Testing the Limits With Jakob Nielsen – Part II

In part II of our interview with usability expert Jakob Nielsen, we get his thoughts on the popularity of some poorly designed sites; his global Usability Week seminars; testing in different geographies; annoying web buzzwords and much more. If you missed the first installment, you can read part I now.

uTest: Some of the most popular websites are not the most usable ones. How do you explain that, and what do you think is the most important factor in building websites?

JN: In fact, many of the most popular sites are fairly usable, because they focus on content instead of fancy features. But there are definitely plenty of counter-examples. The explanation is that popularity is the product of two factors: (a) how compelling material you offer, and (b) how easy it is to access it. Host free pirated movies and users will flock to the site, even if it’s difficult to use.

The most important is always to solve the right problem: to meet a real user need. If you solve the wrong problem, it doesn’t matter how well you solve it, people still won’t use something they don’t need. That said, you’ll attract much more use if the site is easy than if it’s difficult. Also, user research is a key method for understanding user needs in the first place.

uTest: Usability Week 2011 just finished up its first stop in Melbourne, Australia. Care to give our readers an idea of what’s new on this year’s agenda? And if they can’t attend in person, what’s the best way for them to follow along at home?

JN: The biggest news is definitely mobile usability. It’s not completely new to us, because we ran our first mobile usability studies in 2000. Back then, the only guideline was that mobile usability was so horrible that I advised companies to forget designing for mobile. I definitely didn’t bother programming any mobile topics at the conference, except for a short presentation by the head of Yahoo Mobile in 2006.

We have had a full day on mobile at the conference since 2009, after the iPhone made mobile sites and apps more feasible. But I’ve now increased this to 2 days, adding a day on touchscreen apps that goes beyond phones to also consider tablets. In other news, the mobile-sites day has now been expanded to cover devices beyond Apple. (Mainly Android — we see fairly limited interest among our audience in developing for other platforms.)

The simplest statistic to show the exploding interest in mobile usability is to compare the registrations for the day on mobile website usability at our conferences in Washington, DC: For April 2011 we have 395% more people registered than we did in April 1999 when we launched the first version of that seminar. (Yes, our DC conference as a whole has 94% higher registration in 2011 compared with 2009, which can be attributed to the recovery from the recession. Still, 395% is hugely bigger than 94%.)

Some other new topics are complex, domain-specific applications, content strategy, usable social features, brand as experience, and From Science to Design: Applying HCI Principles to Real World Problems. This last seminar is not an answer to any particular trend or fashion. Instead, it’s addressing the problem that more and more people engage in interface design without the benefit of a formal university degree. No problem. I think degrees are overrated, despite having a Ph.D. myself. But there’s something to be said for knowing the most important concepts and theories that give you the language to analyze why some designs are better than others.

There’s a steady stream of Tweets coming out from the conference, but I don’t feel they substitute for being at the event. The main reason for having a conference in the first place is to trap people behind locked doors for a full day and force them to pay attention to a structured, in-depth treatment of the topic from beginning to end. We don’t literally lock the doors, but I still think there are huge learning benefits from diving into something all day long. So I recommend that people shut off the Web while they’re at the conference. The temptation to stay connected at all times is one of the downside of mobile, in my opinion.

uTest: On a similar note, in traveling around the world, you get to see how software is consumed in many different cultures. In your view, how important is geographical location when testing the usability of one’s products? We’re thinking specifically about new users in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America.

JN: We haven’t tested in Latin America yet, but we’ve done many studies in Asia and the Middle East (and even more in Europe and Australia). The common lesson from all this research is that the usability guidelines are the same all over the world. What’s easy in one region will be easy in all regions. All the big design decisions are dictated by the fundamental nature of human psychology and not by regional differences. Thus, what’s important is to test with humans, no matter their nationality. (And when I say “humans,” I don’t mean “developers,” unless you’re designing for this target audience. Test participants need to be representative customers.)

That said, optimal user experience requires designs that are optimized for each major market, because there are differences in user needs in terms of content (both topics and language), features, and visual treatment. The two countries that are the most different from the rest of the world are Japan and the United States, so if you’re based somewhere else, you need to run studies with Japanese and American users as the absolute minimum besides testing in your own country.

uTest: What’s Jakob Nielsen doing when he’s not redefining software usability?

JN: I spend a lot of time trying to keep in shape, which is hard with an extensive travel schedule. One of the best uses of YouTube is to discover new exercises that work with whatever limited equipment that’s available in the hotel gym. For example, the gorilla pushup is a fun exercise if you have two Bosu balls, like they do at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. (Caesar’s has the best gym of all our conference hotels, though the Melbourne hotel came a close second.)

Rapid Fire

  • Preferred media nickname: The “Usability Pope” or the “King of Usability”? The King. People should do what I say, not because I’m infallible, but because they make more money when they do. Also, I like Elvis.
  • Favorite inventor: Thomas Edison. His lab is awesome and one of the few tourist attractions in New Jersey where I lived for 4 years while working at Bell Communications Research.
  • Last movie watched: A View to a Kill. I mainly watched it because it’s easy to program the TiVo to keep a steady stream of 007 movies on tap for when I’m on the treadmill. Live TV is insufferable, so TiVo gets a lot of credit for keeping my weight down.
  • Worst fictional software application: The 3-D user interface in Minority Report. But I actually have an entire top-10 list of UI bloopers in the movies.
  • Favorite distraction: Eating. I love trying new restaurants and dishes, from snake and yak ear in China to kangaroo and wombat in Australia. (Roo wins, though maybe that’s because I had it at Melbourne’s top restaurant.)
  • Most annoying tech/web buzzword: I would have said Web 2.0, but it seems to have reached the “expired” stage of the hype cycle. Instead, I’ll nominate anything having to do with 3D or virtual-reality style interfaces. They are the zombies of UI: they don’t die, no matter how many times they fail. (There are a few good uses, mainly in games, and I do like augmented reality, particularly for mobile. But most VR-inspired designs look good in demos while providing bad support for actual tasks.)

Editor’s note: That does it for this month. We hope you enjoyed our Q&A with Jakob Nielsen. If you have suggestions for our next Testing the Limits interview, send them along.

Essential Guide to Mobile App Testing


  1. says

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