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Response: The Backlash against Jakob Nielsen and What it Teaches Us

Source: UN, 31 July 2002
Submitted by George Olsen

I see the backlash against Nielsen as the convergence of several factors (see Ann's Rant: Stop, or Dr Nielsen gets it! - the Backlash in Usability?).

* Envy. Let's be honest. Nielsen has become extraordinarily successful, in part because he's done a good job marketing himself and his message. For ordinary folks labouring in the trenches, often times having to try hard to even convince people of the value of what they're doing, it's easy to be a little resentful. And in certain circles, marketing yourself is looked upon as somehow "dirty". On the latter point, let's get real. Selling yourself and your value is a part of life, whether you're a consultant or in-house employee. Either you learn to play the game, or you get pushed aside by those who do.

As far as Nielsen's success. More power to him. Say what you will, but he's definitely been giving away his thinking for years, even while others claimed they knew - but wouldn't tell - the proprietary secrets to creating successful user experience.

While you may not agree with everything Nielsen has to say, he's definitely provided a number of good tips on how to go about usability, and raised the awareness of user experience issues to a much broader audience - including those who sign the checques. The downside is that Nielsen's promoted "usability" as being synonymous with "user experience" to all these people and we'll be clarifying the difference for years to come I fear.

* While the Web involves a convergence of presentation, content and behaviour, Nielsen has historically taken a fairly narrow view that's focused around solely functionality. Hence his "Flash 99 percent bad" statement, ignoring that Flash might be appropriate for music or movie sites (of which I did more than a few of myself in years gone by) where the emphasis is on atmosphere and coolness. Just because Nielsen hasn't worked on marketing-oriented projects doesn't mean they're wrong.

I think part of it reflects his usability cognitive science/engineering roots, which as a field seems to focus solely rational left-brain activities, similar to the way economists argue human behavior can be reduced to mathematical formulas. (And like economics, I'd say this leads to equally dismal results in being useful to actual human affairs.)

The problem is that it ignores the emotional subjective side of human beings, which as marketers and brand strategists have long known, is foolish to ignore. Why do we enjoy a good meal when nutritionally it's no different than hospital food? Unfortunately, Nielsen's pronouncements have all too often been like a restaurant critic insisting we should all eat only a McDonald's, since after all it's the most efficient restaurant around.

I'm pleased to see Nielsen seems to finally be discovering there's more to life than utilitarianism (see User Empowerment and the Fun Factor), although I wonder if Don Norman didn't lock his partner away in the lab that week.

Part of Nielsen's narrow viewpoint I suspect is the result of a trap it's easy for "experts in the field" to fall into. Whatever clients Nielsen sees nowadays probably hired him because they agree with his views and their problems are suited for his approach. So he likely sees only sites that are compatible with his worldview.

But as I've mentioned, there are many sites that have different needs. Sometimes you want efficient service, sometimes you want a restaurant with a great atmosphere and the food is secondary, sometimes you're will to go to a dive with no atmosphere and surly service because the food is simply that good. An ideal restaurant combines the best of all three factors, but the balance will vary depending on the context.

It doesn't help that Nielsen site looks visually unappealing and is poorly organized - which is a basic failure to take a user-focused approach to the audiences he's trying to reach.

It's like dating. A long time ago I learned that since woman generally are into shoes (yes, I'm stereotyping), it was essential to make sure mine were well-maintained even though as a guy I didn't really notice whether they'd been shined in the last week. Sometimes you need to pay attention to things you don't think are important in order to communicate effectively.

It's symptomatic of larger problems I've seen with the usability field, which champions the user but all-too-often flat-out refuses to take a user-focused approach with our clients and co-workers. And then there's much wailing and gnashing of teeth that "they don't listen to us." Well, have we tried talking with them instead of to them?

* I was pleasantly surprised in our interview with Nielsen on Boxes and Arrows: Got usability? Talking with Jakob Nielsen that he was much more nuanced in his comments than he typically is in his public statements, which tend to be very black-and-white. I suspect these statements are the result of an unfortunate feedback loop that developed in public speaking - the more provocative you are, the more attention you get. So what are intended as guidelines tend to get presented as dictates.

However, for those of us who've had to deal with managers who've latched on to his "simple" solutions, it can be quite frustrating to get them to understand that things ain't always as simple as he paints them to be.

Likewise, we also have to contend with young and enthusiastic - but not highly experienced - usability people use Nielsen's ideas as a substitute for their own thinking. The fact that I've got years of experience in several fields relating to user experience doesn't seem to count for as much as the fact they know "what Jakob would do". Obviously, it's not Nielsen's fault that he's got zealots (who would probably simple-mindedly reduce even his most nuanced statements to slogan) but since his name is the one that's invoked, he gets to bear the brunt of people's irritation.

* Nielsen has had a bad habit of presenting personal opinions as research fact. The latest example is his rather bizarre claim 90% of (his proprietary and not-disclosed) usability guidelines will likely be achieved by 2017 (see Improving Usability Guideline Compliance).

A personal thorn in my side his been his insistence that blue is - and will forever be - the only appropriate colour for links. Now I have a background in graphic design and I know numerous ways to make clear something's a link. No, I don't have academic research to prove this, but I've got many a successful site. But yet, I still have to deal with business decision-makers who believe Nielsen has "proved" this point.

But in large part I think Nielsen's really just been a lightning rod for a larger backlash against problems within the HCI and usability fields.

* One issue I think is a backlash against an academic approach to HCI vs. a more pragmatic practitioner approach. I've seen a number of older HCI professionals who want to be researchers not problem solvers. Talking about how we create value for business isn't impolite, it's essential.

* It's a backlash against the major blindspots of HCI when it comes to graphic design and content strategy. I can't tell you how many back CHI research papers I've seen over the past decade where it was clear the researchers had no clue about basic design principles.

My favorite example from CHI 2001 was a paper that purported to show that animation didn't aid learning. Which is probably true when you use badly done animation for purposes it's not suited to.

At worse, there's an arrogance that HCI doesn't need to learn from other fields that aren't "academic" enough. Graphic design for a variety of reasons is a practitioner-oriented field so there's a relative dearth of research work. But there is centuries of beta-testing experience.

In light of that, I just have to laugh whenever I heard HCI researchers say we don't know how to design for the Web yet. No the Web isn't print, and no we don't fully understand how to design for it yet, but that doesn't mean the lessons learned from previous mediums are irrelevant either.

* It's also a backlash against the usability profession's all-too-often reluctance, even outright refusal, to engage in design rather than just researching and critiquing. More than anything I think this is the "cultural difference" between traditional HCI and new IA folks, who otherwise otherwise often do similar things. Obviously not all HCI folks are like this, but I've met far too many who aren't willing to design something without reams of data if they're willing to design at all- and then they whine about not being able to participate in the process early enough.

HCI and usability will either have to face up to these issues or face increasing irrelevancy as a field.

George Olsen
User Experience Architect
Interaction by Design


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