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VIP Q&A with Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen isn't one to beat around the bush. When he examines a Web site, no matter how many bells and whistles it offers, if it doesn't provide a compelling user experience, he will let you know -- and if you want to succeed you better listen. This reigning king of usability is Principal and co-founder of Fremont, California-based Nielsen Norman Group, a user-experience think tank and consultancy, as well as author of numerous books on the subject. Seattle.internet.com caught up with the usability guru after his speech at the Nielsen Norman Group's User Experience World Tour, which wrapped up last week in Seattle.

Seattle.internet.com: What is the most basic element for designing a good Web site?

Jakob Nielsen: The most basic element is to know who your users are and what they are trying to do. They're so basic that people usually ignore them. Understanding the user needs and what they're trying to accomplish is important because if you do not know, then you might put some really important thing off to the side or might waste enormous resources implementing features that nobody actually wants to use.

Seattle.internet.com: So, if you could pass on one piece of advice for a company designing their site, what would it be?

Jakob Nielsen: Buy my book (Nielson lets out a hearty laugh). But if I am not allowed to say that, then I would say the one piece of advice would be to run a user test. It is so easy to do. It takes only three days. If you cannot afford three days to improve the quality of your Web site, it deserves to die.

Seattle.internet.com: What are some of the most common misconceptions and mistakes companies make when designing a site?

Jakob Nielsen: I think a very common mistake is to misconceptualize the phrase "user experience." We have used that to mean all the things that the user encounters when they are using a product or service. What you really want to do is make the users construct their own experience out of those components and empower the users to really feel like they are getting this instant gratification, which is really what the web is all about. I see a lot of people who take the phrase "user experience" to mean we are going to entertain you or give you this experience, and that's not what the web is all about.

Seattle.internet.com: As sites move away from static text and image-based pages, what lessons should business people keep in mind?

Jakob Nielsen: You should keep in mind the lessons learned from software development: just giving people features is not enough. The more websites start adding features, the more they become like software products. You do not want your Web site to be like Microsoft Office. The only reason the Microsoft office is capable of surviving is that it is the only one, so they can give you a lot of complexity and a lot of features and say "you figure it out," because you're going to be using it for the rest of your life. For Web sites, there are millions of them. If it's too complicated people will just leave.

Seattle.internet.com: What role has usability played in the recent downturn in the Internet economy?

Jakob Nielsen: I think usability is part of the reason for the downturn. A lot of sites, particularly e-commerce sites, failed because it was too complicated to shop there, and therefore it was too untrustworthy. Another issue is that a lot of companies would blow their entire budget on advertising. There were companies that would spend 90% of their budget on advertising and 10% would be in developing the thing that you were trying to drive people to. Many of the other reasons for (the downturn) don't really have anything to do with usability. As such, it's more of a matter of companies not appreciating what it takes to build a sustainable business.

Seattle.internet.com: We've seen the impact on the Web, how will usability shape the future of the wireless Internet?

Jakob Nielsen: It will really be the deciding factor (of whether it survives), because there is no saying that you have to use it all. If they build it too low, if it's too cumbersome, and time consuming and difficult, then people just will not do it. It's that simple. You have a lot of analyst who are saying "but there will be 500 million WAP phones sold next year" -- and they may be right, but I don't care. It's irrelevant how many WAP phones are sold, what matters is how many are used, and that's decided by usability.