designing multimedia that works well is an issue in its own right that I think we'll start studying much more in the future. Broadband will happen. I think it's coming much more slowly than most people think, but it will eventually be there.
MARIE: In the future, consumers will continue to be more empowered and expect and demand more usability from things. This happened with desktop software. Over the years, usability became a major review point. But I think people are still inclined to blame themselves when they're dealing with technology. They think it's their fault that they don't get it. The ballot problem in Florida helped raise public awareness of how potentially devastating the effects of poor usability could be. Someday I expect that usability will truly be a household word. People connected to the high tech industry are much more familiar with the term than the average person. I fly quite often from San Diego to San Jose. On that flight, when someone asks me what I do, more often than not now, he or she will understand my job. But when I fly outside of the high-tech belt, I get many more puzzled looks. My hope is that someday, I'll only get knowing nods when I tell what I do for a living. I think if consumers become more empowered, understand more of what they should demand, and realize this is a right that they have, that they shouldn't be victimized by bad sites and bad design, companies will have to change.
Created: October 15, 2001
Revised: October 15, 2001