Alertbox #200

by Jakob Nielsen on September 29, 2003

Summary: I've published 200 Alertbox columns on the Web since 1995; in addition to achieving key victories over multi-million-dollar special interests and enemies of usability, the column's readership statistics validate the practice of archiving content.

This is the 200th Alertbox since I started publishing the column on the Web in June 1995. Over the years, the Alertbox has taken on usability's enemies and validated the use of archived content, receiving more than 30 million page views.

This statistic counts only the English edition. The Alertbox is also published in licensed translations in German and Japanese, and was once available in Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish (unfortunately, the host websites have had to reduce their spending on licensed content). I'm also not counting the several million page views from push technology and robots.

Interest and influence

Although each column's mean readership is 300,000, a few columns have attracted millions of readers and inflated this number. Most columns get about 200,000 readers. Of these, about 40,000 readers see the column while it's new and featured on the homepage. In other words, most articles get 80% of their total readership after they're archived. Obviously a compelling argument for maintaining content archives.

For example: my 1995 Alertbox on guidelines for multimedia on the Web continues to get about 2,000 readers per month. These guidelines are still valid and worth reading, despite their age and despite the fact that they were derived from usability tests on technologies that are long gone.

I usually try to write articles that will retain their relevancy for many years. Usability findings are derived from human characteristics, and depend on them much more than any specific technology, product, or company. The human brain's capacity doesn't change from one year to the next, so the insights from studying human behavior have a very long shelf life.

(At this point, careful readers have done the math and realize that 30 million page views divided by 200 columns is only 150,000; not 300,000. The reason for the discrepancy is that recent columns have not been in the archives long enough to accumulate their total expected readership.)

Fighting Multi-Million-Dollar Interests

Several times over the years, the Alertbox has taken on entrenched interests backed by hundreds of millions of dollars. The result has usually been victory, though it's too early to tell for my fight to decimate PDF blobs.

The reason I've often won -- despite that fact that usability enemies are far better funded -- is that I simply tell the truth as I see it in user research. I am not beholden to any special interests, so when I observe that humans behave in a certain way, I'm free to say so and to explain the industry implications. Human nature is very hard to change; companies trying to impose technologies that go against it often lose.

In what might be its most striking victory, the Alertbox ushered in the decline of the glamour design agency. Sure, there are still a few glamour agencies left, and a company that wants to waste money on an unworkable website can easily find designers eager to take the money in exchange for a beautiful, if useless, site. But the average Web design agency pays attention to usability these days. Most bigger agencies have hired usability professionals, and it's common for clients to actually request websites that work, not just pages that look good. Because design agencies have changed gradually over time, many people may not have noticed it: kind of like boiling a frog by heating the water slowly. Bottom line, though, is that today's Web design businesses are generally very different from the frogs that were kicking out glamorous sites in 1999.

Similarly, the Alertbox was instrumental in changing the strategy for Flash from annoying users to building useful Internet-based applications.

Other Key Victories

In another victory, I denounced the bogus user metrics used to justify dot-com IPOs more than a year before the bubble burst. Specifically, I said that was not worth its initial billion-dollar valuation. As of this writing, the stock is trading at 9% of its price at the time of my 1999 article.

The Alertbox was also overwhelmingly vindicated in the case of WAP usability. In 2000, I released study results that documented the uselessness of WAP telephones and services, which were being promoted as the solution to mobile information access. Despite our clear usability findings, the WAP industry association issued a press release that claimed that the report was not credible because it was based on only 20 users and because those users had their WAP phones for only a week.

In fact, the study was very thorough. First, it's more than enough to study 20 users to discover truly big issues with an interface design, particularly when the usability issues are as pronounced and uniform as those with WAP. Second, even though users probably would have performed better with more experience, it's simply unrealistic to promote something as a broad-based consumer product when people can't learn to use it in a week. Also, if their initial experience is too unpleasant, users will not continue discretionary use over time.

In any case, subsequent events certainly validated our research findings from 2000: Nobody used the early WAP services, and the entire technology has been a big flop. Just think of the billions of dollars the telephony industry could have saved if it had listened to the usability research, rather than trying to fight me.

What's To Come

In future columns, I will continue to stand up for what's right and to defend humans from overly complex technology. I will continue to teach companies how to communicate with their customers online and how to empower their employees with more usable intranets. Of course I'll cover new topics in the next hundred columns, but I see no reason to change my basic principles when they have been overwhelmingly vindicated.

Other Retrospectives

Revised Findings for This Year

My newest usability guidelines will be presented in my tutorial on Fundamental Guidelines for Web Usability at the annual Usability Week conference .

We cover the theory that explains why these things are wrong in the seminars on The Human Mind and Usability: How Your Customers Think and Principles of Interface Design.

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