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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.

This article was originally published on 06-01-2004
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