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By Brad Wieners  |  Posted 06-01-2004

Time for a Redesign: Dr. Jakob Nielsen

Danish-born Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 46, who completed his doctorate in computer-human interaction at the Technical University of Denmark in 1988, made a name for himself in Silicon Valley during the late 1990s as a champion of minimalism and ease-of-use in Web site design. In fact, a list of the sobriquets bestowed on him by the press neatly recalls those overwrought times: "the reigning guru of Web usability" (Fortune); "eminent Web usability guru" (CNN); "perhaps the best-known design and usability guru on the Internet" (Financial Times); "the usability Pope" (WirtschaftsWoche Magazine, Germany).

If Nielsen's status today is less Papal, he's nevertheless continued to build a body of research, best practices and technologies (including a remarkable 73 patents), all of which relate to how companies can actually get the increased productivity and business value from IT that has so long been promised. "It's still a horrible experience to do business with most companies," Nielsen says, "because, honestly, their computer systems remain so cumbersome and customer-hostile."

In 1998, Nielsen and fellow futurist Don Norman formed the Nielsen Norman Group. The Group has consulted on projects at a number of well-known firms, including General Electric, General Motors, UPS, Hallmark Cards, and wsj.com. Each year, it recognizes the "Ten Best Intranets." Meanwhile, in his regular online column, "Alertbox," Nielsen continues to increase his reputation as a gadfly.

Executive Editor Brad Wieners recently caught up with Nielsen by telephone and asked him what, if anything, we've learned in the decade since everyone awoke to the need for a Net strategy.

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CIO Insight: Let's start with your research findings, some of which seem rather sensational. You report that an average mid-size company can expect a return on investment of 1,000 percent, and a gain of $5 million a year in employee productivity, simply by improving the usability of its intranet.

Nielsen: That's right.

How do you figure?

That number came from 2002. And I am sorry to say that I've not seen huge improvements in intranets these last two years, so that potential is still there. But I also want to point out that that estimate is really going from a company being average to above average, to just being in the top 25 percent. It's not going from average to being the best, which would have even more of an impact. And that particular figure [$5 million per year] is estimated for a company of 10,000 employees. But this is linear, so it applies to companies of all sizes. Multiply the number of employees by the number of hours per year that they waste.

Then there's this even more eye-popping number: that superior intranet design could save the world economy $1.3 trillion.

That's true, but that's really, truly worldwide. And that's how I can say [that] usability is not just a small issue. It's one of the biggest driving factors for really getting our productivity up in the white-collar economy, the service economy, and it's really in many ways the equivalent of what was done in the old days when people were studying productivity on the assembly lines. The problem is that nowadays most work is knowledge work. So this means to get productivity gains today we have to adjust the machines—and by machines now, we really mean software. So how do we adjust machines to human thinking? Well, by studying human thinking; in other words, by doing these usability studies and adjusting the technology.

In 1999 you revisited your "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" from 1996. Let's compare 1999 to now. What continue to be the most persistent challenges?

Bad search continues to be a problem today even though, from a technology perspective, great progress has been made. You can see this plainly when you use the public search engines. They're much better today than they were ten years ago. But the search on individual Web sites or inside intranets is, typically, still bad. And it's bad in all the different aspects of search. It's usually not unified search—no one search can search everything. This is a particular intranet problem. Things are divided up into different knowledge bases, so you've got to know where to search, and if you need to know where to go to search, then that defeats the entire idea.

The other problem about search is the content, which is to say the individual pages, or units of information, are typically poorly described in terms of things like the headline and the summaries, which is all people have to choose from when they get the search-results listing. So if there was just one thing we could fix on the Web, and for intranets as well, I would say let's fix search; that's still the number one single thing that's causing people problems.

What else?

The second thing that's causing the most problems is information architecture, which continues to be driven more by how the information is produced than by how it's consumed. Intranets are usually divided up by which department does which things, as opposed to what tasks employees have, or which work activities people have.

And I'll just mention one glaring mistake that most companies make: They divide up their networks or Web sites between products and supplies and service. There are typically three different places because there are three different divisions doing it. For a customer, however, if I have a certain copier, let's say the X17 copier, and I want toner for that machine, or I want to get it serviced—well, what I want is to go and find my copier and, once I find it, I want to get supplies for my copier, I want to get some trouble-shooting, self-service information. But it's a major effort because these are in different places. So that's something we find almost every time we do a study: that information is not structured in the way that people think of it. And that has been a problem for all ten years.

And then the last thing—I mean, there's millions of these things. But another one I want to mention is lack of clarity in the content. In other words, the descriptions, the actual information, doesn't clearly answer the questions people have. It's all kind of buried under a huge, thick layer of marketing, you know, of hype, and it's not concrete. [The content] does not explicitly say what you want to know.

Let me give you a very small example. I was looking at a hotel, and so the hotel Web site says, "Ample parking is available," but you have to pay for it, in this parking garage located in the same block as the hotel. Well, that's all very nice, but can't you just tell me how many dollars a day it is to park there? Okay, it's downtown. I've got to pay for parking. I can accept that. But how much is it?

So you definitely advise publishing prices online.

That's the number one specific thing people always ask for, and I think it's a completely mistaken idea that you're going to lose customers if you tell them what it's going to cost, because nobody's going to buy anything without knowing what it costs.

Pet Peeves

  • Fail to include a tag line that explicitly summarizes what the site or company does.
  • Neglect to use a liquid layout that lets users adjust the home page size.
  • Don't use color to distinguish visited and unvisited links.
  • Use graphics to decorate, rather than illustrate real content.
  • Give an active link to the home page on the home page.

    Source: Dr. Jakob Nielsen's "Alertbox," November 2003
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    If usability offers so much potential, why does it seem like there's still resistance to doing usability reviews?

    There is resistance. It comes in many different ways, and often it's from the highest-level executives who don't even realize how bad their intranet is, because they don't use it themselves.

    I'll just pose a very simple challenge to your readers: When is the last time you did your own expense reports, as opposed to handing it off to an assistant to do it? If you had to find out, you know, the rules for getting reimbursed for taking a client out for lunch, and how to actually take the receipt from the restaurant and enter it into the system—it may involve many steps. Well, most executives never actually do those things, and so, therefore, they don't realize that many of these steps can be quite cumbersome. So you really have to go on the intranet, not just to check it out, "Does it look good?," but to actually accomplish a specific task. So that's one really big issue right there.

    Then a second issue is that the people who work in IT departments, even if they do try these things themselves, they don't necessarily recognize how difficult the processes are for mainstream employees. For someone in the IT department, the intranet may make a process much, much easier than it is for, let's say, an attorney in the legal department who might have a very high hourly rate, but who is not particularly a computer person.

    The third barrier is that even when it is accepted that something needs to be done to improve usability, it often falters on more political barriers. Within the organization, it's not always clear who is in charge of [the intranet] and can say, okay, we're going to make it this way. Very often, it's a very distributed responsibility, and so a lot of people have to be brought on board, and they might drag their feet, or say that's not their problem this year. And if you have to get 50 departments to do it, it never happens.

    It becomes a major coordination problem.

    Exactly.

    Last fall, you published your most recent survey of "Best Intranets." Any surprises from that research?

    You might say that the lack of a clear technology platform was in some ways a surprise because you read so much about this and that solution being supposedly the way to great intranets. In fact, when we go and talk to those companies that have done great intranets—first of all, they all use something different, and, second, all of them say of whatever [technology] they happen to be using, "Well, we had to make a lot of changes ourselves to make it really work for us." So I think there is a big contrast between advertising and reality, and that these technologies are not all there yet. You really have to take responsibility yourself if you want to get a good solution.

    Another thing that was quite striking was that several of these best intranets had reduction of e-mail as being one of their priorities in their project, finding ways of taking information away from e-mail and sticking it into a more kind of organized and searchable space on the intranet. It was probably because you can provide better features on the intranet than you can an e-mail reader, but it's also partly because people are just getting so buried in their e-mail, we've got to take things out of e-mail if at all possible.

    The goal used to be the opposite: to put things into e-mail.

    That's right, and people have done it too much. Now we've got to retract.

    B2B Tips

    To make the most of your B2B Web site, nielsen recommends that you "Help your fans help you" win their business. Provide the resources prospective clients' need to sell your products and services internally. Offer these aids:

    Downloadable product photos, preferably ones that show the product being used.

    White papers that demonstrate ROI. Make these short, and don't use PDF; standard Web pages make it easier for advocates to cut and paste text and images into their memos and presentations.

    Links to external press coverage that demonstrates that independent sources have covered you positively.

    Downloadable tables showing your product's main specifications, benefits and price, along with competitive comparisons.

    Downloadable slide shows, preferably in PowerPoint format.

    Ongoing updates through an e-mail newsletter, which can offer advocates hints about tidbits to feed their bosses.

    Source: Norman Nielsen Group Inc.

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    Among your Web site pet peeves, you inveigh against pop-up ads, which you once compared to selling a vacuum cleaner by first dashing someone's ashtray on the floor.

    That's completely what it is like, yes. My screen is really precious to me. It's mine; don't go and pollute it.

    Okay, but what have you got against PDFs?

    Well, the problem is that PDF documents are just not very suitable for online access because they are optimized for print, and they're big linear documents, and, therefore, they're not very good for search. So if you find something that's in a PDF file, it's probably on page 217 or something, and being dumped at page one doesn't really help you that much. And so often you'll miss the information even though it is, in fact, in the file.

    Also, the formatting is optimized for print, so it's simply a nice brochure. It's typically letter-sized, and you kind of have to scroll it too much or the type becomes too small and hard to read. And the very first time you experience this, you don't even see the document. All you see is "Now we're loading Acrobat." So it becomes an extra delay that people hate as well.

    You're also not a fan of drop-down menus. For example, you'd prefer to type in a two-letter abbreviation for your state, CA, than scroll down looking for it.

    Exactly. Because it's much faster and it's less error prone.

    The reason I think that drop-downs are so common is that the programmers want to avoid having to validate the input, but it's not really that difficult to write a little routine that checks that you have one of the authorized abbreviations. And it's actually much less error prone because what very often happens is that people who want to enter "California" will end up with "Alabama" because the menu kind of first goes to C, but then it goes back to A. This is a minor irritant, but it's an example of a more general issue which is, Where do you put the burden? Do you put the burden on the computer or on the user?

    Another thing that this points to is the general principle that if a task is keyboard-centric, stay at the keyboard as much as possible. If it's mouse-centric, stay at the mouse as much as possible.

    Many of our readers have been through a generation or two of their own Web sites and intranets. Any mistakes to avoid when redesigning that are distinct from the original development process?

    Well, the biggest difference is that if you have a redesign, you already have a design by definition, and, therefore, I would very strongly recommend starting by not actually doing anything new, but by researching what you already have. This is a piece of advice that most people think of as weird because they feel like, "I want to just get moving, I want to get moving on my new thing, I want to throw out the old thing and get a new thing." But that's putting the cart before the horse. You want to know first what works on your old design, and what doesn't work, and why it doesn't work. Those are all very important questions to get answered, because otherwise what happens is that you may actually lose some of the features that worked well in the old design. And of the ones that didn't work, you know, maybe you'll have something different, but who's to say that different is better? So it's very, very important to do a study of the existing design. The existing design is your best prototype of your new design because it's already working, it has all the features, and it has all the users right there.

    That seems common sense enough.

    Sad to say, people often miss that.

    In the past, you've suggested that 10 percent of the budget for any Web or intranet project go toward usability. Still a good rule of thumb?

    That is still a good figure. Ultimately it should be higher than that, but in today's world, that's a good recommendation. The way to think of that is, really, that you spend 10 percent of your budget making sure you're doing the right thing, and then 90 percent on doing that thing.



    Resources

    Resources

    Books

    Designing Web Usability
    By Jakob Nielsen
    New Riders, 1999

    Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
    By Steve Krug
    New Riders, 2000

    Information Architecture: Blueprints for the Web
    By Christina Wodtke
    New Riders, 2002

    Web sites

    Nielsen's "Alertbox"
    www.useit.com/alertbox

    Adaptive Path's incisive essays on information design, architecture and usability
    www.adaptivepath.com/ publications/essays/archives/index.php