What an honor it is to have Jakob Nielsen – the “King of Usability” – as our Testing the Limits guest this month. Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. is principal of Nielsen Norman Group , a research and consulting firm that studies how people use technology. He is the author of many books, including Eyetracking Web Usability and Prioritizing Web Usability. He has invented several usability methods, including heuristic evaluation, and holds 79 United States patents, mainly on ways of making the Internet easier to use. For more, read his official biography.
In part I of our interview, we get his thoughts on the evolution of user experience; the superiority of native apps; tablet usability; the death of PDF files; iPhone vs. Android and other hot topics. Be sure to check back tomorrow for Part II of the interview. Enjoy!
uTest: Like everything, software usability is in a constant state of change. How have you managed to stay on top of a field that seems to get turned upside down every other month?
JN: The users keep me fresh. I don’t really have to know anything, because I can simply see what our test participants use and how they use it.
uTest: It seems to us that software usability is as much a study of human behavior than anything else. What other subjects would you advise people to study who want to learn more about user preferences? Psychology? Sociology? Others?
JN: The main thing I recommend is to study your actual users: invite a handful of representative customers to your location and run them through simple usability studies of your software. One day in the lab is worth a year in university lecture halls, in terms of actionable lessons learned. (And remember that your “usability lab” can be a regular office or conference room —as long as you shut the door.)
That said, it’s still well worth studying all branches of psychology (perceptual, cognitive, social, etc.). One of the most popular courses at the Usability Week conference is called “The Human Mind and Usability” and summarizes the most salient psych findings for designers who don’t have time to go back to school.
It’s also worth studying visual design, even if you’re never going to draw anything yourself. Knowing the concepts and language is helpful when communicating with graphic designers, both to let them know what you want and to understand their ideas.
uTest: In the world of mobile, there’s been a lot written on the subject of native apps vs. the mobile web. What’s your take on this debate? Do both methods have a role to play in the user landscape? And for companies just venturing the mobile realm, where would you tell them to focus their attention?
JN: Apps are superior for 3 reasons:
- Empirically, users perform better with apps than with mobile sites in user testing.
- Apps are much better at supporting disconnected use and poor connectivity, both of which will continue to be important use cases for years to come. When I’m in London and don’t feel like being robbed by “roaming” fees, any native mapping app will beat Google Maps at getting me to the British Museum.
- Apps can be optimized for the specific hardware on each device. This will become more important in the future, as we get a broader range of devices.
Apps have the obvious downside of requiring more development resources, especially to be truly optimized for each device. If a company doesn’t have enough resources to do this right, it’s better to have a nice mobile site than a lame app.
A second downside of apps is that users have to install them. Our testing shows poor findability and usability in Apple’s Application Store, and many users won’t even bother downloading something at all for intermittent use. So ask yourself whether you’re really offering something within the hardcore mobile center of need: time-sensitive and/or location dependent, and whether your offer is truly compelling in this crowded space. Most companies are never going to make it big in mobile. In some cases all they need is to make their main website somewhat mobile-friendly. Many others should deliver a dedicated mobile site but not bother with apps.
uTest: Regarding tablets, we see a lot of companies taking their current iPhone app, increasing the graphic fidelity, and releasing it as an “original” iPad app. In your view, what the biggest mistake being made by companies developing apps specifically for tablet devices?