Chill out Jakob Nielsen

by Toby Ward — Recent musings by usability guru Jakob Nielsen underscore an over-zealous approach to web usability (that deserves context).
There’s a saying in the world of politics that applies to those who suffer from swelled egos and an intense self-absorption that rubs common folk the wrong way: “they’ve been reading too many of their own press clippings.” In other words, too many politicians dote on media attention and begin to think of themselves as ‘celebrity’ at the expense of humility and modesty.

In an over-zealous celebration of his 200th Alertbox column (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, September 29, 2003), the former Sun Microsystems usability engineer and usability guru raved about his success citing stats and kudos while condemning what he calls “usability’s enemies” while trumpeting his own patriotic duty to “defend humans from overly complex technology. Defending “humans” from “usability’s enemies”? Whoa….Jakob Nielsen has been reading too many of his own press clippings.

Spanking Jakob Nielsen

“We must consider that Jakob Nielsen is too myopic about the benefits of usability to the point of being just plain wrong,” says John S. Rhodes, in his column “Spanking Jakob Nielsen”.

“Jakob Nielsen is selling us a dream,” says Rhodes. “However, I'm terribly frustrated with some of his fantastic and unrealistic claims.”

Rhodes in particular was taking issue with another bizarre Nielsen exaggeration to the effect that "if we improved all the intranets in the world to the usability level achieved by the best 25% in our study, the world economy would save $311,294,070,513 per year” – for those counting the zeros, that’s 311 trillion dollars (U.S.).

Rhodes does go on to compliment Nielsen for all of his contributions to the Web and in particular, the subject of usability, as he should.

Nielsen is a web pioneer, the father of usability, and one of the Internet’s most important contributors. However, the Internet’s reputation suffers from too much volatility, uncertainty and even fear sparked by the dot-com meltdown, online fraud, spam and viruses, etc. What the Internet needs is credible, reasonable and rational champions. We need Jakob Nielsen’s brain power and his insights into ways of making the web more friendly, usable and accessible. What we don’t need is another huckster and ‘guru’ making outlandish, exaggerated claims that would embarrass even a terrorism adviser to George W. Bush.

Usability in Context

Usability is extremely important to the success of Internet, intranet and extranet sites. However, it’s only one of many necessary working components or contributions to a successful site. When evaluating the value of a site to an organization or person, I look at six major attributes (Prescient Digital Media Evaluation Methodology, © 2003 - 2008):
  • Design
  • Layout
  • Usability
  • Tools & Innovation
  • Content
  • Planning & Resources
Usability is just one of half a dozen criterion, with content, planning and resources (the intangible, behind-the-scenes operations and governance of a site) arguably the most important of the six. Usability plays its part, but it’s far from being the most critical component.

Millions have read Jakob Nielsen’s work and thousands have paid for his insight and with good reason – he is a web authority, pioneer and one of its biggest VIPs. I applaud Nielsen and his contributions and will continue to read his work. However, crazy exaggerations and incredible claims do nothing to enhance the reputation of a medium many of us have come to love and on which we depend.

Two words of advice for Jakob Nielsen: chill out! Your work speaks for itself and is helping to shape the future of one of the world’s most powerful media. But, as Jack Nicholson said in As Good As It Gets, “Sell crazy someplace else, we're all stocked up here.”

Toby Ward, a former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, is the President and Founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on Prescient’s CMS Blueprint service, or for a free copy of the white paper “Finding ROI”, please contact us.