Got Usability? Talking with Jakob Nielsen

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Photo of Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen is the usability guru who hardly needs an introduction. But for the sake of completeness we’ll mention he’s the co-founder of the California-based consultancy, Nielsen Norman Group, and has been crusading against bad web design for years through his biweekly column, The Alertbox, and his numerous books. He’s brought usability to the attention of the general public, but within the user experience community he’s been criticized by those who say he emphasizes a puritanical view of utilitarianism that excludes other dimensions of user experience. Oh, and did we mention he’s the man who launched a thousand parody sites?

So is Nielsen the defender of ease-of-use or the enemy of creativity? We talked to the controversial Dane, and you might be surprised…

B&A: What are some of the toughest design challenges on the web today?

Nielsen: I think to get a really big jump in usability, because I think we can make a website that can show a few things quite well, if you have a few products. We can also do a huge database and you can search it, and it works reasonably well.

But I don’t think we really have a handle on getting the average person through the vast number of things that a website can offer. If you narrow it down and show a few things, yes, if you assume that they are capable doing a lot of data manipulation. But I think there’s a large number of cases that do not fall into one of those two categories. You can go to CNN and see the five big headlines of the day, and that works fairly well. You can go to Amazon and you can buy my book, for example, if you know the name of the book. But in the intermediate case of having a website with 10,000 articles and finding the one that’s right for you, which is quite often the case on a tech support website … basically doesn’t work at all.

B&A: What types of research interest you the most?

Nielsen: How to get usability out to the masses. When I say masses, I mean web designers, not users. Right now we have about 30 million websites, and we will have up to 100 million in three to five years. That’s a large number of design projects. How many usability people are there in the world who are in any way qualified? At the most, maybe 10,000 or so.

Therefore, we know that we’re not going to have this number of web projects done according to the recommended old methodology. So, even what I’ve been pushing in the past—more efficient, quick usability methodologies—is not good enough when you have that number of design projects. We need to have several orders of magnitude improvement in the efficiency of usability to really impact that number of design projects. Can we do things like encapsulate usability knowledge in guidelines such that an average designer can actually apply them?

B&A: What do you feel is the relationship between a usability professional and a designer?

Nielsen: I think they could play two different roles: either that of an editor and a writer, or a professor and a student.

In the more integrated projects, which is the preferred way to do it, I think it’s more like the editor and the writer, where the designer will come up with things just as the writer would write the article, and the editor will make it better, will know what the readers need and how to present it in a good way and help the writer improve their article. I have never met a professional writer who didn’t like to have a good editor. There often seems to be a conflict between designers and usability people, but I think that once you conceptualize it as the usability person helping to improve the design, then I think it goes away.

But you’re going to have a lot of designers who don’t have a usability professional in their team. So the vast majority of them just have to learn what the principles are that work well with users from usability professionals, and then it becomes more of an educational mission. So the relationship is more like that of the professor and the student. The student is the one who has to go do it at the end of the day, but the professor is the one who has the knowledge, having had done all the research in the past and can tell the student what works well.

B&A: How do you react to designers who have strong feelings about usability in one way or another?

Nielsen: I think that designers that don’t want usability are misguided because it’s really just a way of helping them achieve a better design. Some of them just reject the goal of having a design that’s easy to use. If you have the goal of a design as actually trying to accomplish something, then you’re more in the art world, and if the project doesn’t have a goal, then maybe it’s appropriate—design for design’s sake. But if you do design to actually accomplish something, then I’d argue that it has to be easy to use, so I don’t think that it’s appropriate to reject the goal of usability if your project has to accomplish something. Design is creating something that has a purpose in life; art is creating for the sake of creating — that’s my distinction between those two terms.

Whether they want to get usability from someone who knows about it, or whether they want to find it out themselves … can be debatable. How did any of us become usability specialists in the first place? Only by doing a lot of the research and studies. Any designer could do that as well if they bothered. They don’t have to get it from us, but then I would argue that they would need to do it themselves.

B&A: Is there a particular reason you advocate for using guidelines? I’ve heard people say that it comes off as overly dogmatic to simply have a huge list of guidelines.

Nielsen: Experience says that usually these work — usually, but not always. Usability guidelines always need to be applied with a certain amount of understanding as to when they apply and when they don’t apply. If a set of guidelines is written well, then usually they will apply, and it will be the exception when they don’t apply. You have to acknowledge that on one hand it may be that only 90 percent of the guidelines apply … so you can’t violate all guidelines, you can only violate some if you have a good reason to do so.

Some people may not understand the difference between a guideline and a standard. A standard is something that is 100 percent firm, and a guideline is something that is usually right — that’s why it’s called a guideline.

B&A: What’s the difference between a standard, a guideline, and a heuristic?

Nielsen: You get even more vague when you get into the area of heuristics. Heuristics are things that are rules of thumb, so they are very vague and very broad. At the same time, they are very powerful, because they can explain a lot of different phenomena, but that explanation has to be done with a lot of insight, and that is what’s more difficult. One of the lessons from a lot of my research is that heuristic evaluations indicate how to adjust an interface relative to these general principles of good usability. It’s fairly difficult to do well. Anybody could do it to some extent, but they couldn’t necessarily do it very well, and you have to have a large amount of experience to do it well.

On the average design project today, they don’t have that amount of usability expertise on their team, and therefore we’ve got to give them something more complete that it’s easier for them to deal with. It’s a matter of the usability of the usability principles, really. If we make them more specific, they become more concrete, they’re easier to interpret, and … easier for the designers to judge when they do not apply.

B&A: What’s the difference between someone doing a heuristic evaluation solo versus doing it in a team?

Nielsen: The way I developed heuristic evaluations back in the 1980s was meant to be an interaction between solo and the team, because you first do it individually, and then you combine a few people who have done the heuristic evaluation. That’s done very rarely, because it’s rare that a project team will have that many people on board who really know about usability.

“(I)t’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means.”

A common mistake about heuristics is thinking that it’s just a list of complaints. It’s not a list of complaints, it’s a list of issues relating back to the underlying fundamental principles. When you say that this button is wrong or this flows wrong, you say it’s wrong because it violates this well-known usability principle. And then, of course, people can argue. They can say, “no, it does not violate this principle,” and then you would have a discussion about that, which is a great method of illuminating and getting insight into the design.

B&A: What are the most important skills for a usability specialist to have?

Nielsen: I would say experience. It’s an unfortunate thing to say, because you can’t acquire experience other than by doing it. This is a discipline where you will always start off being bad and you end up being good. You only get to be good by slogging through several initial projects where you didn’t do that well, and then you get better and better. I think that being a truly great usability specialist comes from having 10 years of experience and having seen a very large number of different designs, different technologies, different types of users — a very broad variety of experience.

The benefit of usability, though, is that it is such a powerful method, and the return on investment is so huge that even if you don’t do that great a job at it —maybe you don’t get a return of 100-to-1 and you only get a return of 20-to-1 — that’s still a huge return investment. Even the very first usability project someone does, and they mess up everything, it’s still going to be positive, and it’s going to be a great learning experience for them personally, and their team is going to get value out of the investment as well. Just keep doing it and doing it and doing it.

It’s very much of an analytical and interpretive discipline as well. Intuition is completely the wrong word to use — it’s not a matter of intuition. It’s a matter of being very good at pattern matching, being able to spot small things, and hold together the big picture of what that really means. That’s where experience helps you — it helps you to do pattern matching and match patterns you’ve seen before, and the more things you’ve seen before, the better you can do that.

There’s definitely a big evangelizing and propaganda component as well, so having good communication skills is very important too.

B&A: Are there any usability specialists you particularly admire or whom you took guidance from?

Nielsen: I did actually. I’ll say that two of them are actually colleagues at my company, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. They are two incredibly great people. Another one I’d like to mention who’s now retired is John Gould. He worked at IBM in the 1980s. He developed a lot of the early approaches and for any question you could come up with he’d say, “OK, you can do a study of that.” He was just such an empirical guy that it was incredible.

Another person is Tom Landauer, who worked at Bell for many, many years. I was privileged to work with him for four years when I worked there as well. He was very much on the measurement side: “We can quantify this. We can estimate these things.”

I’d like to mention one more person … I never worked with, Ted Nelson, who was the guy who kind of invented hypertext. He got me into this feeling that we shouldn’t accept computers being difficult, that computers can be a personal empowerment tool. I read a lot of his writings when I was in grad school. His writing is really what got me going in this area in the first place back in the 1970s.

B&A: How many users do you yourself observe in the average month?

Nielsen: I probably sit with too few users, actually. Probably less than 10. It ought to be many more. In my own defense, I’ll say that I’ve done it for many years, and the learning is cumulative. I run a lot of projects where someone else will sit with the user, but I’ll still monitor very closely what goes on. I would still say that it’s very important to sit with the user as well. People should continue to do that forever — you never get enough of that. In particular, for someone who’s starting out in usability, I would say 20 or 30 a month would be a good goal to have, so that you can try to run a study every week.

B&A: Will there be new methodologies for user research in the future, or will we keep refining the ones we have right now?

Nielsen: I think mainly we will keep refining the ones we have. Of course, you never know if some completely new thing will come up, but I think it’s not likely. The classic methodology was developed in the 1970s and early 1980s. John Gould was one of the big people doing that and I learned a lot from him. That was pretty much established by then: how to do measurement studies and all that.

“Usability has very much seemed like a black art … Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.”

Then, in the late 1980s, I reacted a bit against my own mentors and said, “These are all great methods, but they take too long, and a lot of projects won’t do them if they’re not at a big, rich company like IBM.” So, we developed discount usability methodologies, which was a faster way of doing these things.

Since 1990 there hasn’t been that much change. I think it’s pretty slow-moving because it doesn’t relate to technology, which changes all the time. It relates to humans and the process of accommodating human needs, which doesn’t change very much.

B&A: Do you ever feel like discount usability methods can be misused?

Nielsen: I think there could be cases where someone does a heuristic without truly understanding the principles. Or you might have someone who tests one user and says, “Let’s go with that.” But in general I think that the methods are so powerful that they actually hold up pretty well even if they’re abused.

I read recently somebody who had criticized the idea of doing studies with a small number of users with the argument that you cannot judge the severity of the usability problems because you don’t have enough instances of observation to know the frequency with which it occurs. This is a circular argument, a self-fulfilling prophecy because you are accepting in their argument that the only way you can judge the severity of a problem is by having a statistically accurate assessment of it’s frequency. I’m arguing that after having had observed it a few times, you can, with the insight that comes from experience, estimate the severity pretty well — good enough anyway. The real issue in severity ratings is that you’ve got to do a cost-benefit analysis.

B&A: What’s your take on information architecture?

Nielsen: The first question I have is what it really even is. I tend to operate under the definition that it’s the structuring of an information space. I view that as being different from information design, which has to deal with how you present the information once you’ve found it, or interaction design, which is a matter of flow through a transaction or task. I know that some people like to use the words information architecture to apply to everything, which is what I would tend to call user experience. That’s purely a matter of what terminology you feel like using. I tend to think that user experience is built of these components: how are things structured, how it is presented, how do you flow through it, and other things like how is it advertised.

B&A: What’s next for you and the Nielsen Norman Group?

Nielsen: Trying to drive usability more broadly toward that larger set of design firms, really trying to encapsulate it to make it more portable. Usability has very much seemed like a black art. I myself have often said, “Well, you can just test that.” Well, that is true. Many things are testable, but at the same time we have to broaden the scope to make it even cheaper, even more accessible, get even more people doing it.

There’s another trend as well which is tackling deeper issues that have been neglected in the past that need to be more in the forefront. Things like users with disabilities, international users, much more focus on task analysis and field studies — those are some of the other things we’re pushing now.

Recently I’ve been pushing the notion of doing discount field studies. Field studies don’t need to consist of five anthropologists taking a year to do a project. We’ve had a seminar at our conference on simplified field studies, which I personally think is a good seminar. But, empirical data shows that people don’t want to do this. You can go to the conference and see people crammed into sessions on everything else, but then you go into the field studies seminar and there’s only 30 people or so. We are pushing it, but we’re not getting enough acceptance of this idea of the simplified field study.

B&A: Who do you think does a good job dealing with content online?

Nielsen: Very few actually. I can’t come up with any great examples — it’s still so print-oriented. My own articles aren’t that great either, actually. I’m very verbose in my writing style. It needs to be very punchy and very short, and it’s very hard to write that way.

There’s more linking happening today with all of the weblogs, which is kind of nice, but I think the commentary is often not that great. The reason is that I think weblogs tend to emphasize this stream of consciousness posting style, which I don’t think is good—that’s not respectful of the readers’ time. What’s good about weblogs is that they’ve broadened the number of authors, but at the same time they’ve removed that feeling that the writing is really being edited.

B&A: If you weren’t doing usability, what do you think you’d be doing?

Nielsen: I would probably be a university professor of something or other. When I think back to when I was a kid, I had a lot of different interests and things I was good at, which I think was one of the reasons I ended up in usability. You have be good at communicating, you have to know about technology, you have to understand interaction and human behavior. There’s all these different angles that pull together very nicely in usability. It’s good for a person who’s broad in the types of things they’re good at.

I might have ended up as a historian, I might have been a mathematician, I don’t know. I think that being a professor is the most likely. The reason I got into usability is that it’s a discipline that gets interesting when you go into the actual practice of it. There’s actually not that much theory, and it’s not that exciting actually.

Chad Thornton works as a Usability Specialist in the User Experience Group at Intuit. He has done similar work at Achieva, the American Museum of Natural History, and Pomona College, where he received his degree in Biology.

Making Emotional Connections Through Participatory Design

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Experience design and user experience have become overused, often confusing buzzwords. Regardless of their meaning, most of the people we talk to believe that the desired end result is an emotional connection between a person and her experience with a product or service. When a company is able to make them, such connections can have a positive impact on the profitability and sustainability of the company’s brand.

Unlike other approaches to understanding users, participatory design assumes that users should play an active role in the creative process.

In attempts to make these connections, “touch points,” or areas where people come in contact with a brand, are typically identified and designed. In experience design, these touch points are not bound by a single design discipline, and the interactions between various touch points are critical in making the desired emotional connection. For example, in the area of retail, customers can shop online, through a catalogue, at a store, or over the phone. Most people tend to use a combination of these approaches. They will first learn about a given category, formulate their requirements, and then find the best deal. Each interaction is a touch point that shapes the user’s overall experience.

Picking the right touch point combinations
In order to exhaustively identify the right touch points, new tools for idea generation, such as scenarios and personas, have emerged. In most cases, these tools tend to be based upon the cognitive or functional elements of what users want or need. The tools can be generated either by brainstorming or through research ranging from quantitative to ethnographic. These tools can help put a human face on users and unite a design team behind a common goal.

While these tools can be very useful to an interdisciplinary team, they are only as good as the beliefs and assumptions upon which they are founded. We have heard about numerous design processes and approaches for making emotional connections, yet many of these approaches were founded upon assumptions that proved to be incorrect. For example, brainstorming user or customer needs can lead to unvalidated assumptions about users. When based upon limited information or faulty assumptions, tools can focus a design team—and ultimately a business—on an objective that does not result in an emotional connection.

To increase the probability of making an emotional connection, and to identify opportunities to make such a connection, better information is needed at the fuzzy front end of the design process. Ideally, the people who bring alive a business’s various touch points (the cashiers in the store or the interaction designers, for example) need to understand what users want and how they want to feel. To do this, they need to gain access to the dreams and imaginations of the target users. If they are successful, a company can begin to see its future through the eyes of the people who will pay for its products or services. This information is often difficult to obtain from just talking to people or observing their behavior, and these difficulties have led to the misconception that people do not know what they want or cannot tell you what they want. We believe, though, that people have a latent sense of what they want, which may not be easily expressed through conversations or interviews.

Participatory design has emerged as a response to these difficulties. Unlike other approaches to understanding users, participatory design assumes that users should play an active role in the creative process: users envision the future by identifying the defining moments from their perspective. These moments can highlight critical touch points and the desired feelings associated with them, which serve as a foundation for emotional connections.

Through years of efforts to understand people and their experiences, we have come to believe that:

  • All people are creative.
  • All people have dreams.
  • People project their needs onto ambiguous stimuli.
  • People are driven to make meaning and will fill in what is unsaid or unseen.

From these principles, we have learned to create exercises that merge psychology, market research, and design. These exercises place the tools for ideation directly in the hands of the target users and enable them to express their desired experiences.

Using participatory design techniques

  • To offer suggestions for creating participatory design exercises, we will discuss three main areas:
  • the tools for the exercises,
  • the exercises, and
  • the ordering and combining of exercises based upon your project objectives.

These exercises can be executed with groups or individuals where they work, live, and play, or in research facilities.

Focus group respondents doing exercises within a lab environment   Participatory design exercises being conducted within the family room
Focus group respondents doing exercises within a lab environment.   Participatory design exercises being conducted within the “family room.”

Tools for participatory design techniques

Typical items used to create participatory design exercises   Three-dimensional participatory design components
Typical items used to create participatory design exercises.   Three-dimensional participatory design components.
Toolkit for mapping the ideal outdoor patio experience   Toolkit for expressing feelings surrounding TV experiences
Toolkit for mapping the ideal outdoor patio experience.   Toolkit for expressing feelings surrounding TV experiences.
User being creative through participatory design exercises   Thinking through his experience while creating a collage
User being creative through participatory design exercises.   Thinking through his experience while creating a collage.
Click each image to enlarge.

The tools for participatory design exercises resemble items in an elementary school classroom and can be purchased at office, craft, or teacher supply stores. Scissors, glue sticks, poster boards, scrap book pages, stickers or printouts with words or pictures, cameras, playful shapes, and markers are typical items. Stickers or printouts with words or images are especially useful because they can used to express items, feelings, actions, features, etc. For three-dimensional or interactive products, Legos or building blocks may be used.

Exercises can be developed to express cognitive, emotional, aspirational, and procedural issues. They can also be developed to enable the embodiment of ideas. In creating the exercise, both the choice of words and images and instructions for the exercise must be considered.

Emotional exercises tend to ask people to describe an experience and use words that describe feelings: careful, alert, relaxed, etc. The images are tend to show people expressing emotion or elements which tend to drive elicit these emotions.

Procedural exercises usually involve asking a person to describe a current or aspired process. They use action or activity words, such as: think, create, shop, buy, etc. The images are typically cartoon-type drawings that express actions or items associated with these actions.

The act of laying out the words and images and the choice of placement on the paper or poster board enable participants to map out much more than could be kept in their conscious memory during a conversation. They also give the participants a chance to notice and articulate their latent feelings. Participants often mention that the act is fun and therapeutic.

The “path of expression”
In experimenting with many of these exercises, we have discovered an approach that involves asking users to imagine the future of a business based upon their needs and aspirations. What follows is a preliminary explanation of what we have learned. We call this the “path of expression.”

The path of expression

Sample workbook exercise used for participant immersion
Sampght=orkbook exercise used for participant immersion. Click this and each following image to enlarge.
Research participant explaining her past, present, and aspired experiences   Collage expressing current and aspired experience
Research participant explaining her past, present, and aspired experiences.   Collage expressing current and aspired experiences.
Map depicting out of the box set-up experience with consumer electronics   User-defined map of information architecture for a self-help CD
Map depicting out of the box set-up experience with consumer electronics.   User-defined map of information architecture for a self-help CD.
Map depicting the ideal experience for computer purchasing   Model of a user-defined remote control for a child’s playroom
Map depicting the ideal experience for computer purchasing.   Model of a user-defined remote control for a child’s playroom.

The first step is to get research participants immersed in and aware of their daily experiences surrounding the area of focus. This brings latent daily experiences into their conscious memory. A variety of self-documentation exercises can be applied, such as scrapbooks or storytelling exercises.

After becoming aware of her experiences relative to given subject, a person is ready to express associated emotions. In this step, the participant begins to articulate her feelings and the causes of those emotions to herself and then to the research or design team. We tend to use emotive words and images in a collage.

Asking participants to dream about an ideal or aspired experience is the next step in the process. It is often a good idea to get people to think about how the experience should feel in abstract terms. Collages are a useful tool at this point, as are maps of processes or events. In most cases, these contain both cognitive and emotional elements. Collages can also be used to ask participants to describe an experience over time or to contrast a current experience to an aspired one.

After getting participants to imagine how they want to feel, they are prepared to create solutions that will provide their aspired experiences. The opportunities for exercises at this point can range from mapping a process or event to embodying an interface, information architecture, or product.

Identifying key moments and emotions
The results of these activities are ideas from the imagination and aspirations of the target users. Their ideas are usually unbiased by competitive, technical or manufacturing constraints or by industry expertise. By identifying the key moments in their desired experiences, emotions associated with those moments, and the specific components that can provide these feelings, a foundation for applying the processes of experience design is established. The team can begin to focus their creativity and expertise to design for the desired experience. Opportunities to make an emotional connection become clear, actionable, and inspirational.

These opportunities may be uncovered during the actual research process, but in many cases, the resulting data, information, and artifacts need to be thoroughly and rigorously analyzed to find patterns and themes. We have explored and continue to explore approaches for analysis; however, the issue is too broad to be discussed within this article. We do know, though, that there is no substitute for the design team hearing and seeing firsthand the ideas generated from the imaginations of the people whom their creativity will ultimately serve.

Yahoo! Mail: Simplicity Holds Up Over Time

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Email was one of the first applications to move to the web, and the first to find widespread popularity among users.

In many respects, email is the ideal web application: it’s an application that people often need access to when they’re away from their “home” environment, and the core user tasks (reading and writing) are easily accommodated with standard HTML interface elements.

As a result, it should come as little surprise that the basic flow of Yahoo! Mail has hardly changed at all since the portal first acquired the RocketMail service in 1997. But rather than offering an outdated solution to the web-based email problem, Yahoo! Mail demonstrates the lasting effectiveness of a simple approach.

The application is extremely conservative with page designs. Almost all user interaction takes place across only three pages: the “message list” folder view, the “message display” page, and the “compose” page.

Another demonstration of this conservative approach is in the site’s error handling. The entire application contains only one standalone error page (the “no account found” page in the login flow), and this seems more likely to be the result of a back-end limitation than a deliberate design choice.

A few awkward spots do appear in the flow. An empty search result set returns a search result page with a “no messages found” message, rather than bringing the user directly back to the query interface to retry the search.

Downloading attachments is a two-step process, which seems like one step too many. The dichotomy between viewing and editing contact information in the address book seems like an artificial distinction whose purpose is unclear. But these are really minor quibbles; overall, Yahoo! Mail is a model of streamlined interaction design.

Yahoo! Mail diagram
Poster-sized diagram ( PDF, 37K) | Letter-sized diagram ( PDF, 100K)

Note: The date on the diagram indicates when the snapshot of the system was taken. Yahoo! Mail may be substantially different now.

Jesse James Garrett has been working in the Internet industry since 1995. In the information architecture community, Jesse is recognized as a leading contributor to the development of this rapidly evolving discipline.

When the Show Must Go On, It’s Time to Collaborate Or Die

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It was a tense meeting. Forty-eight hours before launch and a key multimedia effect was still not ready. The developers were trying to catch up on a long punch list of bugs; the designers wanted last-minute changes to things that were already on the “done” list. No one knew what to do. But there was a deadline, and the reviewers were coming. As a team, we walked through the schedule again and again until we had a plan. The next day, the video was edited, the shop finished the screens, and the production crew walked through the critical paths. Two nights later, the cannon fired, the song began, the screen dropped into place, the film played just as we’d envisioned it, and the cast members of “A Man’s A Man” took their bows before an appreciative live audience. Another show had opened.

Photo from "A Man’s A Man"
“A Man’s A Man” by Bertold Brecht Hyde Park Festival Theater, 1986. Directed by Tim Mayer. Lighting by Whitney Quesenbery. With Bill Murray, Stockard Channing, Gerrit Graham, Mark Metcalf, Brian Doyle-Murray, Bob Halley, Jr.

I became a lighting designer because I was in love with live theater, where lighting only exists in real time as part of the performance. Certainly, it has a utilitarian role: to put enough light on the stage so that the audience can see the actors. But the lighting also helps shape the performance by providing the color and overtones that add meaning and layers and depth. The same mix of art and technology, craft and discipline exists in user interface design.

Fast forward a few years, and it’s another tense meeting. Our demo was part of a presentation to the board of directors who were voting on whether to fund a new multimedia news service, but the video encoding was taking longer than we expected, and we weren’t sure if the bookmark feature would be intuitive enough. More late nights and it all came together. Another project launched.

As different as my two careers may seem from the outside, I never thought they were so different. Switching from theater design to interface design, I traded a forty-foot wide proscenium for one that was just seventeen inches across, and the big gestures of the stage for the more subtle movement of a hand on a mouse.

Are we all on the same team?
One thing that software and theater have in common is how many different skills are required. There are individual performance artists who pretty much do it all — write, direct, design, perform — creating perfect gems of performances, just like there are personal websites conceived and created by a single person. But most productions are the results of work by dozens of different people. At the center is the director, surrounded by the production team: designers, choreographer, and musical directors. Each of them has a team of people to create the design. It takes a lot of collaboration to keep everyone’s work in sync. We used to ask, “Are we all designing the same show?”

Sometimes we weren’t. When there was no shared vision–no overall design concept — I would end up in a situation like trying to light a musical comedy with a brown set and dark, brown wool costumes. Brown wool soaks up all the light and dulls the production’s sparkle. The lights may be bright and the actors perky, but the whole effect doesn’t hang together, and the audience can always tell.

But when all the elements work together, the effect is profound.

On the opening night of a new opera that I lit, the curtain opened on a scene that looked just like the pencil sketches from our design brainstorming sessions. Everything had come together to bring that vision to life. It wasn’t just that the stage looked like the picture. A performer told me that it felt like the only place where that opera could possibly take place, that it just “felt right” to be singing that story on that stage.

Original sketch for Tomorrow and Tomorrow   Actual scene from for Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Original sketches and the actual scene for “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” by Timothy Sullivan Center for Contemporary Opera, 1987. This one-act opera is an interior monologue, recounting an unhappy and lonely life. Directed by Stephen Jarrett. Scenery by Robert Edmonds. Lighting by Whitney Quesenbery. With Suzan Hanson.

A theatrical production includes several teams of people. Just in the physical production alone, there are scenery, lighting, costume and sound designers, supported by carpenters, electricians, drapers and a whole raft of craft shops to build and install the sets, props, effects and lights. As many as 50 craftspeople may be working in a theater just a day before opening night. That’s a lot of people, especially for the speed with which shows are produced. The collaboration works only because the roles and responsibilities are well defined and respected.

Despite all my years away from theater, I could still draw a competent light plot. It would not reflect all the new equipment and the design would probably look out of style, but an electrician would still understand it. The design artifacts communicate not only within a single craft, but between disciplines, and they are the language of the collaboration.

We are just beginning to understand all of the roles in designing the user experience. From the brand design that expresses the promise to the user interface that communicates it to the code that supports the functionality and interaction, all of the designers need to be speaking with one voice and a language that lets them work together.

Light plot Cue sheet
There is a standard set of paper work, or design artifacts, that includes the light plot, hookup, cue sheets and, to help the designer, a magic sheet.

If you can’t find it… it might as well not be there.
A lot of the work of putting on a play is simple craft. In lighting design, that means putting all the pieces together in a technically competent way so circuits don’t blow, lights don’t fall, and fire laws are followed. You need to have the lights placed so the entire stage can be lit, effects can be created… and the budget met. Finally, after all the planning and preparation, you go into the theater and create the cues — the looks, timing, and changes in the lighting — and coordinate them with the work of the actors and the other designers. And here, you get a few moments for inspiration and art.

When those moments come, it’s easy to forget that it’s not all about the lighting. The audience comes to see the play, and your work is just one part of the whole thing. Pursue gorgeous chiaroscuro at the expense of illumination and you get lighting that creates an effect of dark shapes. “The ones at the top that don’t move… those are the scenery. The shapes moving at the bottom… those are the actors.” When that happens, the designer has forgotten that, as important as the design is, the audience doesn’t come for the lighting or leave “singing the scenery.” Worse, instead of being wowed, they may just be baffled. It’s hard to hear when you can’t see the actors’ faces, and the brilliant nuances of the design are probably lost on an audience that came for the play.

I used to wonder why so many experienced professionals couldn’t get it right on the first try. Why were scripts that seemed so obviously bad on opening night ever produced? Wasn’t the very heart of the profession being able to visualize the results in advance? But what you can’t see in advance is how it will all fit together. You are supposed to be designing not only the same show, but the one the audience wants to see. That’s why those preview performances are so important: they give the production a chance to add the audience to the collaboration and to knit all the elements together more tightly.

Usability testing… coming to a theater near you
When you’ve worked on a show for several weeks, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to walk in the door and spend two hours seeing the performance unfold. You know all the nuances and characters and turns of plot. But what’s the experience like for an average audience? In software design, the solution to this dilemma is usability testing. In theater, it’s previews. A production used to have out-of-town tryouts. A show would play in smaller cities, testing the production in front of live (and paying) audiences until it was ready for Broadway. Other plays are developed in workshop or regional theater productions. Either way, it gives everyone a chance to see the play “on its feet” and make changes before they face the New York critics. It’s a nightly, elaborate usability test, as audience reaction is scrutinized and the production adjusted (whether minor changes or massive rewrites) until it all works for the audience.

One year, the Big Apple Circus included a famous clown, a top star of the one-ring European circus, with an act that was completely different from the red-nose physical humor of American clowns. His first night, he bombed. The kids just stared at him with no laughs and hardly even a giggle. We all waited for the tantrum, for the star to blame the audience. Instead, the next morning, while we were working on the lights, he brought his trunk into the ring and quietly rehearsed. That night, he got a few laughs, and over the next days he continued to work, changing some bits, dropping some, adding new ones. By the end of the week, he was getting the big laughs and the applause. He didn’t do it by abandoning his style of clowning, but by listening carefully to the audience and learning how to speak to them.

A play is different to everyone who sees it, just like an interface is different to every user. The interaction between the performers and the audience is part of the magic. Software is like that to me: a dance between person and machine, different in small, subtle ways every time, something that comes to life only in the user experience. It’s not surprising that when I was seduced away from theater by a small beige box, it was to design the user interface. The interface is live in the interaction, taking place in real time.

For more information

Want to know more about theatrical design? The two books I have read and re-read are:

Each was a pioneer, changing our vision of how theater is made.

Whitney Quesenbery designs user interfaces for Cognetics Corporation, a design and usability company dedicated to creating excellent user experiences. She is the manager of the STC Usability SIG and a member of the board of directors for UPA.

The Evolving Homepage: The Growth of Three Booksellers

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Web design is expensive. Web designers earn upwards of $50,000 a year1, information architects earn even more.2 During the heyday of web design—the late 1990s—designing a large commercial website could cost as much as designing a medium-sized building. During this period, commercial websites were created and then often completely replaced with redesigned versions a short time later. Today the redesigning continues, albeit at a slower pace. What is the return on this design investment? A report on online ROI from Forrester finds that many commercial sites fail to even try to measure the effectiveness of design changes.3

What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies?

The web has been with us for about a decade now. We’ve seen some obvious trends, such as greater use of multimedia, search engines, and increasingly sophisticated markup techniques. But these trends were facilitated by changes in technology. What lessons have we learned about how design improves the interface between customers and companies? Perhaps we can start by asking how websites have actually changed over time, and from that we can learn how websites should change in the future.

To start working toward an answer, I compared three eCommerce sites: Borders.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and Amazon.com. Much of the media’s coverage of these websites, especially coverage of Amazon.com, discusses the business models, corporate cultures, and finances of the companies. Since the medium of interaction with these companies is the website, it’s ironic that the media rarely critiques the site design and its effect on business performance.

Because it is the homepage that carries the most responsibility for guiding customers, I examined the homepages of all three sites from a number of years, using screenshots from the Web Archive4. Presumably these large retailers had a great deal to gain, and lose, with these substantial online ventures. By comparing design decisions over time among the three sites, I hoped to discover lessons from their extensive and expensive design experience.

The companies
Competition is fierce in the online bookselling market, currently erupting in offers of “free shipping.” All three companies have annual revenues in the billions of dollars.

Barnes and Noble, which runs a large chain of stores in the United States, claims the largest audience reach of any bricks-and-mortar company with Internet presence.5 Yet, both they and Borders were put on the defensive when Amazon’s growth rocketed. During December, 2001 BarnesandNoble.com attracted over 10 million unique visitors,6 compared to Amazon’s 40 million visitors.7

Borders is the second largest bricks-and-mortar book chain in the U.S. 8 In April 2001, after operating their own online bookstore for several years, Borders announced an agreement to use Amazon’s eCommerce platform to power a co-branded website.

Amazon claims to be the leading online shopping site, having expanded their selection to music, video, auctions, electronics, housewares, computers and more.9 By February of 2002, Amazon, which had pursued a get-big-quick strategy typical of internet companies in the late 1990s, announced its first profitable quarter.10

Criteria
I first studied these sites quantitatively looking for clear trends over time. I then critiqued them in a more qualitative way based on my own experience as both an in-house website designer and as an information architecture consultant.

There are many criteria that could be examined in such a study. I limited myself to those that would, I hoped, reveal as much as possible about the business intent of the design. I looked at criteria such as the type and size of layout, the type and amount of navigation, the amount of images and text, and functionality specific to the industry. Detailed results can be seen in the attached spreadsheet (PDF, 75k).

Analysis

Chart showing growth in length of homepages over time
Click to enlarge.
Note: Missing data due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites use very long screens to display content on their homepages.
Using a browser window with a constant width, we can compare the vertical size of each site (all screen references assume an 800 by 600 pixel monitor). The Borders.com homepage grew from a vertical size of about 917 pixels in 1996 to over 3,000 pixels in 1999. Barnes and Noble’s homepage has hovered around 1,500 pixels for the last several years. Amazon’s homepage, which began at only 626 vertical pixels in 1995, stands at roughly 2,156 pixels today. In a web browser, that equals five scrolling screens of information.

Borders.com homepage above the fold, 1999
Borders.com above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage above the fold, 1999
Barnes and Noble above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.
Amazon homepage above the fold, 1999
Amazon above the fold (1999) Click to enlarge.

Note: Incomplete web pages are due to imperfect records at the Web Archive.

All three sites evolved to use three-column layouts.
In 1995 and 1996 respectively, Amazon and Borders.com used single-column layouts. By 1999, both of these sites as well as Barnes and Noble used three column layouts.

Amazon has consistently placed more links above the fold.
In 1999, the Borders site displayed only about eight links “above the fold” (the top portion of the screen that is viewable without scrolling). Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon had significantly more links above the fold in 1999, 30 and 48 respectively. Amazon averaged 43 links above the fold between 1999 and 2002 versus only 27 links for Barnes and Noble during the same period.

Through the years, the density of links on Borders.com was half of that on Barnes and Noble or Amazon.
The density of links has varied over time, but as of 2002 both Barnes and Noble and Amazon stood at about one link for every 15 vertical pixels of screen real estate. Historically, the highest link density at Borders.com was one link for every 28 vertical pixels.

Amazon communicates using images and links rather than text descriptions.
From 1999 through 2001, Amazon used more images and fewer text descriptions than Barnes and Noble. In 2002, both sites used about 560 words per page, yet the density of words was 33 percent lower on Amazon; Amazon distributes the words across the page as links rather than bunching them together in paragraphs. Over time, Barnes and Noble is becoming more like Amazon in this respect.

All sites eventually included navigation targeted at specific audiences.
Audience-based navigation—navigation labeled for a particular audience—appeared on Borders.com in 1998, on Barnes and Noble in 2000, and on Amazon as early as 1999.

Invitations to subscribe to an email newsletter were offered inconsistently.
Borders.com didn’t include this feature until 1998. Barnes and Noble included it only in 1998 and 2001. Only Amazon consistently included this feature from 1995 to 2002.

Online and offline design
So what lessons can we learn about how these sites changed over time? How has design contributed to Amazon’s high growth and significant lead over the others? In general, Amazon found a winning formula and applied it consistently over time. In my mind, the successful design elements emulated offline shopping experiences in many ways.

Personally, I was surprised at how long these homepages had grown. Combined with the three-column layout, each page contains a great deal of information. This is quite like the perceptual experience of browsing in a physical store. When you walk down an aisle in a bricks-and-mortar store you can visually scan the shelves quite quickly. On these websites, the long, scrolling pages are analogous to aisles (major groupings of items) and the columns are analogous to shelves (more specific groupings of items). With a similarly natural, efficient motion, a visitor can scroll down the page and visually scan the three columns of product listings.

Amazon homepage
Amazon homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.
Barnes and Noble homepage
Barnes and Noble homepage
(January, 2002)
Click to enlarge.

Amazon’s higher number and density of links, and placement of those links above the fold, also reminds me of the aggressive product positioning in a physical store. It’s like walking into a food market and immediately being overwhelmed with rows and rows of colorful fresh fruit, stimulating our eyes and engaging our appetites.

The prominent use of images and sparse use of text on Amazon again harks back to physical objects with simple labeling.

The arrival of navigation intended for specific audiences seemed inevitable. Especially for the book market, a children’s section was developed surprisingly late on these sites given the disproportionately high revenues that come from children’s books in traditional shopping venues.

In general, many of the functions of these pages have become commodities: search engines, shopping carts, authentication and store locators. But Amazon’s extensive personalization sets this site apart functionally. Personalization mimics a personal shopper or a local store employee who knows you. While the online recommendations aren’t always right on, neither is a human assistant.

Rate of change
Many studies have found that our performance using a software application improves over time as we become familiar with its interface. Gerald Lohse and his associates translated this finding into the realm of eCommerce websites using statistical analysis.11 They also found that website visitors learn to use a site more efficiently over time and that this increases their purchase rate. In simpler terms, it means familiar sites are easier for people to use, so familiar sites are where visitors will make purchases.

It follows that sites that can be learned more quickly will more quickly become familiar, increasing the amount of purchases. So a faster learning rate equals a higher purchase rate.

Furthermore, Lohse found that familiarity with a particular website makes visitors less likely to switch to a competitive site because of the effort and time needed to become familiar with another site. He refers to this behavior as “cognitive lock-in.” Essentially, we are creatures of habit. He applied this analysis to several eCommerce websites by measuring the number of visits per person, length of sessions, and timing and frequency of purchases. He found the learning rate significantly faster at Amazon than at Barnes and Noble.

The rate of design change supports this finding. Amazon had no major redesigns from 1999 to 2002, only adapting their design gradually to changing needs. Barnes and Noble significantly altered their navigation in 2000 and 2001. Borders.com implemented major homepage changes in 1998 and 2000. Fewer redesigns make it easier for visitors to remain familiar with the site.

Conclusion
Many design elements on these websites are reminiscent of physical store layout, an approach to web design we should investigate further. Like physical stores, those designs should only change gradually to keep visitors buying. Continued analysis of other sites will hopefully help confirm or deny these findings.

It may be a fallacy to state, “Amazon is a successful business, therefore their website design is successful,” since many factors have contributed to their business success. And yet it’s hard to imagine them having such great success with a mediocre site. A similar eCommerce site launching today could do worse than examine and emulate the design elements that Amazon utilizes.

View all End Notes
Victor Lombardi writes, designs, and counsels, usually in New York City. His personal website is http://www.noisebetweenstations.com.