25 Years in Usability

by Jakob Nielsen on April 21, 2008

Summary: Since I started in 1983, the usability field has grown by 5,000%. It's a wonderful job - and still a promising career choice for new people.

I became a full-time usability professional in 1983, and celebrated my 25th anniversary in the field a few months ago. Seems like a good time to take stock...

Evolution: How Things Have Changed

The field's main difference today compared to when I started is size: it is much larger now. In 1983, usability was a narrow discipline pursued by a few people, largely confined to academia, phone companies (mainly Bell Labs), and a few pockets of enlightenment in the biggest computer companies.

When we met at conferences, we all knew each other. Although new people did join the field (as I did in '83), the new membership rate was about a handful per year. All told, there were maybe 1,000 usability people in the world (primarily in the U.S. and the U.K.).

Today, by my estimates, there might be as many as 50,000 full-time usability professionals in the world, supplemented by about half a million people with part-time usability responsibilities or interest.

Usability now exists in a vast range of companies in any industry you might imagine — far beyond its origins in the high-tech sector. For an example, just look at the 1,345 companies that sent 2,187 people to my usability conference in 2007. Over the past two years, 67 countries — from Estonia to Peru — have been represented; usability has truly become an international field.

Yes, some big organizations like Amnesty International, the California Franchise Tax Board, Cathay Pacific Airways, HP, PayPal, Verizon, Virgin, Wells Fargo, and the World Bank sent large teams last year (often 10 or more people). But the average of only 1.6 participants per company shows how widely dispersed usability interest is. Most companies still only have one or two usability people.

Highlights of 1983

Usability basics haven't changed in 25 years. Methods for user testing were already well established by 1983 — the year that John Gould and Clayton Lewis presented a paper outlining 3 main principles for successful design:

  • Establish an early focus on users and run field studies before starting any design work.
  • Conduct empirical usability studies throughout development.
  • Use an iterative design process.

These are the same 3 things we teach today as the most important usability steps. The main difference now is that Gould and Lewis talked about collecting quantitative measurements during their tests, whereas I've emphasized faster, qualitative studies for most projects since I started evangelizing "discount usability" in 1989.

In 1983, character-based user interfaces dominated, and GUIs were still new. In a February 1983 BYTE magazine interview, Larry Tesler — now Yahoo's head of user experience — discussed the role of user testing for Apple's Lisa (the precursor to Macintosh). Later that year, a Xerox team presented a study on the best way to design a mouse: 1, 2, or 3 buttons? The winner was 2 buttons, but that didn't prevent the launch of the 1-button Mac the following year. It took several more years before we got a widely used 2-button mouse.

The prevalence of mainframe systems during the first years of my career came to good use many years later: the first generation of Web-based applications was similar to the good old IBM 3270 screens. More recently, when we tested Flash-based applications, we reprised many findings from the studies I did of Macintosh software during the second half of the 1980s. (Our application usability seminar is based on 25 years' of experience — the examples are recent because the audience dislikes old screenshots, but they often illustrate UI principles I first saw in testing PC, Mac, or mainframe apps many years ago.)

In general, it's good for usability professionals to have experience with many generations of user interface technologies — this allows you to:

  • Generalize the underlying issues in interaction design: when you see something every year for 25 years, you know there's some truth to it.
  • Avoid being swayed by the surface appearance of the latest gizmo.

Personal Retrospective

I've been happy with my career choice. I've had a great time in every single one of these 25 years, with so many interesting studies and exciting findings. Usability allows us to make everyday life more satisfying by empowering people to control their destiny and their technology rather than be subjugated by computers like many observers feared when I was in graduate school (remember "I'm a human being, don't fold, spindle, or mutilate me"?).

At the same time it helps humanity, usability also strengthens business by making companies more profitable through increased sales and higher productivity. Very few jobs allow you to simultaneously do good for both human rights and profitability.

Usability as a Career

If a young person today asked me whether usability is still a good career choice, I wouldn't hesitate to say yes. If anything, usability is a better career now than when I started.

In 1983, usability was an oppressed discipline. We few pioneers had to struggle against the prevailing attitude that computing is about power and features — not ease of use and a pleasurable user experience.

Today, usability is widely recognized as one of the key drivers of website profitability. Not a day passes without a big-shot CEO declaring support for better user experience. Nonetheless, much remains to be done, and most companies are still at a low maturity level in terms of embracing the full user-centered design lifecycle.

It's exactly because most companies are only beginning to progress toward full-scale usability that I feel confident in declaring it a great career choice: We know that usability works — it adds vastly more value to design projects than it costs, and companies tend to add more and more usability over time as they experience this payoff in their own projects (as opposed to just reading about it in my articles).

Still, we're unlikely to reprise the 5,000% growth of the past 25 years. Over the next quarter century, the field is more likely to grow by 1,000%. But that's still pretty good. We have job security as long as there's stupid design in the world, and that's forever: every new technology that comes along will be abused.

Come join us. You'll have a great time. I certainly am, and will enjoy continuing to keep pace with this ever-growing field.

See Also

Other retrospectives:

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