Dualities of User Experience (Jakob Nielsen keynote)


[Sarah] Here’s Jakob Nielsen’s keynote speech
from our UX Conference in Las Vegas. [Jakob] Thank you Sarah, and thank you everybody
for coming here and spending the first part of your evening on serious
matters rather than the temptations outside. I want to talk about the
dualities of user experience, by which I mean various ways in which there’s not
just one simple, clean answer, but rather multiple things to consider. And so by
way of a little example of what I mean by dualities, we can look at these
two paintings: so the painter went down to the ocean and painted; on the right
you can see it’s a sunny day, it’s a calm beautiful inviting ocean: you really feel
like taking one of those small boats out, right, and go for little sail. On the
other hand, on the left you see dark threatening clouds, high dangerous waves,
and you feel like letting those boats stay on the shore. And you’re not gonna take that
little boat out and risk anything. So which of these two paintings
is now the true painting of the ocean? And the answer of course is that that’s
not a reasonable question to ask because both are true paintings of the ocean:
sometimes the ocean looks inviting and sunny and calm; and sometimes the
ocean looks dark and scary and dangerous with high waves. Both are true, and that’s
what I mean by dualities. So to move to another art form: “it was the best of
times, it was the worst of times.” Famous opening line from A Tale of Two Cities,
and that applies to UX as well I think. Maybe some of you have this feeling that
“oh, it’s the worst of times” when you struggle through something in your
project, or your company doesn’t want to value UX the way we think it should be
valued, or there are various other problems. I would have to say that based
on my personal perspective I see more so it’s the best of times for UX.
Because relative to my time in the field, — which is 36 years — honestly most of you guys don’t even know how bad it was back then.
But in the mainframe era, the interfaces were truly terrible: The
respect or attention to user experience was not only zero, it was actually negative, in that companies
thought that we shouldn’t bother with this: People should be grateful
that they are allowed to use our precious computer, was the attitude at the time.
And on the other hand, today we probably have in many ways the best user interfaces
we’ve ever had. This is not to say that they’re perfect: that computers can or should
not get better. It’s just that it is historically, I think, more so
the best of times. But there’s also that dark side that it’s the worst of times
quite often in pragmatic situations where you trying to achieve something,
that you know would have high return on investment for the company and yet they
don’t listen. So we do have those kind of both of those situations being there.
But let’s not only think about the doom and gloom, but let’s think also about,
honestly, we have come a really long way. I mean, I feel good though it could be much
better. But still we have come a long way. So this is maybe the most famous duality: “UI vs. UX” and there are so many drawings: like meme style
pictures and the like already of this, that I’m not gonna bother you with one more.
But it is something that’s very often discussed: what’s the difference
or distinction between UI and UX. Well, both are important: this is really my
duality message here. The surface design, how it was on the screen:
I mean that’s super important. It’s not just a matter of like, it looks good. It’s a
matter of, can people understand the buttons, the menus, the commands. I mean
that is very important: the surface design. On the other hand it is also very
important with the deep design: the true total user experience — what are we doing
for people. Both have to be good. So it does us no good to have a really
great user interface — even let’s say have very high usability so people understand
every possible feature on the screen, but yet it’s a user interface to
the wrong thing — to something that people don’t want or don’t need. Well why have a
wonderful user interface to the wrong thing? That’s gonna be a lost, failed
product: it’s not gonna do any good. Well, on the other hand, let’s say we have all
the right features, the great deep design: we’re solving a problem that people really
want to have solved and we would do them a lot of good, if only they could use
these features. But the features are represented by cryptic commands, and
weird options, and very convoluted confused navigation system, and etc etc.
And therefore people can’t use the features. Well OK, a feature that people
can’t use might as well not be in the product anyway. And so great feature
design, great deep design, terrible surface design, might as well also not
exist. So both have to at the same time be great: That’s a true great example of
duality. Another duality: Is UX important or not? Well OK, we are at a
conference that’s called the UX Conference, so we are maybe a little bit
biased in our response to this question. We tend to sort of maybe think that UX
is important. And I would certainly say, yes, it is important. We have a
session on UX measurement & ROI, and return on investment can be really, really
high for doing good UX work. We have so many cases where companies
vastly expand the business value of doing good design versus bad design.
It is really important, really worth doing well: yes! On the other hand is it [UX]
actually the most important or the only important thing in the world, or in a
company? And the answer is clearly no. I mean there are many other things that
are important, and often maybe even more important. And so as an analogy, think
about something completely different: Accounting. OK is accounting
important or secondary? Well it’s important. I mean if you have bad
accounting, you have no clue about how your cash flow is going: well, one day
you’re gonna wake up and you can’t meet payroll. Not good, right. On the other hand
is accounting the most important thing in a company? You have that
complete control over every dime, but you have to
have a good product, good marketing, good management, good many other
things, for this company to be successful. So accounting cannot be said to be the
only thing or maybe even the most important thing, but it is important.
UX: same thing. So what are we emphasizing and working
on, what’s important for us as a discipline? Product or process? So by product, I mean the thing we’re designing. By process, I mean how we go about
designing it. And in my career I’ve actually studied or worked one both of
these two. So I’m going to show here two books I wrote: on the left we have
*Designing Web Usability*, that was all about product: That book has a lot of
guidelines for what makes for a good website or bad website. We didn’t say
anything about how you make that website, just what it should be. So that was
true product -focused. This is how a good website is so this, or
conversely, how a bad website is, so you don’t do those things. Well the book
on the right; *Usability Engineering*. All about process. All about the systematic
approach to improving usability. It didn’t talk at all about what you were
designing. In fact the book is kind of from before the web really took off, and
yet all these methods described in the book like user testing and heuristic evaluation
etc. All these methods are the exact ones we have applied since then to
find out what makes for a good or bad website, and also even newer products,
for mobile stuff, watch-based computers etc. You know the methodology,
the process, applies to all these different products. So I would definitely say,
and this is duality, where we can truly say that both sides are really important
and both of them need attention. Now I will first talk a little bit about that
product aspect of UX and then we’ll turn later on to the process aspect. So my
first duality is do we even have a user interface at all? There’s a big trend actually toward ZERO
user interface products. Various artificial intelligence products that work as
agency; you don’t have to push any buttons or any commands.
The computer will do things *for* you. And there’s also voice-based interfaces,
which don’t have visible user interface. I mean they do have a user
interface, because when I speak a command and you listen to the response. And they
have a lot by the way of usability issues, because voice is an ephemeral
media type. So as soon as I have spoken something, it’s gone. And as soon as the
computer has responded, that’s also gone. I can’t look at it, like I can look at
an error message on a computer screen or I can look at a set of icons and try to
decide which one to click on. So there’s a large usability downside to these, but
they also have certain various advantages as well. So that is a big
trend toward reducing or even eliminating things you can click on, and things
you can read, and things that users should actively interact with. But at
the same time we have a converse or opposite tendency toward user interfaces everywhere.
And we have more and more user interfaces, as ever more products have a
user interface in them. Are computerized, software driven. I mean it
used to be that user interface was for computer design: originally
mainframe design then later on PC design, and later on mobile design (and mobile
is just PC in your pocket) so same basic thing. But now your toothbrush
has a user interface and is on the Internet, and your
your bathroom scale is on the Internet, and so forth. Everything is on the Internet
and online and Internet of Things, and these things combine to form,
I’ll say, a myriad or many many many user interfaces that the person has to
deal with. At the same time many of these devices have very bad user interfaces.
Partly because they don’t have that big screen which allows us to
follow a lot of usability guidelines of giving people good feedback and such.
And also partly because they’re just, honestly, they’re bad design
and could be designed better given their constraints, because they have not a lot
of attention or knowledge about our UX process, many of these people — many engineers I would say — who develop a lot of these these products.
But the worst scenario here; the worst consequence of this UI everywhere, is
that the users — now again it is user experience we’re talking about — so the
users now have to deal with hundreds of things with user interfaces, as opposed
in the old day one user interface. Now they have hundreds. And that means that
they cannot devote brainpower to understanding and learning so many
different things. And so each little thing may only have a small amount of
confusion, or a small amount of that uncertainty of “how I do what?” But then
you multiply that by a hundred. And it’s not even just multiply because these
things have a combinatorial tendency to “oh it works here, but doesn’t work there,
and how do you do this and that and the other.” And so UI everywhere is really, I
think, one of the problematic trends right now. But at the same time of course
also an exciting trend. And certainly, if we want to be selfish: an opportunity
for us. We are emphasizing productivity. Well, that’s for sure what we used to do.
That has always been the core of UX to make it possible for people to basically
accomplish their goals and their tasks. Whether it’s an enterprise app,
and you can you can, let’s say, run your payroll, or it’s an e-commerce site where you
can actually find and buy something, and it’s gonna arrive in the next day. Those
are all accomplishing kind of real world related tasks with the computer.
But there’s also tendency; and maybe more so in recent years than historically:
a tendency to timepass. And timepass is a word that I picked up from Asia from
India, which means passing time. It’s using the computer for its own sake;
for entertainment or enjoyment or having a good time. So not only a lot of games.
a lot of entertainment style applications. But
also other things. And people do just for for sake of timepass.
The first analysis might be: that’s frivolous. But I think actually, no,
I think it’s acceptable for people to want to have a good time and to not only
have serious tasks at the computer. But also have the computer be, you know,
an important thing that can enhance our quality of life. And you know
it’s really a distinction that goes back all the way to Antiquity to the ancient
Greeks. They had these gods: Apollo, the serious god: he would drive the
Sun chariot across the sky every day like clockwork. Very hardworking god. And
on the other hand Dionysus: the god of parties, of wine, having a good time.
Always depicted you know in slightly scandalous circumstances in the
artwork from the time. The Greeks had those two gods more than two thousand
years ago, and that shows it’s a very deep thing in humanity that we have
those two things that we both want to do. And I think similarly in UX those are
both two things that we should worry about and try to accomplish and work on.
Methodologies might be slightly different for the two. But in terms of the
product: both types of products are great things for UX to work on.
Then we have the question — duality — is UX doing good or doing bad? Well I’ve been
in this field for 36 years and I would of course only do it if I thought it was
doing some good. So I think that’s the main part. And we can list a lot of things UX is doing that are
good. And the main one is maybe that our our main philosophy, I guess, is to make
technology adapt to humans, rather than humans be subservient to
technology. Empower humanity to control our technology, that’s our main
goal. And then if you think more about our more immediate goals; all the specific
projects, they will tend to be things like improve productivity, like I
just mentioned, which is the only way anybody ever can get higher and higher salaries
is to produce more. Because any company that pays people more than they produce, they
will go out of business. So for people to basically improve
their standard of living, we have to improve productivity. And
today’s world is really a knowledge economy; a cognitive economy, which means
that the computer tools we’re using to a great extent are the things that hold us
back from being able to produce more. And therefore it’s really our
responsibility to enhance the world, to drive the world economy forward to its
next level. So that I think is one of the one of the more pragmatic ways. We
help companies sell more. We do it all these things are actually for
the better. But then there’s that dark side as well, which again is more of a
more of a somewhat recent phenomena as opposed to the deep roots or deep
historical roots of the field. But more recently anyway, there has been a
bit of a tendency to, for example, design for addiction as opposed to design for
engagement. And this is a fine line because I think it’s perfectly fine to
say, we’d like people to just spend a few more pageviews which they come to our
website. Read a few more articles. So that’s not evil. I mean I think
almost that’s good because you’re hopefully providing something that
people will like. But it can turn and become just addictive behavior, where
people are wasting their time rather than enjoying their time. And they kind
of get almost like depression as opposed to feeling empowerment. And
so that, I think, is what is that other side I’m referring to here.
Or, abuse of UX insights and guidelines. For example, when we do eyetracking, we know that
there are certain parts of a web page that people don’t tend to look at very
much. And so you *should* use that guideline to put less important
information there, that people only occasionally will need. But you *could* use
that insight to put information there, that you don’t want people to realize or
be aware of. And then you can always say, if anybody ever complaints: “but, oh, we
disclosed this *clearly* in this spot on the webpage.” And we show a screenshot
— let’s say in court or something: Well it’s obviously there, but pragmatically in
the interaction scenario, people are not going to look there. And that’s what I
would call evil: it’s abuse of the insights we have from our studies, to
use them against users rather than for users.
Or even also our persuasive design guidelines. So, for example, we have the
scarcity principle. I think it is actually being abused by certain
websites: you know when they say, “well we have only three left —
oh, only two left.” They tick down and you’re putting the stress on people. Well
particularly if you just do it all the time, and there might actually be plenty
of inventory left, for you are trying to really trick people with this with
this pressure. That’s also a unethical use of that guideline. And I
think it’s actually even also will backfire. Because we actually know that
when people encounter these hyper-persuasive methods too often and in a wrong, overly aggressive, manner, they start to distrust that website.
They don’t believe that there’s actually only three left — oh sorry only
two left — so it backfires if you’re too evil. Okay so now let me turn to talk
about a few process-oriented issues. The first one is the qualitative versus
quantitative distinction in usability processes. We of course have both
types of methods, and I would just encourage [both]: they both are good.
I do feel, though, that in many companies there’s too much emphasis on the
quantitative, because of what I would just call number fetishism: That people think,
“oh, a number that’s valuable data.” Whereas insight into how people behave,
that’s just chitchat or hearsay or whatever. But all right, that’s data too.
Data is not just numbers, it doesn’t have to have a confidence interval.
Data can very often drive the product forward, more so, if they’re
qualitative data which are broader and richer, than if they’re quant. But that
said, you shouldn’t only do qualitative because it’s very good to have these
more precise measurements as well. And the two methodologies, or two types of
methodologies, if used in combination, they have really a great synergy effect.
And you can really truly much enhance your understanding of the user
experience by combining the two. But not just by only chasing numbers. So what’s more important? This elite type of design, by which I
mean designing those few big products that are always in the press and
everybody uses them. You know like the mobile phone platforms or your
PC operating system. Things like that, that a lot of our people are doing.
Or broad design, by which I mean designing a lot of individual products,
of which there are millions in the world. And again my answer for all of
these things is the same which is “duality.” Which is *both* are important.
But, you know, the elite design certainly has a lot of importance to it.
For example, right now we’re seeing kind of a split in the world between two
differents types of platforms being being developed: we might call this
“one world, two systems.” And China is going to design probably an entire new set
of systems. There’s going to be a platform for billions of users by the
end of the century, and so that’s really important for those guys to really get
it right. Well now, you may say it’s ridiculous for
me to talk about billions of people by the end of the century, because who cares
about the end of the century. I think we should care. Because these types of
infrastructure things tend to be very, very long lasting. Many of the things
that we use today in graphical user interfaces come from the original work
like about 50 years ago or so in graphical user interfaces. Now lucky the guys who
designed those things back then were very good, and so that’s why we’re not
suffering so much under still using many of these things. But it is really
true they have very long lasting effect. As an example: in the London
Underground, the Circle Line was built about 150 years ago, and back then they
didn’t have these boring machines that we use now: humongous drills that
just drill a tunnel under a city, where you can put a train train line. What they
did, these Victorian era engineers, they were can-do people: they had 10,000
men with shovels. And they dug up the streets of London, and then they put in a
tunnel and then they shoveled back the soil on top of it to cover it. And that’s
the London Underground, the first line, the Circle Line. I’ve been riding the
Circle Line, you know, in recent years. And so 150 years later we
are still running the train in the line, and the exact
path of that line is determined by which streets they could dig up in London 150
years ago. And so these things have very long lasting impact.
But that’s, on the one hand very important, but on the other hand I do
think that ultimately much bigger value accrues from all of the many many many
things that are more individual products. You know millions — hundreds of millions
probably — of user interface designs in the world, combined to form much more of
that user experience than the design of the phone or the design of your laptop.
So I think that’s where the more so cumulative UX value comes from.
Both in terms of user experience impact on humanity, and also in terms of
business impact or financial economic value of that design work. And so as
another analogy let’s think about electricity. So the elite design of electricity
is to build power plants, and yes, power plants are very important:
without them nothing comes out of the plug down here. So you know we got to
have have power plants. On the other hand, the true value of electricity comes from
all the many things like that light bulb and this projector and even this clicker,
which uses very little electricity. But that’s what allows me to
forward the slides instead of having to walk all the way over there and click
the button on the computer. Now I can click it here instead.
And so that’s a value-add right, that comes from having a tiny bit of
electricity sitting in the battery here. And so you add that up by millions of things
that use electricity. Hundreds of millions of things that use electricity. And the combined business value of
all of those products, or the combined impact on people, is much more than the
impact of the power plant. And yet we certainly can’t do without the power
plants either. So both are important. Now, how do we go about our process?
Do we have the systematic approach, that I was advocating in my book a while ago?
I call it the engineering approach. Or do we have more of a hacking approach?
Putting it together, blah blah blah. And you know. just throw it at the
wall and see what sticks. And I think that’s has become too much an approach
in recent years. Of almost random design, and just throw it
out and do a few things, and we’ll see what the users like or not. And I really
feel that leads very often to bad design. And in particular it really much leads
to sort of spaghetti design. Not a coherent user interface architecture.
Because it’s not designed through. And it also leads to a lot of wasted effort, a
lot of expense. You know it’s when you do that kind of hacking approach of throwing
something out. Inevitably, you will find you’ll have to change it. And it’s about
a hundred times more expensive to change the user interface *after* it’s shipping,
than it is if you change it while this is just a drawing on your notepad.
You really want to have a more systematic approach, at least for the
bigger type of projects. But that said, it is a duality, because I also recognize
that in many cases we don’t want to follow the full process. Many times you
want to follow a scaled-back process. And sometimes you don’t want to follow any
process at all; it’s just a small project, you just got to get something out the
door now. And these are all acceptable: there’s an entire continuum there. But all that
said, I do think that there’s too much of the hacking approach these days, and I
would like to see more of the systematic approach. Who are the people we’re targeting?
The OECD, which is basically all the rich countries in the world, did
a big study of the computer skills in the workforce. And this is their basic
finding: that across the rich countries, 5% of the users are what we might
call power users: people who were able to do advanced tasks with computers. People who
are actually truly empowered in that they can make a computer do what they
want it to do. They can combine features to accomplish something that’s not an
individual feature. On the other hand, 69% — which is basically two-thirds — are
low-end users who can hardly do anything with a computer. They can just react to
what the computer is showing them. So they can do things like, scroll through a
timeline and click the “like” button if they see something. But once it scrolls
off the screen they have no clue to how to get it back. So that’s the vast majority.
And so this 5% power users, that’s both the average for all the rich countries and it’s also the specific value for the
United States as well. So that’s 5%. It’s honestly not very much.
And then there’s some people in middle, of course, who can do some things, but not
really advanced things. So given this data, and it’s really solid, it was very thorough:
thousands upon thousands of people studied in many many countries, with basically the
same result in every country. A few percent up or down you know, but
the basic conclusion was the same. Given that, what should we target?
Well, I mean, the numbers really — this is where quantitative data comes in handy, right.
Because the numbers speak a very clear message here: the 69 percent that’s what
we should mainly target. I actually think it’s a disgrace that two-thirds of the
people can’t really use computers other than what’s being shown to them. So if
the goal is empower people to use, to be in charge of technology, we’ve got to fix that.
We’ve got to make computers that are suitable for normal, average people.
Not just for people like ourselves. Because I bet you everybody in
this room is probably among those 5%. And this is one of the oldest lessons we have
in usability: you are not the user. So the vast majority of
people have a much harder time with computers and we do need to fix that.
That’s a serious, serious problem we’ve got to look at. On the other hand:
again dualities. It’s not the only thing. We shouldn’t abandon or forget about
the power users, because they are often people who have very important jobs; make
very high-value decisions. And they are quite poorly supported actually by
current computer technology. It’s not well-suited for doing advanced things:
advanced decision-making or understanding large amounts of data.
We don’t really have great support for that in current computers either. So we also
need to focus resources on designing better for the power users, and getting
them true power. Not just the miserly power they have right now. And so by way
of another analogy let’s think about opera. So opera: I don’t actually know the exact percentage, whether it’s five percent or whatever,
but it’s surely a small percentage of the population who goes to the opera.
And that’s generally speaking not a big problem except for
the opera companies. But a very small percentage of
people likes to go to opera. Now we could donate or give a ticket to
the broad masses and force them to go and sit in the Opera House for an entire evening
of Wagner, and they’re not going to like it. Because Wagner is the composer
who gave rise to this expression, “it’s not over till the fat lady sings.” And she
doesn’t sing until very late in the evening, because they are very long operas.
So the vast majority of people you just can’t get them to like opera.
So therefore, well we have pop music. So we have another type of music
that many many more people like. Now what I would say is, the shame would be if we
*only* had pop music. I think it’s good we also have other types of music that
maybe don’t appeal to so many people, but the people do like to go and sit for
three hours and listen to a more complex piece of music, I think it’s good to have.
So it’s not like only one or only the other. But rather there can be many different things. So I’ve talked about a variety of different ways in which there’s a duality or multiple,
two different things, to consider in user experience.
And I think if we kind of revisit that list, we can almost like
make a random generator of new keynotes for every single UX conference
for the next many years. So here’s a list of some of them, and let’s just
throw darts at this screen. Maybe this is an example. So we say,
well, we should emphasize surface design because it’s got to be beautiful. On the
other hand UX is actually secondary to business because it’s going to be zero
user interfaces. And productivity is the things to emphasize not this frivolous
timepass stuff. So that would be one great keynote: take a strong stand, okay.
That’s usually what they do in these type of speeches, and so I’m the exception
here because I say “we got to do both.” Well, we could do the exact opposite
speech: well, deep design is what really is important, and because UX
*is* very important to business it’s everywhere, and we should also now
consider this timepass which will be a much larger part of the economy and much
larger part of use of the computer in the future. So I can make either speech, and
it’s going to sound very compelling and convincing, hopefully. And I could throw
some other darts and get another speech. But what is really my true message here tonight, is that that’s not really valid,
because these things are dualities. There are both sides to those coins,
and there are quite a lot of these coins that I have gone over in this speech.
And so UX has these many many aspects where you cannot just take a
simple strong stand, but rather you gotta consider [to] stand on both legs, so to speak.
You’ve got to consider both. Let me give you an example from sculpture.
We started off with with paintings. Here’s a sculpture of a Greek warrior
named Philopoemen, and he was in a battle in the year 222 BC. And this statue
was made about 2,000 years later so it probably doesn’t look anywhere like him.
And in particular I sincerely doubt he would go into battle naked, except for
one strategically placed strap. So let’s just considered this, not as historical
documentation, but rather as an artistic expression. And I do think this is a
great artistic expression of a strong, powerful warrior. I mean, he looks strong.
He looks determined. He looks like you don’t want to get on his wrong side.
because you’re gonna lose. So that’s if you look at this statue from this angle.
Well let’s take a few steps to the left and look at the statue from the other angle.
Now we see he got a spear — javelin — through his thigh in the battle.
And then he pulled it out. Ouch, I just say ouch. He pulled it out
and then he kept fighting, and so that’s why he is famous. And so we look at
the statue from this other angle, we see now a wounded warrior. So now which is true?
Well, *both* are true: he is a powerful warrior who got wounded.
And that of course happens in a battle. So this sculpture has this advantage
that the paintings don’t have: to show us multiples of perspectives
as we walk around the sculpture. And so that I think is
actually even the best analogy for user experience, because it has all these
things in it at the same time. And depending on how we look at it we can
see the different perspectives. So because we have to have these multiple
perspectives all kind of active, or all something that we need to think about:
you know, that’s why UX is hard. There’s not a simple answer. Now so that’s
in one way my conclusion of the talk. But I can’t just leave you with a slide
that says “UX is hard.” So there’s actually another perspective: duality!
UX is easy. Because for any given project we don’t need to consider all the
complexities of the entire concept of user experience. And the field. An the
history. And the blah blah. No. For any one project, then we do take a stand.
OK, now we’re going to emphasize this method. We’re going to target this audience.
I mean, just make your decisions, your choices. And now we know what to do.
Just remember that for your next project these same choices, the choice might be
different. Because there are these complexities underlying it. But for any one
thing, you can make your choices. And this is one of the true characteristics
of a true professional, true UX seasoned professional: is that you know
when to do what, and you can choose and you don’t have to ponder everything, all
the time and never get anything done, because there’s so many things to
worry about. No, make your choice, and then you go there.
And if we do that, well then, as it says, UX is easy, and that’s how we
make our progress. Thank you very much.

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