Jakob Nielsen has been dubbed the ‘king of usability’ and has been helping to make the web easier to use for more than a decade.
I had the pleasure of speaking to him yesterday, and we discussed the progress of usability, the challenges of providing a great experience across different devices, and the best methods for testing sites.
Has the cause of usability progressed over the last decade or so? Is the ‘message’ reaching people?
Yes, we’ve seen a lot of progress in a number of ways. It’s far easier to get things done on websites than it was ten years ago.
Websites and mobile apps have seen rapid progress in terms of usability, though there’s been less progress in other areas, such as consumer electronics and cars.
Another way to measure it is in the number of people and companies working in this field. Just look at the number of people with job titles including words like UX, usability etc. One way to measure the progress is by the growth of this particular field.
What has driven this progress?
There are two things. First, online is a very direct channel, especially for ecommerce.
The bottom line is that, if people can’t find things, they can’t buy. Things like ease of navigation and checkout all contribute and there’s a business imperative to make sites easy to use.
It’s also important to remember that ecommerce is still growing rapidly and that there are still millions and millions of people yet to make their first online purchase.
For these people, usability is paramount. They will buy from sites where it’s easy to make a purchase and won’t return to those where it’s difficult.
There’s also been a shift from that perception of computing as something which required specific skills and qualifications and was therefore more exclusive, to one where computers and devices need to adapt to people.
All computer companies and tech firms now want to claim that their devices are the easiest to use.
You’ve previously said that mobile sites need a separate design. Do you still think so, or has responsive web design (RWD) solved this problem?
I think there is a need for a separate mobile design but there are different ways of achieving that.
RWD can potentially be the answer, but people tend to retain too much of the same design across devices, meaning that either mobile or desktop experiences can be unsatisfactory.
It cuts both ways. A pared down mobile site won’t always translate so well to desktop. I believe that bigger desktop screens should be utilised to their full extent as well.
People expect the same features and choice on mobile as on larger screens, but these can be done in different ways.
So are you not in favour of a ‘mobile-first’ design approach?
I think, depending on budget, sites need to do what works for their users across different platforms. One device should not be primary, or that leads to a secondary experience on other devices.
Where do tablets fit into this? Are they closer to desktop or mobile?
It’s a third device, and to create a great design for tablets, you have to focus on that device. You could design for mobile and stretch it to fit an iPad, or squeeze a desktop design onto it.
Either way, the end result is suboptimal. The only way to produce the best results is to design explicitly for the tablet.
I think there’s a chicken and egg situation here – because tablet sites are not as good as people may expect, usage hasn’t grown as much as it might have done.
I think they’re great devices and, as usage grows, the ecommerce imperative will lead to more tablet focused design. In turn, sales will rise as they become more usable.
It has a lot of potential. It’s an immersive device. On desktop, users are likely to have multiple programs and windows open to distract them, while mobile screens are simply too small.
Tablets can offer a very attractive and immersive alternative for users. The screen is large enough to offer richer features, great photography, extensive filters and so on.
How can businesses find a balance between good usability and business goals? For example, an intrusive pop-up may produce results, but it will affect the user experience.
I think you need to look long-term at these issues. If an intrusive feature is leading to more sales, then this may well outweigh the downside of impacting the user experience.
Businesses should consider the long term effects of poorer usability over what may be short term gains in sales and performance. I think there has to be a compelling business case to risk harming the user experience. I would caution against short-term thinking.
Do you think news sites, with multiple ad formats, are taking a long-term risk in providing a poorer user experience?
I think publishers are not being active or imaginative enough in looking for new business models. Advertising isn’t a great model to rely on, certainly the formats common on news sites.
Some ad models are great, and work well because they match what users are looking for. This includes paid search ads, eBay listings and classifieds. They appear where users are looking for products and services and the ads are directly related to what people want.
Ads on news sites are much less targeted, offer low CPMs, and tend to lead sites to a ‘let’s do more’ approach. The ads then slow the site down and affect the user experience. A different approach is needed.
Broadband speeds have improved immensely over the last few years, but has some of this gain been negated by heavier pages and therefore slower site speeds?
I think, despite the negatives, there have still been massive gains, but some sites are just trying to add more things all the time.
It leads to a kind of distributed website approach, as companies and bits of others sites are sucked in from everywhere – Facebook icons, ads, and so on.
This is the dark side of the cloud as I see it, the ‘thundercloud’ even.
In the old days of the web, big pictures were the problem, but now we have fixed these issues, the problem is having lots of smaller images loading from various different locations.
Thus slow running scripts from ad servers and third party sites can make the web too clunky. One second to load web pages remains the guideline.
Are new ecommerce sites best advised to follow established patterns in terms of navigation, page layouts etc?
I would say yes. There’s a reason that it’s called best practice. That means it’s gone through some thorough testing and refinement, and studies by UX practitioners including me and others.
These designs work well for the tasks that users want to perform. Whether perfect or not, it’s what’s expected.
Jakob’s law says that users spent more time on other sites than yours, so they expect yours to work in the same way. This is how they learn how the web works.
It is possible to innovate with the user experience, but being different can carry a penalty. It has to be much better than it was before to overcome the negative of extra learning time.
What is the best way to test website usability?
It’s been the same for some time. You need to sit down with users and watch what they do on your site. You have to give them a task to perform, real-life tasks such as buying a Christmas present, then see how they accomplish this.
The beauty of UX testing is that it can be carried out by just five or so users, so it doesn’t have to be expensive.
The trick is to find out what’s important. Most websites have thousands of small issues, but you can never fix everything at once. Instead you need to take it step by step. Don’t make it a grandiose project. Test now, fix quickly, then do it again.
It’s better to break improvements up into several rounds, test the results, then improve again, For this you need a continuous budget for testing and improvement.
We see some big websites launched and relaunched with some major UX flaws. Is this a problem with a short term project mentality?
It can be, and many tend to use outside agencies rather than a longer term in-house team. Small continuous tests are better. Get a quick result, then make the changes.
Many big design agencies don’t have this process built into their working methods – they want to wow the client with flashy designs, when the real aim should be to wow the user.
Rather than short-term projects, continuous improvement is the key to great usability. It’s a process which has been proved to work. You need that culture, which included a focus on users.
What are the most common usability problems you encounter?
I’d say it’s opaque language – sites not describing things in a clear fashion. They make up their own terminology and confuse users.
It’s important to use clear copy and language to help users to accomplish tasks, but some designers find it difficult to put themselves in their audience’s shoes.
Another on the same lines is the lack of good product photos. These are vital to give users an idea of the product, and they need to be able to zoom in and see things from different angles. Too few sites provide this.
This combination of clear copy and photos really help to close sales.
Another thing is poor navigation and site search. Lots of websites have poor site search. If your site is small, then this may be okay, but if you have thousands of pages and products, the search and navigation have to work together.
If site search doesn’t work properly, then you’re tempting users to leave and use Google instead, where they’ll be exposed to competitors’ websites and products.
A big part of the reason for Google’s dominance of search has been great usability. Do you think that, as Google adds more to results pages, it risks harming the user experience?
It’s true that its pages are becoming more complicated. It seems to have a notion of attempting to solve lots of problems rather than concentrating on doing one thing very well.
I think Google is still on the right side of that balance, but there’s definitely a risk there.
I do think it has gone in the wrong direction in recent years with too many things on one page, rather than keeping the results simple and providing links to other services.