Jakob Nielsen: The Want Magazine Interview

Interview conducted via Skype for the April issue of Want Magazine.

I can list several reasons why my Editor-In-Chief and I high-fived each other after our interview with Dr. Jakob Nielsen. Granted, Nielsen is one of the few “celebrities” of the Usability trade, that rare author/expert known outside the UX community who is interviewed by mainstream publications and even called “The guru of Web page usability” by no less an authority than the New York Times.

The fact that he was kind enough to talk to us three times longer than the time span he allotted for us didn’t hurt either. But I’d say the high-five largely came from an appreciation of Nielsen’s ability to look at the field of UX with a scope of knowledge and understanding matched by few.

Nielsen started his career as a usability engineer pre-Web, in 1983, to be exact. We asked him how the field of UX—and its older brother, Human Computer Interaction (HCI)—has changed in that span of time. Once again, He went the extra mile for us, outlining the history of the field by splitting it into two cycles: product focus and sheer growth.

Cycle One: From Applications to Apps

Nielsen charted one cycle of interface design from the 1940s, with the design of airplane cockpits and nuclear power plant control panels–—essentially, interface design for applications. When Nielsen started his career almost three decades ago, application interfaces—albeit for computer software—remained the discipline.

Fast-forward to the 90s and early 2000s, when web design gave us new interfaces to contend with, forcing the need to create and design new idioms and paradigms for navigation and use.

Less than a decade later, as our digital use strays from the desktop computer to mobile devices, the need for application design has returned to the forefront. “It’s really come full circle.” Nielsen explains. “With ad campaigns preaching that ‘There’s an app for that,’ comes a need for people who know how to make them usable.”

Cycle Two: From Handfuls to Crowds of Experts

In the second cycle, Nielsen charts the demand for UX talent—which has never been greater. “There’s been a very linear path in the influence and the size and the magnitude of usability work [and] of serious business attention to user experience.

“Going back to my early career, there were just a handful of people like myself in the world–—several hundred [at most]. Most projects proceeded without any user testing–—without even the minimal amount of usability work. The design was done by the programmers as kind of a side effect of the implementation. Which, we know, leads to bad software, but that’s how it was done.

“Today, we have tens of thousands of usability professionals, people who specialize purely in the research aspect of finding out what users need. We have hundreds of thousands of professional interface designers. But there’s still a lot of [interfaces] done just as a side effect of the implementation…by the programmers. Websites are [often] designed by sort of an HTML-coder kind of person or even a so-called interface designer who doesn’t really understand interaction design.

“So, we’re not there, but the growth path has been immense. This field has grown by at least a factor of 1,000 in the time I’ve been doing this job.”

UX: Growing By The Day

The demand for usability continues to rise. “More and more,” Jacob assures us, “It’s the differentiating factor between different products and different websites.”

That factor makes sense, given the amount of competition out there. By Nielsen’s rough (but probably conservative) estimates, “There are, I think, about 300 million websites in the world, several hundred thousand software applications, and a handful of mobile phone companies, and so forth.” Lump in the amount of companies that build interface-dependent products (phones or consumer electronics, anyone?) and you have a lot of demand for a user interface that shifts units.

Can Usability Buy Happiness?

While that’s good news for professional UX-perts and magazines looking to appeal to that audience (ahem), it’s even better news for consumers—as Nielsen points out from his own experience:

“I just bought a camera, and the first thing that happens when opening the box? It says, ‘Stop. If you cannot figure out how to use this camera, do not return it. Call our customer support line.’

“They know their camera is bad.” Nielsen says, shaking his head in disbelief. “Theyknow consumers can’t use it. And then they have a high cost of return product and a high cost of support calls. They could just hire a few usability people and make it easy instead.”

The Rise Of The Amateur

Nielsen also anticipates an increase in “amateur” usability, a phrase he does not see as derogatory. Rather, he defines it as people for whom usability is only a part of their skill set and/or paycheck.

“Designers,” He uses as an example, “Should do a lot of their own usability. Same for a lot of market research and business managers, and so forth.”

And they’ll have plenty to keep them busy: “There’s not going to be enough full-time professionals–really seasoned, experienced people–to cover all these websites and hundreds of thousands of complex applications and all of that.”

With more and more daily-use objects becoming digital, increased focus on better UX comes not a moment too soon. While books, music and photos come first to mind, Nielsen gave us an example of a physical, industrial product with a renewed need for interface design: cars.

“BMW, for many years, received consistently bad reviews for a control device, called the iDrive, that was very difficult to use. That’s software design, it’s screen design, it’s interaction design–it’s not just car design. [BMW] can’t just take people who are good at building fast cars and assume that those guys can make a great complex menu hierarchy.”

The Engineering Of Want

We asked Nielsen the question on which we’ve based this issue’s theme: How can “want” be one engineered “want” into a product or service. Ever a numbers-over-instinct man, he refused to buy into the idea that an audience’s “want” can be gauged by anything other than methodical testing.

“Let me first say what I do not do, and that’s to just ask people what they want…people don’t know what they want. What they say and what they do are very often different things.

“The average person’s great ability is that they are the average person—they are the customer; they are the user—what they do rules, but only what they do, not what they say they do.”

How to instill want? In the mind of Jakob Nielsen, you figure out what your audience wants, and design towards that. As advice goes, it doesn’t get much more user-friendly than that.


Thanks to David Gomez-Rosado for his assistance with this interview.