WebReference.com - New Riders Interview with Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (1/6)
Making the World a Happier Place, One Web Site at a Time
[The following is an interview of Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir concerning their new title, "Homepage Usability." The interview was conducted by New Riders, who is also the publisher of the book. Be sure to catch Andy King's book review and personal interview in this week's WebReference text newsletters.]
NR: When did you realize that web usability was the career path you were going to pursue?
JAKOB: In my case, it was a gradual progression. Both my parents were psychologists, so I have a little bit of that background. When I started getting into computers, I used one of the early experimental computers. The first one I used was a second-generation computer. So in the beginning, I had my hands on this really old-fashioned, but simple, computer, which alienated me when I switched to a "modern" time-shared mainframe computer because I had no idea what was going on. I wouldn't want to expose the average user to one of those original old machines. Personally speaking, that experience gave me the feeling that modern computers are alienating, because when I made the switch, my computer didn't feel like my machine anymore. It felt like the computer was dominating me, as opposed to me dominating the computer. So even though it's very unusual to have started out using an original old piece of hardware, that was one of the sources of my dissatisfaction with modern computers.
MARIE: In my case, I tried to avoid anything that had to do with computers but I kept coming back to them. As an undergraduate, I wanted to be an actor, and I was working as an editor to support an acting habit. Back when PCs were entering the workplace, I always ended up being the person who computerized the office. I seemed to have a knack for doing that, and I learned to program relational databases and set up our office so that we could automate all of our processes; and I also did desktop publishing. Despite being able to do it, I was shocked at how unnecessarily cumbersome and elitist it was. It seemed ridiculous that I was the only one in the office who could use those machines. Around the late 80s, I began working as an editor at software companies and could never leave behind that experience of being that un-user and suffering from bad design. So I think of myself as a victim's rights advocate, because I had that direct experience of suffering in the early years. After I began working in software companies as a writer and editor, I tried to affect more change and be an advocate for users, and usability was the perfect way to do that. It was an exciting time in the industry when companies were setting up programs and labs.
NR: How did you come up with the idea for Homepage Usability?
JAKOB: Reviewing company websites and homepages is something we do a lot and we've discovered that there are many comments to make about it. We felt it would be a good idea to compile and publish information from our experiences for the world to see. In some ways, I like to say that this is a "half-million book" because typically we charge $10,000 to review a homepage so at 50 reviews, that's a one-half million dollar value. Of course, it's only worth that money if it's your homepage getting reviewed. Also, if we do a review for a company, we focus on its specific issues. In the book, we focus on issues that other people can learn from.
NR: What prompted you to take your message to everyone in the form of a book?
JAKOB: Despite the beauty of the Internet, in all its greatness, old-fashioned technology still has a place, and our general philosophy is that you should use the appropriate technology for the user's needs. This kind of book is very graphical, with very intricate layout, and has a lot of big, beautiful color pictures. The information delivery of using pictures of homepages with comments on their design is a hybrid solution of print and technology, which is more effective. This book is bigger than a traditional book so that the reader can get the information in one glance. Even though it sounds silly, a book is a better way of communicating these homepage design examples than the Web is.
MARIE: The "flip factor" is a key part of enjoying this book, and that's hard to emulate on the web. Readers can flip through all of the examples to find content that they want to drill down on. It satisfies voyeuristic curiosity of how other people solved problems you yourself might have faced. I hate fashion magazines, but if I'm in a waiting room and see a Glamour magazine, I'll usually take a peek at the "Do's and Don'ts" sectionÂI have no interest in reading generic fashion advice from experts, but I like to read expert commentary on what real people are doing out in the world. I don't think I'm alone there. It's especially compelling if you flip through and see an example of something that matches what you did on your own site, and whether it would get a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Created: October 9, 2001
Revised: October 11, 2001