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Usability expert delivers WebDevShare message at IU

Jakob Neilson
SLIS Network, Alumni Newsletter, Fall 2000

Though technology continually changes and power constantly shifts among "dot coms" and computer and Internet device manufacturers, one element in the world of high tech remains the same: the user, the typical human being attempting to interact with Web sites, computers, or software applications.

To meet user needs, designers must concentrate on creating products that deliver information without undue frustration, says usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who gave the keynote address at WebDevShare 2000 at Indiana University in November.

"We must think of users, then derive services, for a successful strategy in design," said Nielsen, a former Sun Microsystems engineer and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group. "Design for the way people behave, not the way you wish they'd behave."

WebDevShare, begun five years ago by information technology professionals at IU, is aimed at higher-education technicians and designers, offering them a chance to network, attend workshops, and hear from experts such as Nielsen. Though not formally invited to the conference, SLIS students were welcome to attend some of the functions as well as visit "vendors' row" to check out new products. Many students, especially those in the MIS program, are familiar with Nielsen's articles and books, and still others rely on his Web site, www.useit.com, for help when designing Web-based applications.

Nielsen based his talk on his own research, including a new study of mobile Internet applications that was released Dec. 1 during his world speaking tour. That study looked at how a group of test subjects in London used a hand-held Internet system that delivered headlines, sports scores, and entertainment and travel news.

Nielsen said the study found that users were frustrated with the content available via the devices and that they mostly accessed the system for sports scores and instant information, not for travel or shopping news, as the advertisers and vendors had predicted. This study highlights two issues, Nielsen said.

"First, it shows that for mobile Web, usage falls into two areas: instant information such as 'Is my bus on time?' and time-killing: 'I have a few minutes so I'll look up some gossip pages in an entertainment site, or play a game,'" he said. "This also points out that the developers thought people would use this for shopping and travel, yet that's not at all what users want. We must think of the user, then derive services, not the other way around."

As SLIS students know, usability testing is critical, both during development and before implementing a product or service. Nielsen cited testing as the most valuable developmental tool, though one that often is overlooked or considered an "extra" cost in the development budget.

"Most Web sites would be much better if developers adopted user-centered design," he said, citing a study in which 222 usability guidelines were applied to the "top" Web e-commerce sites. Amazon.com met 70 percent of the guidelines, while a handful of the top sites contained about half the guidelines and most of the top ones met only about a third of the guidelines. This leaves plenty of room for improvement, Nielsen said.

"It's important because in sites that adopt usability guidelines, usability may increase 50 percent [in efficiency] yet sales may increase in the hundreds of percent," he said. "The user feels control and begins to trust sites where it is easier to find information and a product, and keeps coming back to buy from just a few of these sites. Sites must be as easy to use as the best Web site, because that's what people are learning to expect."

Photo Courtesy of Jakob Nielsen

Posted December 08, 2000