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By Clifford Anderson
Cliff Anderson is a Senior Usability Engineer at Wachovia, the fourth largest bank in the US. He has been doing usability work for almost 20 years.
Jakob Nielsen’s name is practically synonymous with usability. He is, in many ways, the voice of usability to the outside world, and has appeared in BusinessWeek, The New York Times, and The Guardian, as well as on CNN, NPR, and the BBC. Media outlets such as these have called him the “guru,” “king,” “czar,” and even “pope” of usability.
How did such an icon get his start? Jakob first became interested in usability as a lowly computer science undergraduate at Aarhus University in Denmark. I was very thrilled about the potential of computers,” says Jakob, “but then came reality, and that was a big letdown. People who have used computers only the last 20 years have no idea how it used to be.”
Amid the disappointment, Jakob also found some encouragement in the work of Ted Nelson, generally credited as the inventor of hypertext. Contrasted with “the sad state of affairs at the time,” Nelson’s work was “a really motivational vision of the future.”
After eventually getting his doctorate, Jakob quickly found that there was “more action” outside academia – in particular at Bellcore, where he moved next. “It was everything you could dream of,” he states, pointing in particular to the “lavish” funding and the people. There, he worked on information retrieval issues, hypertext, email, and – most importantly – usability methodology.
Jakob had, in fact, begun his interest in methodology at the university. There, he had been forced into what he would later call “discount usability engineering.” “We didn’t have big labs like Bellcore,” he notes. “I did projects with whatever grad students I could get, with whatever equipment I could get grants for. The question was, ‘How can I make these projects really efficient?’”
He continued that work at Bellcore, adding to it pioneering research on number of users, reiterative testing, and heuristic evaluations. Reiteration, in particular, remains a concern of his: “Today, people still don’t reiterate enough. They have this cumbersome, slow-moving process. If they do any usability, they think of it as this one milestone, instead of many small hits integrated throughout the whole process.”
Another worry is reports, with Jakob seeing the average report as being “very thin.” He sees these reports as simply relating that “one user couldn’t do this, another user couldn’t do that, as opposed to why the users couldn’t do it. It’s almost like a transcript as opposed to a final analysis.”
A final concern is that “websites still don’t write for the web. Very few people worry about the actual information they put up. When we run studies, we find that’s what users really care about. More than ten years of finding the same in every study, and you still have that brochure thinking.”
A criticism that has been leveled at Nielsen, on the other hand, is what some perceive as his overly self-assured manner. “You can’t let your critics get to you,” he counters. “You have to stand up for what’s right. If you do that, and you do that in a forceful manner, sometimes you will get criticism.” He does, however, recognize a big difference between being a “usability evangelist” and being a usability engineer “working on a specific project, with specific people.” Of the latter, he notes, “You can’t antagonize them; you can’t give the ‘you’re-baby-is-ugly’ speech too many times.”
From Bellcore, Jakob moved to Sun. He was particularly attracted by Sun’s “let’s kick butt, let’s get something out attitude,” and also by the group he teamed up with. “The other guys were so incredibly super intelligent, the smartest people you ever met – the number one expert on power supply, on programming languages, on things like that. It was good they actually had some interest in usability as well.”
Though he was hired to work on UNIX, he quickly switched to the web: “I’ve always been doing two things – usability methodology and hypertext. So, when those two things came together when the Web came out, bang!”
After Sun, it was time to move on again. This time, though, Jakob’s interest lay in publishing. His main impetus was to “get other people to do it right.” “You can only do so many projects yourself,” he quips. The result was Usability Engineering, probably the primer in the field. Jakob has, in fact, authored eight books. Perhaps his most popular was Designing Web Usability, which sold over a quarter million copies, in 22 languages.
While finishing that first book, Jakob started another venture that would eventually become the Nielsen Norman Group. “Don Norman gets the credit for that,” notes Jakob. Norman, like Jakob one of the true fathers of usability, thought there was a need “to have an elite, specialized usability company, which there hadn’t really been. As it turned out, Don was right. We’re definitely doing very well.”
As evidence, Jakob points readily to the company’s core values, the first of which is to “enjoy what you’re doing.” “Why else start your own company?” he asks.
The second value is to “change the world.” “We really want to make the world safe for users and reduce the complexity of technology,” claims Jakob. And the third and final value is “to have more coming in than goes out, because otherwise we can’t support the first two goals.”
Jakob also quickly ties these values to the actual work the company does. Reports, for example, support the first goal. “Reports are the most enjoyable,” he notes, “because we get to study new things, collects new and interesting information.” He also points out, however, that “they’re not very profitable, unfortunately. We sell them fairly cheaply.”
Conferences represent the “change-the-world thing.” As Jakob sees it, “That’s how you touch people and enable them to go back and do their own projects, which is really the important thing.” Unfortunately, conferences tend to be “incredibly expensive.”
The last goal is supported mainly by consulting. “There’s not a lot of expense,” he points out, “so whatever fee you get is direct income.”
As for the future, Jakob is working on an eye-tracking study and also on a new book. He believes that eye-tracking “hasn’t been used to its full potential,” and wants the study to provide “details on how people actually behave in more specific ways. We want to know exactly how they read, how they scan down a navigation menu.”
The book, Prioritizing Web Usability, is an effort to “boil down the 100 plus documented guidelines” in the Group’s reports. “I’m recognizing that this is too much,” admits Jakob. “Of all the many things we know, what are the important things that people desperately need to know?” he asks. “I definitely believe in all the things we know, but you have to start people off with a smaller number.”
As for the profession itself, Jakob sees major growth. “Think about the number of design projects in the world,” he ponders. “If you think about just websites, there are 70 million, then you can add intranets, probably about 30 million, then you can add software development, mobile device development, and whatever other things you can add. 100 million user interfaces, most of which are incredibly bad, and most of them had zero usability input whatsoever.”
“We need 20 times more people in maybe a 10 year period,” he states, noting also that “that will just not happen.” “We need to reach out beyond usability specialists, have more people do some usability, but not have it the main thing they’re doing, and get them to do it correctly – that’s the challenge.”
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