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Interview with Web Usability Guru,
Jakob Nielsen

Inspiration, Usability, Web Design | Sep 28, 2009

In this article, we’ll be focusing on web usability and more specifically, on the views of world renowned usability expert, Jakob Nielsen.

He’s been called “the guru of Web page usability” by the New York Times and “the king of usability” by Internet Magazine.

Through his Alertbox newsletter and useit.com website, he has been educating hundreds of thousands of web designers around the world since 1995.

While his views can be controversial, especially for web designers, he remains the top leader in the usability field.

I recently interviewed Jakob Nielsen exclusively for WDD and asked him a few questions that should be relevant to all web designers interested in creating user friendly websites.

Can you please tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got started in this field?

I have worked in the usability field since 1983: my first projects were with text-only UIs on mainframe computers.

I then proceeded to mainly work on graphical user interfaces. For example my students and I did a lot of studies of early Macintosh software which was not always as great as people have idolized it to be.

This early experience came in handy later, because the first ten years of Web applications were remarkably similar to the old IBM 3270 mainframe applications in their interaction style.

In general, it’s very useful for a usability specialist to have experience with multiple generations of computers, because that allows you to identify bigger trends in human behavior and not be seduced by the latest fads.

The first decade of my career was focused on two problems: how to get usability methods more widely used, using “discount usability”, and how to improve the usability of online information.

As a result, I wrote one of the first books on hypertext in 1989 (published 1990), and a widely adopted textbook on usability engineering in software projects.

In 1994 I started doing Web usability projects which happily fused these two interests into one topic. I find it quite amusing that in the early days of Web usability, critics complained that you couldn’t apply usability methods to websites because they only work for software applications.

In contrast, in recent years, the enemies of usability have started to claim that usability is so focused on websites that the findings don’t transfer to applications, AJAX, and such. Some people will take any excuse to ignore their customers.

Of course, the reality is that usability applies to anything that has a user interface, whether website, application, mobile phone, camcorder, or anything else. The specific guidelines will differ, but the broad principles are all dictated by the psychology of the human mind, which has been steady for 10,000 years.


With the widespread use of broadband these days, do we still need to consider page weight and loading speed?

Yes, but the restrictions are certainly not as tight as they were in the days of 28.8 kbps dial-up.

The response time guidelines remain the same as always, because they are set by the way people are wired, not the way the Internet is wired. So the findings from, say, testing pilots in World War II are still valid.

One of the main guidelines is to show the next state (e.g., the next page) with one second of the user’s action (e.g., click) in order for users to experience the feeling of a freely-flowing interaction, as opposed to a sensation of delays. In one second, you can download about a megabyte over a typical American broadband connection (and much more in Asia) if you have full throughput.

The main problem for response times today is not download delays, but rather server delays, as people stick too many widgets and dynamic objects on their pages.

Remember: 1.0 sec. response time, or users won’t feel that they’re navigating freely. Also remember that direct-manipulation options, such as within-page AJAX controls require 0.1 sec. response times to avoid feeling sluggish.


In your opinion, what is the best way to test the usability of a website?

Follow the 3 basic rules: get representative customers, ask them to perform realistic tasks, and shut up and let them do the talking.

You only need 5 users to uncover enough usability insights to keep you busy for months. Even though there are only 3 rules, they are routinely violated in many studies.

For example, it’s wrong to test with your friends or colleagues. You need to bring in external users who are representative of the target audience and who don’t know anything about your project. And you can’t just let them fool around: they have to do real tasks. And, of course, you have to keep from biasing their behavior and giving them hints about how to use the site.

That’s why the “shut up” rule is so important. Of course, it’s best to have a big multidisciplinary team with dedicated usability specialists for running the studies, but small teams should still do testing.

It’s cheap, and as long as they stick to the basic methodology, designers can definitely run their own usability studies.


How can one test the usability of websites on mobile devices?

The basic rules are the same as for any studies. There’s a 4th rule, which is to run the test on representative equipment.

For a desktop study, this means using a Mac or PC, and it doesn’t matter much which one you pick. Our biggest decision is which screen resolution to use. For the last several years, we main tested at 1024×768, but we’ve now moved up one screen size for most studies.

For mobile, it’s harder to use “representative” equipment, because phones differ so much more than computers do. In our mobile studies, we test sites on all 3 main classes of mobile devices: “feature phones” (the telecoms industry’s paradoxical name for low-end phones with few features), smartphones (e.g., Blackberry), and touch-screen phones (e.g., iPhone).

We recruit a range of users and then test each user with his or her own phone, which they bring to the study. Sadly, this means that we need to test more users in a mobile study than in a desktop study, because the usability issues are very different for each class of phone.

Ideally, I recommend that sites design 3 different mobile versions, because of these differences. I realize that this is only possible for the richest sites. For everybody else, I hope that they will at least produce a separate mobile version with a mobile-optimized design, because usability does suffer when using desktop-optimized sites on a phone, even when this is technically possible.

The original philosophy of the Web was to emphasize cross-platform design, so that a single site can be used everywhere. But this doesn’t work from a usability perspective, even when one can code the material so that it will display on phones.

Either the site will be too scaled-back for a desktop user or it will be too complex for a mobile user. The two usage scenarios are so different that they require different designs.


If we wish to conduct an affordable usability test, what would be the best way to do this?

The only place you shouldn’t skimp is on recruiting representative users, because if you test the wrong people, you’re testing whether the design works for somebody who won’t actually be using it (or who know too much to be stumped by usability problems, in the case of testing people from within your own company).

Everything else is negotiable and can be done on the cheap. I already said that you can run the study yourself, so that’s “free”, except obviously from the cost of your time, but it only takes a few hours to test the recommended 5 users, and you can actually get away with testing 3 if you’re really pressed for time.

You don’t need any equipment, video cameras, one-way mirrors, or analysis software. You don’t even need a computer, if you’re testing a paper prototype.

Otherwise, a laptop or any other available computer will do, and you can run the test in a small conference room or even a regular office.

You do have to close the door, though, to avoid disrupting the user and to safeguard their anonymity, so you can’t test in a cubicle. Just tape a note to the door saying “Usability Test In Progress: Do Not Disturb”. (And remember to take it down between sessions, or people will stop respecting the sign.)


As far as website and blog navigation goes, is breadcrumb navigation ‘dead’?

No, we frequently see users access the breadcrumbs in testing, either to check where they are in a site or to navigate to a higher level.

So breadcrumbs are definitely useful. Just as important, they don’t harm those users who don’t use them. Some studies have found that many users don’t use breadcrumbs.

But that’s OK, because the breadcrumbs don’t cause any trouble for these users, and since they’re a very lightweight design element, breadcrumbs are worth including for the substantial good they offer to those users who do use them.


For web designers, is it ok to break the rules of usability when creating artisitic portfolio websites and blogs?

Yes. First, the definition of art vs. design allows you to do anything in an art project, because it doesn’t serve a utilitarian purpose.

Even though there certainly would be a business purpose in something like a portfolio site, the standard usability guidelines still wouldn’t be as critical, for two reasons:

First, the target audience would be people with vastly superior Web skills (other designers, Internet managers, and the like). And second, people typically don’t do much when visiting a portfolio other than browse it and admire it.

Thus, they won’t be as dependent on easily-accessed features as users of, say, a home banking site where it would be a disaster if people transferred money to the wrong account.


Amazon.com is regarded as one of the top e-commerce websites. What makes it so successful and do you see any usability mistakes on their site?

Amazon is a great case study in the difference between total user experience and the on-screen user interface.

They owe their success to a lot of off-screen aspects of the total user experience, including comprehensive product selection, informative confirmation emails, and rock-solid fulfillment. They also have reasonably good prices, though never the absolute lowest, which proves that it does work to compete on the quality of the user experience and not just on price.

The screen-design is also good in terms of rich product information, including helpful customer reviews. Amazon was one of the first companies to recognize that it’s OK to include negative reviews: this increases credibility and people will just buy something else instead, so they don’t lose the order, even if they lose that particular sale.

All this said, Amazon is not a good model for other sites, because the pages are overwhelmingly complex with much too many features, many of which don’t help users in considering the current product.

Amazon can get away with this complexity because most users are familiar with its design because they shop there so often. But a first-time user would be baffled. Since most sites don’t have people who shop there as much as they do on Amazon, most sites need a simpler design.

Amazon is also not good at helping shoppers understand a product area. Because it’s such a general store (selling everything) and because of its origin as a bookstore (where there’s really no such thing as a product space; only individual books and authors) Amazon is great at telling people about individual products, but terrible at teaching people how they should think about a product category.

This is the great opportunity for specialized sites: they can educate users about their specialty and offer tools that are optimized for the characteristics of that particular product space.



Should usability be the same for every website, or should it be ‘customized’ based on the target audience (e.g – a technology website vs. a news website)?

Usability is always relative to two things: who are the users, and what are they trying to accomplish with the UI?

That’s why we can’t just have one recommended design and just replace the logo to create a new site.

So, for example, if people are trying to just deal with a small number of things, you could simply list them all.

But if the task required users to consider a large number of options, you would need features to find, select, winnow, and sort the options, plus maybe even some kind of visualization tool.

All of these features would be overkill for, say, a restaurant group with 3 restaurants, but they’d be needed for McDonald’s location finder, which would also need a language selector and other internationalization features.

Similarly, people who are highly skilled in a domain would need a different design than less-knowledgeable users. A classic example is medical information: to maximize usability, you need different designs (following different guidelines) for doctors and for patients.


Most websites these days overload their pages with loads of information, news excerpts, Twitter and RSS feeds. Can heavy content pages still be usable?

Yes, but. The big “but” here is definitely that it is much harder to ensure usability the more features you cram onto a page.

Simplicity is usually the better choice. But if you’re in a situation where your users do demand lots of features, then you need to polish the design through many rounds of iterative usability testing.

You must work harder to solve this more difficult problem, and it’s much more risky to release something complex that hasn’t been tested with users than it is to release something simple.



Exclusive interview for WDD by Walter Apai.

Do you agree with Jakob’s principles? Should most usability rules be enforced all the time? Share your points of view below.


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  • Kevin

    Great article that.

    The hardest rule to follow is definately the “shut up” ruel but so so important.

    The skill of bighting ones tounge also helps if you follow the “shut up” rule.

  • http://www.leemunroe.com/blog Lee Munroe

    Great article Walter, good to hear from the usability guru himself.

    “breadcrumbs are definitely useful. Just as important, they don’t harm those users who don’t use them” <– was just wondering about this recently.

    Interesting interview with a lot of useful links.

  • http://www.usertesting.com Bret Clement

    Great QA with Mr Nielsen. Re: representative users, some of the online user testing sites now allow you to test within certain demographics or even use your own users. Don’t mean to plug the company I’m affiliated with, so here is a review of a lot of the online tester tools available today: http://bit.ly/2RATxW.

  • http://f055.net f055

    That’s a really nice interview. He talks about simple but not trivial stuff there. Nice!

  • http://rayspettersson.com Ray Pettersson

    Great article!

  • http://www.fivefingercoding.com Jason Garrison

    Whether usability rules should be enforced, I think, turns on who the audience is for the site. Visitors expect certain design elements to be in a particular place depending on the site’s niche. A good designer should be able to take those expectations and create a website that both meets the visitor’s needs and allows the designer to express their creativity. Not a simple feat for sure.

  • http://www.alanvalek.com/ Alan Valek

    Good reading.

  • http://mattbusse.com Matt Busse

    Great interview! Jakob Nielsen offers excellent advice. Some designers seem to be focused so much on impressing people with fancy graphics and elaborate layouts that they forget their #1 priority: their audience’s needs.

  • http://osweb.dk Michael Lajlev

    Great interview. Like the point of 5 users in a usertest makes a big differens.

  • Ulf

    Not a big fan of Jakob Nielsen. Some of the points he’s made in the past are just retarded.

    But it would seem as though any controversial points for a web designer weren’t really raised in this article. And so I thought it was an okay read. Pretty straightforward stuff.

    • roni

      Well, this article is what you could call an “introduction to usability principals”.
      Dont explect to find here advanced usability articles. :)

      You might not agree with what J. Nielsen said, but “judging” (calling “retarded” the result of his studies) his work and results does not sound like a sign of trustful analysis.

    • Kevin

      I’ve followed Nielsen for the past 14 years and attended some of his sessions at conferences. Nearly all of his ideas are based on actually watching users. Not just what he thinks is good and revolve around users being able to complete tasks.

      I’ve seen “designers” scoff at Nielsen’s ideas because they can reduce the graphic richness of a design. These designers then call Nielsen’s ideas dumb (or retarded).

      Nielsen’s ideas focus on the usability of a product not the graphic design. It’s not that any idea is dumb, it’s usually that the designer can’t see the usefulness of the idea or doesn’t want to change their design.

  • http://www.torresburriel.com torresburriel

    Great article! My favorite quotes: “Some people will take any excuse to ignore their customers” and “Simplicity is usually the better choice”.

  • http://testled.com Rob Edwards

    Jakob Nielsen is a legend – his writings among others were the basis for us starting http://testled.com.

    Test early, test often on small amounts of representative users – it really is the key.

  • http://[email protected] Owen

    He’s behind the times. The internet demands more than just usability these days… get with it and update your dam site it’s making me sick.

    • http://wwwfractalphono.com/sweetcron Rory

      @owen

      Parts of the internet are successful while not focusing on usability, however I guess your point holds true for financial and health institutions with dozens possibly hundreds of pages to navigate by a layman… usability would probably be “useless” in that sort of application. ;]

  • http://www.ronniemoralesdesign.com ronniemorales

    Great article.

    Awesome usability advice and points from Jakob too. I actually learned alot from reading this interview. Thanks

  • http://www.baratas.biz baratas

    Very good. Congratulations. Peace.

  • verbatim

    breadcrumbs are also important for SEO as well as 508 compliance.

  • http://www.ayushsaran.com Ayush Saran

    This was a very informative post. Thx

  • http://www.w2point.com Web 2.0

    Great interview, thanks…

  • http://www.empfehlenswert-wien.at wien

    nice artikel, thank you

  • http://simonmeisinger.at Simon

    „Interview with Automobile Guru, Carl Benz“

    RIP jacob nieslen, your time is over. thanks for introducing the word „usability“ to us but you´re SO 1980′s and early 1990′s!

  • http://www.felipeacosta.com Felipe Avila da Costa

    Jakob Nielsen keeps simple what is simple.

    “Follow the 3 basic rules: get representative customers, ask them to perform realistic tasks, and shut up and let them do the talking.”

    To perform basic usability tests that is everything you need to know. Your representative customers will indirectly tell you all the usability principals you have to follow.

    Nice Interview. Thanks WDD!

  • http://www.dileepsharma.com Dileep K Sharma

    I have been very much impressed by his practical approach. He is truly a mastermind in usability. Thanks for featuring his interview over here.

  • http://www.website-and-graphic-design.com/ Anne

    I’ve been subscribed to Jacob Nielsen’s newsletter for some time – always great advice. Just a note, I would have used the word “expert” instead of “guru” in your post title. The word “Guru” is really a most distasteful description of someone, especially a person of Jacob Nielsen’s calibre.

  • http://www.quickenwebsites.com Quicken Websites

    Great article! Awesome advices! Learned a lot, thank you.

  • http://www.brcline.com Brian R. Cline

    I am not a big fan of Jakob Nielsen. Jakob Nielsen generally has some good points, but I have had some issues in the past with his advice.

    Thank you for taking the time to interview him and avoiding some of his controversial advice.

  • http://deconstructioncode.blogspot.com/ choen

    thank you for introducing more about Jakob Nielsen

  • http://www.jankoatwarpspeed.com/ Janko

    Great interview, I enjoyed reading it.

  • RoaldA

    What a pro guy! Nice article!

  • Fredb

    @Anne >
    “Just a note, I would have used the word “expert” instead of “guru” in your post title. The word “Guru” is really a most distasteful description of someone, especially a person of Jacob Nielsen’s calibre.”
    This title was gived by the New York Times, and Jakob Nielsen himself has reported it on his website ( http://www.useit.com/jakob/ ), so, even if you are not absolutely wrong, in the case of Jakob Nielsen this word is everything except an insult =)

    —-
    I read the alertboxes (Nielsen’s “newsletter”) since many years now, in my opinion, his advices are ((almost)) allways goods, but, as said in this interview, theses advices must be put in the balance with the audience and the goals… and the most part of critics against Jakob Nielsen are from people that have just not understand that ^^

    (sorry for my bad english, have a nice day)

  • http://twitter.com/Frozzzt Raphael

    Great!

    It’s very helpfull a quick interview with few questions. Because Jakob have lot work and books. A overview is always hopefull…

  • http://www.parisvega.com Paris Vega

    This interview was full of some really good advice. I would be curious to see Jakob’s strategy behind the design of useit.com. I can’t wrap my head around how that design is user friendly. Is it just because it loads fast and the text is readable? Isn’t there something to be said for enticement?

    I totally agree with his advice, but I don’t understand his personal application of it.

  • Tony

    I happen to be an IA/UI designer. Isnt what he’s saying just common sense? I mean if any of us have been in this business for the past 8-10+ years we would have already come to the same conclusions.

  • Narendra patel

    well i have a question to Mr Jalcob Nielsen that how we can develop the sense of web development

  • http://narendra-greatmindatwork.blogspot.com/ Narendra patel

    well i have a question to Mr Jalcob Nielsen that how we can develop the sense of web development and the approach to it

  • http://www.maquinastudio.com Cristian @ Maquina Studio

    “Usability is always relative to two things: who are the users, and what are they trying to accomplish with the UI?”
    If this is your starting point when designing the subsequent decisions will become aligned to the main principle.
    Great interview!

  • http://lat49.com ad map

    Paris, its amazing how popular and basic the website is. It really goes to show flash and dash aren’t the end all, be all way of enticing users to return.

    This is a great article, i really enjoyed the mobile section.. very interesting stuff

  • http://www.netvibes.com/pharmacy-store Online Pharmacy Store

    i like the interview

  • http://www.illuminz.com ILLUMINZ

    Good to read this interview. Nice to see the views & studies..

  • Caracole

    The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of usability, but with a worst website.

  • http://www.website-and-graphic-design.com/ Anne

    Looks like CNN needs Jacob’s help, seriously! Whoever was in charge of redesigning the site patently don’t understand usability or accessibility on the ‘net.

  • Mihai Spanoche

    Very good article, congrats. It’s nice to see people that do understand the concept of usability and disagree with all this “template” web design these days. Good tipwith the 5 users that you need to pick up and test your website with.

  • Syed Mahmoodi

    Great Interview…!

    I enjoyed every section, in every answer there is something to learn…

    Hats OFF…!!!

    Favourite Quote: “who are the users, and what are they trying to accomplish with the UI?”

  • http://www.moinid.com Web Ideas

    Thanks for the training ;)

  • Creativeblondes

    Cant sleept at all so decided to read some
    stuff in the archive of WDD on my iphone. Really a great interview! Love how he takes the time to explain usability with the examples he’s given!

  • http://citicell.com Dr. Altaf

    It is always great know from experts & improve your innersight. We do not lose anything,but gain knowledge. Jakob was the previous Google architect,so defintely he knows better than I. We should take his tips. However, end of the day everybody’s goal to make money. How will it be done?

  • http://citicell.com Dr. Altaf

    Mr. J Neilson wrote it in 1990′s . Is the same trends of demand persists in 21st?

  • http://www.karthickgopal.com Karthick

    Loved the read and the points brought forward by Jakob. Very detailed and very well thought of. I particularly liked the breakdown of the Amazon.com website’s good and bad features.

  • http://www.paralante.net Paralante

    Jakob Nielsen. Great interview. Thanks

  • http://www.zeeshanfolio.com Zeeshan

    I am a great fan of Jakob Nielsen. VERY good post.

  • http://www.directfinancialassistance.com Jaqes

    I agree with alot of what Jacob Neilson has to say regarding usability. I’m a new webdesigner i read his book “Designing Web Usability” is what actually helped me get started in web design.

  • http://www.debt-managements.net Delfin

    Hi jaqes,

    I have read the book too. it is very useful. But I am confuse why did you ask that “actually helped me get started in web design”. Don’t you feel while reading the book is it helpful or not.

  • http://www.wordsofvalue.com/ Web Content Writer – Nikki May

    I have read a lot of Jakob Nielson’s readings, and I have found them very useful. However, when I first came across his materials in the early stages of my web writing career, I stuggled with understanding some of his concepts.

    The core concepts he teaches about web usability are what makes a great website that is valuable to the user and help to take any business’ revenue or general performance to the next level.

    A friend of mine told me about this interview, and I enjoyed reading.

    Thanks,

    Nikki May

  • http://www.securityking.com Craig

    Really useful interview, he has definitely seen a lot of changes with usability and really glad the question about breadcrumbs was asked, Thanks!

  • VilkaS

    -”Usability is always relative to two things: who are the users, and what are they trying to accomplish with the UI?
    That’s why we can’t just have one recommended design and just replace the logo to create a new site.”-

    Is this not the purpose of web standards ?, is this not the lesson that Nielson and his counterparts have been labouring over since the 1970′s in numerous texts and research projects ?
    a common navigation design that allowed users to see where they are, see where they were and see where they are going.

    This man is trading off a name he made when the internet was a mystery, when gui was green text on a black screen. This man and others like him are charging huge amounts of money to spend the day with a company and impart knowledge that is ten years out of date. It is impossible to challenge the Nielson Norman group even though their founder ignores the information around him because he has not deemed it relevant.

    Normal people don’t love sitting at their computers. They’d rather watch football, walk the dog — just about anything else.
    Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, September 21, 2009:

    IDC has found that Internet is the medium on which US online users spend the most time–32.7 hours per week, almost twice as much as they spend watching television. The data was collected in September and October 2007.

    Who then are the normal people that he is talking about?, when users of the internet spend almost as much time online as they do working.
    His advice was good in the beginning of web development but he has fallen behind and has nothing new to offer.

  • http://www.websiteauditexperts.com Tony Simpson

    I audit many websites whose web designer seems to have focused on creating a good looking website rather than one that is user friendly for visitors or search engines. If a website can not satisfy its primary function which is to be usable and serve a purpose for both the visitors and site owner then I can see little point in a website existing at all.

    I agree with many of the points Jakob Neilsen makes in this article, as for whether usability rules should be applied all the time depends to a great degree on the type of website being designed. But even if you don’t apply some of the usabilty rules at least they should be considered during the planning stage and a decision not to abide by them should be for good reasons.

    In too many of the website audits I do, it seems as if usability has taken 2nd place to appearance and visual design for no clear or apparent reason.

  • http://www.adaideaja.com Wahyu Liz Adaideaja

    as a blogger, we have a community that surrounds and put a much time into their daily activity especially reading and comments. Now, we have twitter and facebook. both make easier for us to spreading our texts.
    Also, we got such a lil bussiness with our web or blogs. Since we make it as SEO strategy, it doesn’t matter whether our article read or not, the points of view are contacts and products.
    But Nielsen is our Guru, for simple and usable. Simple doesnt mean loss of art, simple means you get it all in a scanning, but impressive.
    Good Post.
    (from Indonesia)

  • http://www.futondeco.com futon

    ok first i wanna say, this is my premier times see Mr Nielsen face :D
    its one of great interview, i have so many lessons from this short interview than from a big text book

  • http://www.smoothboothdesign.com/ Smooth Booth

    hmm not always agreed with his views but I’m always open to hearing what he has to say.