Speaker: Dr. Jakob Nielsen, User Advocate and Principal, Nielsen Norman Group
April 24, 2003
Note: This is an edited transcript of the proceedings.
Beau Brendler: We’re very glad to have Dr. Jakob Nielsen here with us. He’s a user advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, which he co-founded with Dr. Donald A. Norman, a former vice president of research at Apple Computer. He’s an author and editor of numerous books on Web usability. In fact, he sent me this one last week. It’s called E-Commerce User Experience.
I was looking at it and I noticed that pretty much everything we talked about in the [Consumer Reports WebWatch] guidelines, Dr. Nielsen was writing about before Consumer Reports WebWatch ever existed. I hope that he doesn’t think that we ripped him off. But he is actually on our advisory board, and we’re very glad to have him.
Dr. Nielsen’s been described as “knowing more about what makes Web sites work than anyone else on the planet,” by the Chicago Tribune. And as “the world’s leading expert on Web usability,” by U.S. News and World Report.
He holds 60 United States patents, mainly on ways of making the Internet easier to use. In addition, Dr. Nielsen has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation. Until 1998, Dr. Nielsen was with Sun Microsystems as a distinguished engineer. Previously, he was affiliated with Bellcore, the Technical University of Denmark, and the IBM User Interface Institute at the T.J. Watson Research Center. He holds a Ph.D. in user interface design and computer science from the Technical University of Denmark.
Jakob Nielsen: There are two things that I wanted to talk about today. One is, it really is true that people have all these problems when they use Web sites. Sometimes you might really believe or think it’s really silly when these guys complain that people can’t distinguish what’s a search engine, what’s a sponsored link and what’s a search link, but really it is true.
The average person really has a lot of troubles. I’m going to show you some examples of that and try to convey this issue of how normal people really use the Internet.
My other point is that this can be improved. Companies, when they design their Web sites, really can make it so much easier for their users or their customers. Why is that not being done, since it actually is possible to do it? It’s fairly easy to do.
To get to that last point first, I’ll tell you a little story, which is from Sweden in 1628. In 1628, Sweden was at war with Poland, and the Swedish king decided they needed to boost their navy and build a really incredibly huge big warship with more guns than they had in the past.
They built this ship, and just before it left the dock, the captain decided to run a stability test on the ship. He did that by having 30 sailors run back and forth across the deck. Very simple in the 1628 methodology.
So 30 people ran to the left side — starboard, port, whatever side of the ship — and to the other side of the ship, and back and forth. And the ship started leaning more, and it’s leaning more and it’s leaning more. This was while they were still in the harbor. The admiral of the navy came by, and ordered a stop to this test. And so they just launched the ship, without finishing the test.
The ship was launched, it sailed out into the harbor, and it promptly sank, because in fact it tilted over as soon as it was actually out in the open.
The ship is called the Vasa. It’s since been recovered, and you can see it if you go to Stockholm; it’s one of the greatest sights of Stockholm. This kind of example proves two things, and the first is that Star Trek is right: Captains know more than admirals.
But the second point, which is really more to my point here, is that it does no good to do studies and to do tests and acquire data if you do not act on those data. That’s one of my big messages, or big lessons, is that we have to act on the data.
We have to do studies of users. That’s why I do a lot. But then you also have to act on them. We actually have to make, in this case, the Web sites truly better.
To show you a few examples of what we are up against, so to speak: This is an example of a Web site from Japan. It happens to be one in a study we ran in Japan. This is a famous cosmetics brand, and they have a makeup simulator on their Web site, which is where you can go and apply different types of makeup to this mannequin, and thus see how the different elements go together.
It’s actually a quite nice idea, a very nice use of interaction, which is one of the things the Web really is about, is interaction. Not just one-way communication, but really getting the customer more engaged with your company. So it’s really a nice idea.
As you can see, this is in fact the Web site from Japan. It has all the Japanese characters. It also has some English in it, which is one of the problems. But I’ll show you the little video clip of what happened when we tested this. This is just a clip from one user, but it was kind of the same with a lot of other people, too. The test is with a Japanese user or customer here, in which she says:
It seems pretty obvious, as soon as you show even one person saying it, that if you’re going to sell cosmetics in Japan, you’ve got to have a face that looks like a Japanese woman, so you can actually get an impression of how it looks on something like you. And yet they didn’t do this.
This, I think, is a great example of the difference between the Web and the more traditional advertising. Because cosmetic companies run a lot of traditional ads in Japan or Asia in general, where they just have these Scandinavian models, assuming that works, since they keep doing it.
In a print ad you just have to look at it. But in a Web site, you have to actually use it. So it becomes very, very different. If you have something where you truly have to engage, where it has to match what speaks to you, that also means that all these opportunities are problems for things going well.
One of the classic things that makes things go wrong is too many features. My example of too many features is from the Sydney Opera House. I have to explain it from the picture before I show you the video, because the video is just too overwhelming once it starts running.
If you know the Sydney Opera House, this is a view of the Opera House. All these bouncing little balls here indicate different perspectives or viewpoints from which you can view the Opera House.
Then here is a photo of the Opera House viewed from that viewpoint.
This is all the 3D spinning views, so when you’re in the viewpoint, you can spin around. There are various arrows. There’s one arrow here which indicates the ball you are on and what direction you are looking. There’s an arrow here that indicates the direction in which you can move. There’s an arrow here that indicates which level of the Opera House you’re currently viewing, like Level 1, 2, 3 and so on, or the outside.
That’s a lot of stuff. Let me just show you what happened. We had one tourist who tried to take a look at this Web site:
This actually is a very great technical achievement, this particular design. From a technical perspective, they’re integrating a lot of different interesting technologies. The result, though, being so overwhelming that users can’t find their way around the Opera House.
The same Web site, interestingly enough, has another view of the Opera House which does work. I’ll give you one clue for why this one works. It actually has labels. Even though they’re very small, but when you look at this. Here’s the opera theater, the concert hall, the restaurant, and so on, and so forth.
Giving people an overview really does help. Making it simpler quite often can empower people more than giving them this huge amount of features. This is one of the reasons that people get so confused in the online world, is that they are met with a profusion of features that they do not understand.
To us, people who do understand the technology, who do understand how the concepts of the Web and the Internet operate, we might say, “Well, why can’t people understand that this part of the page is advertising, this part of the page is search results? This is a little box that’s a search box. This is the other little box that’s a URL box.”
But they can’t, because it’s not normal human nature to understand these things. And if you throw all of it at people at once, it becomes too much; it becomes overwhelming.
It’s more clear in the example at the Sydney Opera House, where to you as well, it’s the first time you’re seeing it, I would imagine. It’s less clear to you probably in a case like looking at a search engine which, to most people here, probably is an incredibly well understood phenomenon. But it really is true that when you dump a lot of new stuff at people, it becomes very overwhelming. They do not know what’s where.
Most search engines actually have in their statistics that one of the most searched-for query terms are things like www.yahoo.com. Or, I think, at Yahoo it’s probably www.google.com. And this is very odd, because if you know that you are there, why don’t you just go there? Why do you search for it?
But it’s because for a lot people it’s like, “There are little boxes where I type things and I go places.” And the distinction between the different boxes and different types of things to type, that’s not very, very clear to people.
By the way, this is not only for the Web. It’s true for computers in general. There’s an awful lot of people who do not understand quite the distinction between the window operating system and the applications and the documents, and which types of icons are what, and so on, and so forth.
All these things, if you know the underlying concepts, is pretty clear. But if you don’t — and, again, the average person doesn’t — then you don’t know what’s going on.
There’s also, in the midst of this confusion, there’s also the problem that Web sites often are not very direct in getting to the point and telling people what they want to know. Often they get in the way of people.
This last page is maybe the worst offender. Since I have some nice material, I will show you that right away, but I’ll talk to some other points, too.
This example is from the Mini Cooper, which is kind of a small, cool — well, today, cool car. I actually had one when I was a student. Back then we just thought of it as a small, crummy car, but anyway. This is what happens when you try to go to their Web site:
This poor user! I should say, by the way, after I showed this video clip at another conference, they’ve actually now taken this off the Web site. And that’s not just to pick on them, because I love other Web sites that do the same thing. They just put these big blocks in the way of, actually, their own customers, in getting at the content and getting at the information.
The use of this all confounds people’s mental model of what’s going on. How do you operate this stuff? It just gets more and more complicated.
Also, a lot of Web sites are big offenders in the content area. Which, I don’t quite have as many video clips of, because it’s not as immediate. But if you read what information they’re actually presenting in the words, it’s often very vague. Very filled with buzzwords, not very much to the point about what you’re actually getting.
B-to-B sites are the worst offenders there. Anybody in Silicon Valley, you can’t figure out what they’re actually selling from their Web site. It’s all some “enterprise solution.” That’s as much as you can get. It really makes it hard for people. It blurs people’s general understanding of what’s going on.
Registration is another barrier that gets in people’s way. People are getting very, very worried about giving away their personal information on the Web, particularly their e-mail address. They have this feeling that they’re just going to get endless spam.
The average person has no way of really differentiating what’s an honorable company that really is not going to spam them, from where you’re just going to get endless porn offers and such from putting in your address.
All these things really do put blocks in the way of people navigating the Web and getting what they want. And then when you get to the Web site, they’re complicated as well. All these things do compound, and so it is worse than you might think.
A lot of people have this assumption that, “Well, the Web doesn’t really work. And so if you go to a Web site and you have trouble, you should probably just go. Just probably leave.” That’s the reaction people have.
That, of course, really does backfire on the companies as well, because they lose a lot of business this way. But it also makes the entire Internet less for the fulfillment of its potential than it could be. And everybody’s suffering from all the bad things all the other sites are doing, which makes it very hard to really act on.
And, in fact, people don’t quite really read or understand these privacy policies anyway. So it’s not only enough for individual Web sites to behave well. And I don’t quite actually really know how to solve that particular problem. But users do have this general fear and general notion that, “I’m just going to go away if I don’t understand.”
This is, though, made worse by the fact that a lot of companies — take privacy policies as an example. They have privacy policies that you cannot understand without a law degree. And they’re very intimidating, too. My point is, don’t let lawyers design your Web site. Lawyers are just not good designers. They can’t write a sentence that doesn’t go over three pages.
You have to know that, and let an actual writer write it, and then let the lawyer review it for accuracy, rather than the other way around.
One place where we’ve particularly seen this issue, we did a study of e-mail newsletters, which are a very powerful mechanism for the use of the Internet from the company’s perspective, to reach out to the customers, but for the customers as well, to get information that they like.
I’m here to talk about real newsletters, information that people actually want to get, subscribe to. Even there, you find that people are quite worried about what’s going on. They do not like to unsubscribe from these newsletters, because they feel that if they unsubscribe, they are going to just get more spam.
This is a screen shot from MSN. This is the official page there, giving people advice on what to do about spam. I’ll just highlight one of the elements here, this one saying, “Don’t reply with answering, even to unsubscribe. It just confirms your e-mail address and gives you more spam.”
This is, in many ways, good advice. But on the other hand, it also really intimidates and scares people from unsubscribing from newsletters that are legitimate. If they unsubscribe to those, they will just stop getting them.
Because the average subscriber cannot differentiate between one and the other, this type of advice, even though it’s actually good advice in 90 percent of the cases, in the 10 percent of the cases where it’s a real good newsletter, but you just have left that phase of your life behind or whatever, you just don’t want that newsletter anymore, people are worried about unsubscribing.
These trust issues really do impact even the good companies, even legitimate companies. Even newsletters that actually are good and honorable, and people like them, but at some point in time you don’t want it anymore. A lot of people just keep getting lots of mail because they don’t dare unsubscribe, because they don’t understand when you can unsubscribe and when it’s spam. The average user doesn’t have quite a good conception of that.
I’ll show you another example of the trust type of issues on the Web. This one comes from a study we did of how senior citizens use the Web. This is a woman who talks about use of some travel Web sites.
This particular user had had problems about going to the Web site — we don’t necessarily know exactly which one, but that’s not the important point, anyway– and not getting a 10 percent discount that she was entitled to. And when she goes on the phone, she more gets what she wants.
This is not so much to complain about any particular individual Web site. And who knows what happened that day, anyway? The point being, though, that people get these experiences, or they hear about these experiences from others, and it just compounds that general feeling of “It doesn’t work. I can’t trust it. Who knows what’s going on?”
This particular case is most likely a usability issue. In other words, not that the site wanted to cheat her out of not getting a senior discount, but rather that it was too difficult to get. We’ve seen this quite a lot, that a lot of these controls or special cases are very, very difficult to get at.
Why is this? Why is it that these Web sites are so difficult to use? There’s a lot of different reasons. Sometimes it’s that they’re just a complete mismatch with users’ needs. Sometimes it’s that they refuse to communicate. Other times, it’s just that they don’t stick to the plain and simple interaction styles. They try to become too advanced.
I’ll show you some examples of one particular point, not because it’s necessarily the most important one, but because it’s one that makes it really clear. This is a matter of opening new browser windows. The guideline is: Don’t do this, because it causes people a lot of trouble, which I’ll show you in a few video clips. And yet Web sites insist they keep doing it, and they keep doing it over and over again.
For anybody who is a little bit technically savvy, it doesn’t really cause a lot of problems. But it does cause problems to the less technically savvy users. And that kind of distinction is often lost on companies and Web sites if they don’t do a lot of user testing. Even though we do a lot of user testing, in general, Web sites don’t.
I’ll first show you a few examples of what happens when you have multiple windows on the screen and one window hides another. Now, you might think this is a really small issue. How can that be a problem? And yet, in the examples, again and again, it prevents people from actually using the Web site.
The initial example is a nice one from a Web site where you can go and look at advertising billboards. In this case, it’s in Kansas City. There’s a map of the city, and there are little stars indicating where you can win an advertising billboard. And you can click on the star and you will get a photograph of this billboard.
This is a very nice application, quite a nice use of the Internet. However, they insist on showing these photographs in new windows. Let me show you what happened to some users when we tested this:
I’m wondering where is this photograph? You saw it before, with the other billboards. It comes down here.
This is a different Web site.
A third Web site. Just click a few pixels wrong.
“I don’t know how to get it back.” She was clicking exactly the right place to get it back, but it comes back and it’s hidden. These things happen over and over again, and people are used to having their work just blow up on the computer, as things go away for no apparent reason.
It happens so many other times, so it happened to these examples as well. And in fact their work was not blown up, it was just hidden, because they clicked one pixel off of the one window, then the other window pops to the foreground.
Another example, a quite similar example, is the back button. A lot of Web sites break the back button, which is really people’s lifeline to navigate. I’ll show you a few examples of how that causes them trouble as well.
Notice how this grayed-out back button, because of the Web site. This is a financial investor relations example. And the guy is trying to go back desperately.
“What did I do?” People blame themselves.
The guy is trapped again. Notice how he keeps building more. These are not stupid people, by the way. I just want to point this out. Because that’s something people sometimes say when they watch this is, “How can they be so stupid?” But these are people who remember almost to the exact number the volume of stock trading per day. These are smart people.
But the way these Web sites work defeats them again and again and again. That becomes much too common a user experience. Because people are so used to things not working, being wrong, even when they do work, people sometimes don’t get it. This is almost the worst tragedy.
We had — a lot of times, when we asked people to do something on the Web site, and they get to actually where the answer is, and they still can’t do it. Because people are used to this fact that most stuff on the Web is junk — which it is — and so when they get to the page with the answer, they kind of just move right past it.
I’ll show you one last example of this and then I’ll move on. This is from a study we did of investor relations activity. The previous clip was from that as well. It was from when people are researching companies’ financial information and all of that.
We have here a person who’s looking at a company called Biogen. This is not to pick on them, because other sites have had a lot of similar issues. She’s been asked to find out which stock exchange this stock trades on. The answer is the NASDAQ.
The point here is, this is a person who actually knows this. She’s a very savvy investor. She understands things like if the stock ticker is four letters, it trades on the NASDAQ. I didn’t know that. She reads Value Line, and she knows what things to look for when you’re looking at a biotech stock. She knows a lot of stuff. And she even knows the word NASDAQ. She knows what to look for.
In the short clip I’m going to show you, the answer to this question appears on the screen four times. She still doesn’t find it. That’s an example of the challenge we have in trying to make things that people can actually use.
It’s painful to watch these poor people really struggle, and even when the answer appears, they sometimes don’t get it. Again I want to emphasize, these are not stupid people. This particular person knew a lot about investing. She knew what she was looking for. She even knew the word she was looking for, and she still didn’t see it, and it was there on the screen four times.
This really brings home the challenge we have in truly trying to make the Web simple. Because you’re throwing endless stuff at these people. You saw in the video clip, page after page of long explanations. Big pictures. Slow things. You’ve got to move through this annual report, which is really poorly done for online viewing.
People get very dragged down by all of these elements. Each individual element may actually not be so bad. But you compound them all together, and you actually do get this very, very confusing user experience. You do disempower people from getting the information.
I want to point out, it’s not enough that it’s there, because in this particular example it was there four times; she still didn’t see it. There has to be complete simplicity of the entire user experience, or you’re going to be overwhelming people.
I want to point out, this is not just a matter for senior citizens, as we saw in the example, where the person had not gotten a travel discount. It’s a matter for everybody.
We did another study of how children use the Web. This is just one example here. This is a site where you can play games. Let’s say that you wanted to play the elephant game; what would you do?
“Click on the elephant,” several people say. And this is certainly what the kids did in our study as well. However, that will not work. With this screen, it’s really only possible to play the monkey game, because the way it works is that you have to rotate this icon until the one you want is in the middle. And whatever icon is in the middle is the game that’s being played.
This is completely non-standard interaction design. And, in fact, it’s incredibly hard to get this, including for the kids that it’s actually designed for and that we tested.
The natural way to interact with a screen like this is, if you see a game you want, you click on it. That is the way you do it. And yet, that is not the way you do it on this particular screen, and thus the kids couldn’t play the games they wanted.
These type of issues hurt everybody in using the Web. It probably actually hurts the kids less than the adults, because the children, generally speaking, have more perseverance, and keep trying stuff. But even they have this kind of general notion that if they get an error message with something not working, what the kids say is, “This happens a lot on the Internet. If this happens, I’m just going to go away and do something else. When things don’t work, it happens a lot; I’m just going to do something else.” That general attitude is there from a very early age.
A few other interesting pointers from the study about the kids: We actually did see a lot of children being concerned about privacy and not giving out their name online also. That particular issue has been, as you know, discussed almost too much. But it certainly has been discussed a lot.
As a result, a lot of them do understand that, so in that case this is good news from this study. The bad news from the study, though, was that they did not have an understanding of what’s an ad and what’s content. As we were discussing a little bit this morning, that can be difficult even for adults.
But really plain ads that are a banner ad, and if it says “advertisement.” We had in the study several ads that said “advertising.” It was labeled “ad,” and the kids still didn’t quite see it. They said “Oh, Pokemon!” Click, and they go there.
So for them, an entertaining character is not what it is for, and then they get very surprised when they don’t get to the game, but they get to a company Web site.
“These individual smaller issues in the design compound to really polluting people’s mental model. I think that is very important, because what is the understanding we have of this environment? That understanding is really not there for all the majority of the users. They’re not being built, either, because of these many confusions that you see again and again and again, and failure after failure after failure when you try to use it.
As a result, we often see people only really using a very small number of Web sites. And they do have these failures much, much more than they should have. When you then go and talk to the people who actually make the site or the company whose site it is, they don’t quite really understand this, because it’s like, “Well, this is actually not so difficult. It is pretty easy to use.”
Most Web sites actually are not horribly difficult. I’ve shown a few examples of some really, really bad ones. But medium-difficult Web sites, they can be used if you have some amount of technical smarts, and particularly if you actually know the site. And of course if you work at the company, you know the site. And so, to you, it’s obvious.
If you understand the structure, or so-called information architecture, of a Web site, you know where to go for every given question. And thus you can find the answers. Even if the answers are not necessarily clear, you can find them.
You’re not going to get this overwhelming experience of being dumped on with screen after screen of big blocks of text, because you know where to go. For the people who are actually on the project, it doesn’t seem so bad to them.
It’s only when you do these studies that you discover that. And doing this really can pay off big time for a company. I’ll give you an example. This is from an electricity company, a power company that actually preferred to be anonymous. But just think of it as a big power company.
They had on their Web site a survey to help people conserve electricity by going to see where they might save. It had questions like, “How many hours per day do you use a ceiling fan?” and a lot of other questions as well. People would go through this and they’d get a report on how they could save electricity.
This is how this survey looked in the original design. The problem was that a lot of people dropped out and did not complete this survey. Only two-thirds of the users who used the survey completed it.
A second issue, which was maybe more an internal project team issue was that they had this feature called “What if?” that they were particularly proud of. It would help people understand options for saving electricity. And only 6 percent of the users actually used this feature that was the pride and joy of the project team.
Two problems, in terms of the use of the survey. It was redesigned based on somebody’s input, and this is how the changed survey looked. The question is the same. But some of the changes are: The button that used to be called “What if? What if?” What does that mean? Life is too short to click a button that you don’t understand. That’s really true.
This is one thing that we really see in user testing, is that if there’s something that people don’t understand, it might as well not be there. Because you don’t have time to go and explore every possible thing. Kids might do it, but for the adult, they wouldn’t do that.
Now it was modified to “What if I change…” Which indicates that something would happen. And so, “What if I change…” just making that modification, more than doubled the use of that feature. Making the button explain a little bit. Not even a lot, but just a little bit explain what it’s doing.
The second issue was that they had a lot of people not completing the survey. There were a lot of different reasons that compounded to cause this problem. One is that they had this button called “generate reports.” Now, that is a button that feels very much like you should just click this button, now you’re done. Once you have your report, the report is kind of the end-all. Your goal in life is to get a report.
So “generate reports,” and you’re done. You’re not going to go back and do more. The nice thing about it was you could actually see your energy use report at any given time through the survey. Then you could go back and do more, and you would get a more complete report.
The label was changed to “preview report,” which gives you more of a view of only seeing a preliminary report, not the final report. Secondly, and this is actually maybe more of an issue, they used to have two buttons: “Save and Continue” and “Save and Exit.” “Save and Exit” even being highlighted.
What this does, it saves your survey work so far, and then you can either continue, which is the next question, or exit, which means “No more questions today. Tomorrow I’m going to go back and do the rest of the survey.”
Who’s ever going to do that? Is someone going to go to a Web site and one day do half a survey and go back the next day and do the second half of the survey? This is a useless feature. It’s a great point that simplicity is often the way you achieve good usability. Just cut features that are not necessary.
This feature of being able to save and exit was too much of a trap for people, and they would never come back. It was eliminated, and now the only feature is “continue.” This “save” idea is gone. Less complexity, less to understand, less to go wrong. Now you just hit the “continue” button, and you go through all these questions. And you can always stop and preview the report at any give time. As a result, the number of people who completed the survey went up quite a lot as well.
There’s really great opportunity, even with very simple redesigns. As long as you follow the user’s way of thinking, of really, really enhancing the use of the Web site.
It’s not just something that we should do just to kind of be good or something like that. It’s something companies should do in their own self-interest, because if you’re spending money on a Web site, don’t waste it on doing a Web site that nobody’s using. But, rather, invest in a Web site that actually your customers can use, that does answer the customer’s questions.
The usability field is a happy field to work in, because there’s no real conflict between making companies succeed and making the customer succeed, or the people, whatever you want to call them. Because it’s to everybody’s interest that Web sites and software and computers are easier to use. Everybody benefits when that’s the case.
Here is a quick summary across 42 case studies that we looked at, how much various desired metrics were improved by redesigning the Web site according to usability principles.
First of all, I’ll point out this one that says “zero.” But the vast majority of Web sites, double or more, 100 percent improvement in things like use and sales and people registering for the newsletter or whatever else the company was interested in. Vast, vast improvements, sometimes 1,000 percent or more.
These are averages, more looking at specific type of metrics. Sales, on average, doubled. Sales, of course, we think from a company perspective we want the most, and that’s the one that had the smallest improvement, so that’s unfortunate. But, still, doubling sales is not a small matter.
Amount of traffic, up 150 percent. User performance, how quickly can you find things? Up by 161 percent. Feature use would be things like using this “what if?” feature in my previous example. Tripled, which is increased by 200 percent.
These are huge and large differences that can happen in the use of these Web sites. Even though the examples or the issue is often small, like changing the wording on a label, or make sure the back button works. They might seem like small issues, but they compound.
What’s really at stake here is at least doubling people’s ability to use the Internet, or doubling the sales that the company…[End of Tape One. Tape Two joins the discussion in progress.]…Internet if we would design more for people. I also think we can look at this in a bigger perspective and look at the digital divide. My model of this is that there are three stages.
What has been discussed the most is the economic divide. That is, it’s too expensive to get computers or to get online. Poor people are not online as much. However, this is becoming less and less of an issue. It’s completely a lot of an issue on an international basis, because a lot of developing countries, it definitely is completely true that they’re not online as much as the industrialized world.
But if you go and look at the United States or Scandinavia or Australia, or other of these countries that are advanced on the curve here, we are at the state now where the penetration has almost stabilized. And it’s not really a matter of, as it gets cheaper, more and more people get online.
On the contrary, there was actually a study that [INAUDIBLE] did. A lot of people have tried the Internet, but they just gave up. It was not really worth it for them. A lot of people are not online, not necessarily because they can’t afford it, but because it doesn’t give them enough.
I think this is going to be more and more and more the case, that it’s not because you can’t afford to go online, but just because it doesn’t really meet your needs. To a great extent, it is too complicated for a lot of people.
Even people who are online, it’s actually too complicated to get a lot of things done that they would like to do. Thus they get a much more reduced experience than they could have, compared to those of us who really know how to manipulate all of these things.
That takes me to my third level here, which is that even if people get online, and they figure out how to go to a few places, we’re going to have an empowerment divide, which is, the opportunity for people to really, truly use the Internet to achieve their purposes and to really do good for them. That’s a big issue as well.
A lot of people don’t quite understand how to use these various tools, how to make the Internet work for them. They’re at the mercy of just a few things that are being thrown at them for whatever service that they subscribe to, they happen to be using. Which I find to be quite an issue as well.
Just this morning in the New York Times, there was an article on people who use car Web sites save on the average 2 percent on the price of the car, compared to people who buy the car at the dealership. Buying the car at, I think there were two different Web sites that they looked at where you can buy cars online, saves you on average 2 percent, because you don’t have to negotiate with the stupid dealers. It saves you time, it’s nicer, and you save 2 percent. That’s very nice.
That’s only the people who actually are capable of using these sometimes quite complicated search features to actually locate the car they want. A lot of people, if you tested one of these car sites which, I have not done this, but they would probably find a lot of people couldn’t actually use them.
But secondly, it’s only the people that actually go and use those two sites, or there might be more, use the sites that do save them money, there might be a lot of other sites that would not. And how would the average person ever know? That’s the empowerment divide. And I do think that that’s a big issue as well.
Just going back over all of what I’ve been showing you here, it really is to drive home this point that, for the average person, these are real issues. It’s not true, because something exists, like there exists a Web site, that it will save you 2 percent on buying your car, that because of that people either know how to use it or could differentiate that site from another site that’s going to cost you maybe 2 percent more or sell you a lemon, or I don’t know what bad things might happen.
In fact, the average person doesn’t know what bad things might happen, but they sure have their suspicions. That lack of trust on the Internet, where it does impair the use of the Web. I think it impairs it for the good companies as well. And that is maybe the sad part of my message, but that is nevertheless true, that we do find this.
I showed you the example where a company had the one piece of information the person was looking for, they actually had it on their Web site many, many times. Since they had done a nice job in putting the information there, the person didn’t see it. Partly because of the Web site being overwhelming with information, which is their problem. And that one site could fix that by a usable design.
But also because of the general feeling of using the Internet, which is that of, “There’s too much stuff out there, most of it is bad. I have to become ruthless in treating these pages, or I will just suffer endlessly.” Which really is people’s experience.
There are two sides of the coin. There’s one side that the individual sites can fix. That was the curve I showed you with 42 examples. On average, you can more than double users’ ability to use your Web site. Every single individual site can do this just on their own.
At the same time, the Internet as a whole, I think we could improve by much, much more. More likely a factor of 10 or 1,000 percent. It’s only a guess, because obviously we don’t know that. We haven’t done a case study of taking the entire Internet and fixing it.
I actually think that it has that potential for being incredibly much better, not just 100 percent better, which is the potential for individual Web sites. But that can be done, though. So that for sure I would encourage everybody here to do, is that you go home and you want to do some testing of your own site, and you fix its problems.
As such, do this. That is, by the way, happening. Sites are actually improving. We’ve done these studies now for quite a long time, and we take the same problem, and we study it again a few years later. We usually find a little bit of an improvement.
That’s a happy news kind of story, that the Internet really actually is improving. It is getting easier for people; it’s just getting easier at a very slow pace, because the Web is so big and huge that an individual site’s being 100 percent better counts for close to nothing when there are 30 million Web sites.
The overall user experience is still very, very complicated, and that’s something that certainly this project here has documented. And also with more individual examples of individual people using individual sites that I showed you, documented as well.
But it’s so easy to forget about this, because when we who are experts, when we use the Web, it’s like Okay, here we go. But that’s not the average user experience.
Q: [INAUDIBLE] “Oh, what a great idea!” But it’s not done. And I’m wondering if you have studied or asked people why aren’t they doing this? It can’t be learning; I don’t know what it is. It’s like an inherent resistance.
JN: Right. The question is, why do people or companies then not do these studies for their Web sites, since it’s so obviously a good idea?
I think it’s an obviously good idea, but for the people who work at the project, I say there are three reasons the Web is so bad. It’s evil, stupid and lazy design. Very, very little design is evil. My definition of evil design is that they deliberately try to confuse people. They deliberately try to make people do something different than what they are trying to do.
There’s a little bit of that, and it’s mainly in the area of advertising. The classic misleading ad is the one that says, “Your Internet connection is not optimized. Click here.” It looks like a dialogue box. It’s masquerading as a dialogue box, and it’s really an ad. That’s what I would call evil design. They are trying to look like something different than what they are.
But a tiny, tiny minority of design is evil in that sense. Most designs want to actually help the customers, because companies want to sell, they want to do customer service online, and so on. Government agencies want to serve the citizens and all. They all want to do it, almost all want to do it.
And then we have the other two problems, which are stupid and lazy. Stupid is just disregarding known facts about human behavior in the online medium. That’s why I showed you the video clips of things like the back button and the new browser windows. Because these things have been documented for years on end to cause usability problems. And companies are still doing it. This, I think, is just blatant disregard for the documented research facts.
But then lazy is the last point. That is maybe the biggest point. “Lazy” is my word for it, in order to make a point. But you could also call it resource constraint. But people don’t do everything, because there’s a matter of prioritizing.
This is true as well, we can talk about accessibility, making the Web easy to use for users with disabilities. I have a whole other set of video clips of blind people and people with motor skill impairment, and all other types of disabilities having great trouble, much greater trouble on Web sites.
Companies don’t do all they ought to do, but the one thing that they really could do is user testing. Because that is incredibly simply and very, very cheap. It’s a few days’ work to do it. So it’s not really a budget problem, because it is actually quite cheap to do.
The real problem is that the people responsible, they actually think that their Web site is easy to use, because it’s easy for them. And you cannot wipe your brain and pretend you do not know what you do know. So with the knowledge you have —
Remember I talked about the mental model. The mental model is people’s internal conceptualization or picture of how things hang together, and how to interpret each element. If you already have the big conceptual model that says, “I understand the company structure. I understand the product line. I understand the industry-specific lingo we’re using in our company.”
When you have all that, now I’m going to show you a screen and say, “Okay, do you think this screen makes sense?” Yes, sure, it makes perfect sense to that marketing director. But you’ve got to test it with an actual person off the street or a person in your target customer base.
More and more companies are in fact doing it, but I would still estimate less than 10 percent. The vast majority of Web sites have not been tested with users before they were launched. As I always say, all your design will be tested by the customers, but tested in the field, not in the lab. Thus you will have wasted a lot of your money.
Q: Could you talk a little bit more about how you think this growth of spam is affecting the way people use Web sites?
JN: The question is how the growth of spam impacts people who use a Web site. That’s a very, very good question, and we’ve completely seen this. We’ve actually seen it for a few years, but it’s getting to be more pronounced now, in the sense of their true fear of releasing any personal information.
Which you might say is actually good, but it’s so strong now that people even fear doing it at legitimate places. It impairs things like confirmation messages, because people don’t dare give out their real e-mail address, so the confirmation goes to either the wrong place or, the more technically savvy people set up e-mail addresses that they don’t really check. Or the message that they really should get is lost in the flow of complete spam.
From a usability perspective, a lot of great things can actually be done as opposed to by the Web site. I’m kind of thinking of more of a push, as this was known at a certain point of time, to have messages like, “Your package has been shipped,” or, “Your package has been delayed.”
And that will calm people down. They’ll say, “Oh, my package has been delayed; I’ll get it next week. That’s very nice to know.” But you’re not going to know that if that message is lost in 100 spam messages.
Plus it also reduces that ability to actually build up a customer relationship, because people are very worried about “If I say I want to get a monthly newsletter, does that mean I’m going to get every day 20 things that I don’t want?”
Certainly a lot of people don’t really understand the little checkboxes. A lot of people do understand the checkboxes, to say “No, I don’t want the stuff.” They often uncheck them. That one thing. A lot of people is not everybody, but a lot of people do understand that little thing there. Do you want offers or do you not want offers?
But the rest is completely, it certainly undermines the entire Internet. It really is. A lot of features that could actually make it easier, more pleasant — not more trustworthy, but actually you would trust this company more because they send you an e-mail saying “Your shipment has been delayed.” But you didn’t get that message, not because of the company, but because of all the others. It is hurting, and it’s hurting quite bad, and it certainly is getting much worse.
Leaving the Web aside, but just talking about e-mail in general, I think e-mail in general is just about to completely break and stop being useful. I’ve already seen people saying: “Now I’m using instant messaging, because that’s the way I know I can actually reach somebody and they’ll actually get it. But in an e-mail, they might never read it.”
You can just plot the curves, and instant messaging is on the curve that’s behind e-mail by about 10 years or so. Ten years from now, everybody’s going to get 50 IMs per minute or something like that, so that’s going to be the same problem. And there’s already IM spam that’s out there. “I’m getting spam on my Blackberry.” So it’s reaching beyond traditional e-mail. Not as much yet, but that’s just a matter of time.
Q: When you showed those videos, you showed [INAUDIBLE].
JN: The question us about usability problems with .pdf. And yes, there’s a whole bunch of usability problems with .pdf. Pdf is a great way of giving people a big document to print out and read on the train or wherever they want to read it. And so it has its use. And I should actually say that we distribute our own; all these things there’s a big fat report, and that is in fact a .pdf file to be downloaded from our Web site. So I’m not saying that .pdf files are all bad.
But they are incredibly bad for online viewing and navigation of information, because the navigation paradigm breaks down completely. It’s a page paradigm as opposed to a navigation paradigm.
The pages are bigger than the person’s screen, so you can’t really see it all. It crashes some people’s computers. And then when you want to go back, people quite often close the window because it looks like a document. It is a document. It’s not a Web site. So by closing the window, they close their entire browser session.
There’s quite a lot of usability problems in .pdf. And we’ve seen this in many studies. The study of investor relations, particular bad there, because almost all companies put their annual report out in .pdf, not in a communicative way. And it’s almost impossible to identify the information you want in a 100-page .pdf file.
It works horribly bad with search engines. We saw it in a study of intranets. I haven’t talked about that at all. But employees trying to find information on their benefits and all, if it’s in a .pdf file, it really, really impairs their ability to do that as well.
Q: You mentioned that more and more users [INAUDIBLE] navigation. I wondered if you had any data on any other [INAUDIBLE] more and more use, gravitating toward in navigating the Web page?
JN: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have a real answer right now. There certainly are things that people, for example, in a search, people look for a little search box. That’s becoming incredibly universal. “I look for a little box where I can type,” is what they tell us.
Some people started using them because some search engines have become better at actually getting you what you want. So they’ve started using external search engines when the internal on-the-site search engine doesn’t work.
The first thing is, people will try to search on the Web site, and they’ll usually judge, “Do they have their act together?” Quite often they don’t, because they have a horrible search engine. And then, at least as a comeback thing, half of the users will come, they’re more savvy.
Then they’ll say, “Okay, not worth doing. I’m going to go to Google,” or whatever is their favorite search engine. They’re going to go and search on the external search engine instead. So there’s a little bit of that, “I’ll give the site a chance. If it doesn’t work, I’m off of that.” Some of those behaviors we’re starting to see.
Also we’ll sometimes see people just using a very small number of pages as well. Which is another contribution of finally having good search engines. We didn’t have for quite a long time.
In the old days, once you found a good Web site, it was kind of precious. “I’ve got to use this.” Now you can find 10 other good ones at one search.
Q: It seems like search is sort of the first step along the way. Once you find the destination [INAUDIBLE]. Once you find the thing you’re looking for, [INAUDIBLE]. That seems to be what I’ve seen.
JN: That’s true. There are some not quite standards, but conventions emerging on the Web, such that you would have lists of other places on that site, a stripe down the lefthand side.
Yeah, people do understand those. And when you get a nonstandard navigation like I showed you, the little wheel on the children’s site, people don’t know how to deal with that at all. So I really recommend keeping to what’s become the norm on the Web.
I wouldn’t quite say “standard,” because it’s not an official, approved standard, but it is the norm, and do that. I call this Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience. People spend most of their time on other sites. And also the Internet is formed by the Web as a whole, not by your site. No matter how important you think your company is, people spend more time on other Web sites. And so, kind of obey that law of the other Web site.
Q: I actually found your Biogen example striking. Something that I’ve been seeing for like 20 years, even on regular applications such as the Web. The first screen she went to was not that busy. She couldn’t find it.
Do you think that there’s something — I’ve felt this — something about computing, whether it’s the Web or applications, that people stop reading? They don’t read. Because if she wasn’t just scrolling around so quickly and paused, she might have very well seen it. Something that — and yes, there is bad design. Not at all denying that.
JN: I agree with you. And certainly that is a little bit of a reaction that sometimes people have. They say, “If she’d only behave better,” so to speak. But the fact is that people don’t. So you have to decipher the way people actually behave.
I do agree the computers tend to probably get into a more rushed lifestyle, and you’ve kind of got to go through with this. The user experience is, “My hand is on the mouse.” People really, literally — when you’re on the Web, your hand is not off the mouse. You’re sitting there ready to click on the next thing.
There’s that expectation that most of the things you see are probably not going to be it. And this is truth as well. So you are passing this thing pretty rapidly, and then you’re off. And so because usually you’re on the wrong page.
It happens she was on the right page. There’s no little silver bell that says, “Ding, ding, you’re on the right page. Now pay attention.” That is a very, very difficult problem to handle. My only real solution is: Scale down the complexity. Because that will make it more likely that people will recognize when they’re on the right page.
Q: If you were to compare the Web today to a language, what year do you think we’d be in, in terms of the education of the common user?
JN: That’s a very nice analogy. Comparing the Web to learning a language. What kind of year are we in in learning that language? We are completely at the babytalk stage, that’s for sure. I don’t know if we’re year one or two or something like that. But we’re definitely not at the point yet where the average person can really put together a complex sentence structure and really — that’s that mastery that I think a lot of people here actually do have. We have that mastery where we can express ourselves relative to the Internet and make it do our bidding. And it’s become a medium.
But for a lot of the just a little bit less savvy people. I’m not talking about they’re stupid or uneducated or illiterate or anything like that. They’re smart people; they’re often really highly paid professionals in some cases. But the computer’s just not in their life, as it turns out, strangely enough. And then they’re faced with these problems. And they really have this disempowering feeling. They have this feeling of, “I don’t quite know the language.” That’s a very, very good analogy.
And, yes, that’s what our expectations are, maybe, and we often say that, “Well, sites just should disclose these things.” But disclosing is not enough. You’ve got to do it in a way that people understand it, which is my message here, is that the average person is not at all really empowered on the Web.
And there’s a long way to go before it becomes something that fits us like a glove and we can just use it. Like it should be and it can be.
I also wanted to say, this is not the doom and gloom lecture either — because, for sure, let’s take the study we did of users with disabilities. We got a lot of positive feedback from people saying, “Now I can finally get the daily newspaper the same time as everybody else. Just have it read to me aloud from their Web site.”
Senior citizens saying, “I can stay in touch with my family even though they live in different areas.” People having a lot of interesting hobbies that they get very, very into. Very obscure specialized Web sites that many of these seniors actually go and use and enjoy. That is another.
All of it is not negative. It’s that there’s a lot of our potential that’s just not being met, because it is too complicated. Because the divide between the computer and the human is too big. And companies are not doing enough to bridge that. And it is in their own best interests to do so.
END OF PANEL