Jakob Nielsen Interview
Jakob Nielsen Interview
We interview Dr. Jakob Nielsen, the Web's usability czar, about his new book (Designing Web Usability), usability strategies, the Web's future, and why IE8 will finally get it right. See also our summary of key chapters of his new book and a review.
WR: Why did you write this book?
Nielsen: To present a unified argument for my principle of simplified Web design that focuses on serving the user. It turns out that the old medium of the book is still the best approach to telling a long story and proceeding linearly through an argument to build up to a conclusion. Also, from a pragmatic perspective, the book has a huge number of screen shots in it, and these examples would have been difficult to present on the Web and preserve the ultra-fast response times I believe in.
WR: What are the key things designers can do to improve their site's usability?
Nielsen: The most important thing is to discover the three main reasons users come to your site and make these things extremely fast and obvious to do. Less common actions should certainly not be any more complicated than necessary, but priority should be given to the key user goals.
I also recommend defining an information architecture that matches the users' model of the information space and to design a fairly minimalist navigation system to move people around this architecture. I don't think everything should be linked to everything else, but there should be a few global navigation features and much more local navigation than we typically see on current websites.
Content should be written according to the special requirements of online readers: very short and with liberal use of bulleted lists and highlighted keywords. Users scan, so write for scannability.
Finally, of course, all pages should download as quickly as possible: anything beyond a one-second response time at the prevalent connection speeds *will* hurt users.
WR: In your book you say: "Visual appearance is literally the first thing the user sees upon entering a site, and good-looking visuals are a major opportunity for establishing credibility." How does that jibe with fast-loading designs? Are the two diametrically opposed? Is there a happy medium?
Nielsen: The two are partially opposed in that the most gorgeous designs usually are bloated. They should be avoided. Illustrations should be kept small, except for secondary pages where the user has requested, for example, an enlarged product photo. Mainly rely on typography and technologies like style sheets that can enhance appearance without delaying the response time significantly.
WR: The knock against your minimal interface design techniques is that they can create visually bland sites. What about the less easily quantifiable human factors of perceived professionalism, and aesthetic factors that contribute to our gut reaction when viewing a well-designed Web site?
Nielsen: Empirically, the blandest sites are the ones that get the most page views and the most users. In truth, sites like Yahoo and Amazon are not bland, just because they look simple. The services and content are what define the user experience together with the feeling of flow that you get when moving around an easy site.
WR: How much money per year would you estimate businesses lose to poor Web site usability?
Nielsen: Wasn't there a study recently that estimated the size of the Internet economy at around a trillion dollars? Whatever the number is, that's also my estimate of the loss due to poor usability since all the studies show that users can't find what they are looking for half of the time. In other words, whatever business a site does now is only half of the business it would do if users could always find what they were looking for.
If we only look at individual sites, I actually believe the loss is much greater than 100% of their current business. Sites also lose money because they don't follow the writing style guide for online content, so users don't feel comfortable buying. And because they design poor shopping carts, check-out procedures, and antagonize users by not disclosing shipping and handling fees. I think that a site that followed all of my guidelines would increase sales by 500-1000%.
WR: What are some of your pet peeves?
Nielsen: My main complaint is that almost all Web content could have been printed out and would work as well. There is very little work on inventing new writing styles that will work for the impatient (and scanning) Web users.
I also detest the lack of good links: the Web is a hypertext medium, and yet most pages are stand-alone units that don't connect to related information. We need more local navigation ("see also these related products") as well as links to external sites.
And, of course, slow pages, frames, and anybody who opens up a new window without my permission.
WR: You predict that the Web will be dominated by users with slow connections (56K average) till the year 2003, so fast-loading pages will remain important for some time. What do think is a reasonable home page size in Kbytes?
Nielsen: The real rule is one-second response times, which translates into five kilobytes at 56 Kbps. Anything slower than this *will* be painful. However, since all sites are painful these days, I think that you can go up to 20-30 KB and be among the best sites on the Web in terms of response time.
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Created: Dec. 13, 1999
Revised: Dec. 14, 1999