Usability makes business sense

Asia is warming up to usability testing, and it's about time, says Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen.
Written by Isabelle Chan, Contributor
Jakob Nielsen
newsmaker Good usability transcends age, geography and culture, says usability expert Jakob Nielsen.

It doesn't matter if a Web site targets an Internet surfer who is 20 and not 50 years old, or is Asian and not American. The site will succeed in attracting visitors if it is designed according to how humans think and behave.

According to the 25-year industry veteran, studies show that legibility is important not only for older people. Even the young, and those who have good eyesight, prefer larger text that's easier to read.

Nielsen says there is also little difference between Internet users in Asia and those in the United States or Europe, because "they depend on the fundamental characteristics of the human brain, which are the same all over the world".

In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Nielsen shares one of his pet peeves and talks about Usability Week 2007, his first Asian conference, which will be held in March 2007 in Hong Kong.

Nielsen, who will be speaking on day three of the event, says Hong Kong was the choice location because of the strong interest in usability among several companies there, and "an unbeatable view from the conference venue which is right on the harbor".

The usability guru will speak on the guidelines for Web usability, and distill the findings of an extensive global study which tested 776 Web sites with 2,403 users in 16 countries across four continents.

Nielsen says it is about time Asia took an interest in usability, which can have a positive impact on a company's bottom line if a Web site is built based on what customers want. The career prospects for usability professionals are also looking up, as the industry and businessess recognize usability testing as an important factor in product development.

Q. Name three Web sites that you think have the best usability.
Nielsen: The best sites tend to be the most famous sites because you get to be big on the Internet by having good usability. Google, Yahoo and Amazon are certainly among the top sites in usability: They all emphasize getting users the information they want, as quickly as possible, and then they get out of the way.

Name three things on a Web site that drive you crazy.
The worst offence against users is no doubt poor legibility, especially caused by tiny text that can't be resized. Not everybody is 20 years old and has perfect eyesight. In fact, when we do usability studies with teenagers, we find that even these young users, who do have great eyesight, still prefer bigger text that's easier to read.

Another big problem is non-standard links: Sometimes you don't know where to click because the links don't look like links, and sometimes you don't know what will happen when you click because the link uses JavaScript for annoying effects such as opening new windows.

As my third point, I want to mention splash screens. They are not so common any more, but why are there still some sites that use this abomination? Splash screens delay users and do no good. Let's get rid of them for good.

MySpace is probably the most famous anti-usability site that's also successful. The site is horrible, but it works because it's not trying to attract customers or help users accomplish a task such as home banking.

Is there a Web site that breaks the Web usability rules but yet, is successful in terms of attracting and keeping visitors? If yes, which one and why?
MySpace is probably the most famous anti-usability site that has been successful. The site is horrible, but it works because it's not trying to attract customers or help users accomplish a task such as home banking. The only thing the site does is to allow people to express their personality in a display aimed at their friends. It doesn't matter if other people don't understand what's being said, because the friends are the only target audience.

What is your view of search engine optimization (SEO)? How does this, or any other trend, impact the way we go about designing and creating Web sites?
SEO is hugely important because search is the main way users decide where to go on the Web. The main rules for search optimization are the same as the main usability rules: speak the users' language, answer the users' questions, and have a simple design that's easy to navigate with a clean structure that reflects the way users think of your products.

Is there an item that was on your Web usability list in 2000 but isn't anymore? Which one and why?
My new book, Prioritizing Web Usability   lists 34 of my main usability findings from 2000 and analyzes the extent to which they are still true today. My conclusion is that 79 percent of the original usability impact of these guidelines remains the same. The amount of change in the usability guidelines is much less than the change in Web technology during the same period. The reason usability changes more slowly is that it mainly derives from the characteristics of human behavior, which is remarkably constant. After all, we don't get bigger brains as the years go by.

Among the 21 percent that have changed, the most visible is the guideline for how to display hypertext links. It used to be the case that links should be blue for users to easily and quickly know where to click. Today, any color will do, as long as it's not black and as long as there's a different color for visited and unvisited links. Also, it's still a guideline to underline links, except for the entries in a navigation menu.

Are there any noticeable differences in the usability of, say, a U.S. Web site and an Asian one? What are they? Why do you think that is?
The obvious difference is the need to support Asian character sets. Also, of course, in some languages people read from right to left, and those Web sites need a mirror-image layout, where things are on the right instead of on the left. Finally, there are some differences in color preferences.

But, the big things are all the same because they depend on the fundamental characteristics of the human brain, which are the same all over the world. Human beings can hold about seven items in short-term memory, and that doesn't differ between countries.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong did a study where they tested four Chinese e-commerce sites with Chinese users in Hong Kong. And the ranking of these sites with the Chinese users was exactly the same as the ranking derived from evaluating the sites with our guidelines for e-commerce usability.

Tell us more about the upcoming Web usability conference that you're organizing in Asia.
The conference is called Usability Week 2007 and will be in Hong Kong the week of Mar. 5 - 9. Each day has a special theme, and it's not necessary to come for the entire week if only some of the topics interest you, but I hope most people will stay all week because it's a unique opportunity to get in-depth coverage of all the key issues in usability.

We cover the basic methods, such as how to do user testing, and there's a day where we talk about the key findings in Web usability. Other days, we go into more detail about specialized topics, such as intranet design or application design. There is also a special day on business-to-business (B2B) sites. Even though many people may think that this is too specialized a topic, I included it because it's so important. B2B sites are quite different from mainstream Web sites and usually have miserable usability.

Why are you planning one now in Asia, and why have you chosen Hong Kong?
Why 2007? Because the time has finally come for Asia to get the same level of usability as North America and Europe. In earlier years, Asian countries were more interested in technology for its own sake and built Web sites and software that were much too complicated. In the last year or two, I felt a growing Asian interest in usability and we have had several delegates from Asia attend our conferences in San Francisco and London.

Why Hong Kong? It's a high-tech location that's well-connected, it's right in the middle of Asia, and it also has a lot of financial companies which tend to be very interested in usability. Plus, I have to say that we have an unbeatable view from the conference venue which is right on the harbor.

Do you have plans to hold similar conferences in other Asian countries?
There are no specific plans for future years yet. We plan one year at a time, depending on market conditions and the growth in technology. But countries that may come next would certainly include Singapore and Korea. India would also be a likely location, considering the growth in software offshoring. Clients are demanding higher-level skills for their offshore projects, meaning that India will need many more usability specialists in the future. It's not enough to code, vendors also need to know how to make the screens easier to use.

There aren't many recruitment advertisements for usability experts; one tends to see more openings for Web designers. Is there a difference between a Web designer and a usability expert?
These are two different skills. Sometimes you can be lucky and find one person who can do both well, but that's rare. Most big companies need to hire several people and build an interdisciplinary team for their Web site.

It is true that there are more Web designers than there are usability professionals. My recommendation is to spend 10 percent of a company's Web budget on usability. That's what you need to find out what customers want. Then, spend the remaining 90 percent of the budget on building that. Of course, it's tempting to spend 100 percent of the budget on design and development, but then you'll almost always end up designing the wrong thing that customers don't want to use. Better to spend 10 percent on making sure you are doing the right thing.

How strong is the demand and supply of usability professionals globally, and in Asia? What are the career prospects?
Usability is still a new field, and it's still growing rapidly. I have personally worked in the field for 25 years, and the earliest pioneers started even earlier--working on the human factors of airplane cockpits during World War II. But usability didn't really start taking off until 1999, and the growth rate since then has been tremendous.

As I said before, other parts of the world have been ahead of Asia with building usability into their design projects and with hiring usability professionals. But even in Silicon Valley, I would expect the number of usability professionals to double or triple over the next 10 years. And, most Asian countries are still in the early stages of the growth curve so the number of Asian usability professionals is more likely to increase by a factor of 10.

It's definitely a good time to get into usability in Asia. It takes several years of professional experience to become a top expert, and so five years from now, when more companies start usability groups and need usability managers, that's when the people who enter the field now will be ready to take on those jobs.

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