Nielsen Norman Group: The First Decade

by Jakob Nielsen on August 8, 2008

Summary: Started in 1998, the company is now 10 years old and has a long list of accomplishments.


Nielsen Norman Group was founded August 8, 1998. Whether or not you believe the Chinese superstition that "8" is the luckiest number, our company has certainly done well, and I don't think it all stems from its launch on 8/8/98.

I don't usually write about my own company in the Alertbox, because readers are more interested in our research findings than in the organization that enables the work. But, in celebration of our 10-year anniversary, I'll indulge in a brief glance back at our first decade's accomplishments and look forward to our next.

How It All Started

Don Norman gets the credit for the vision: In the late 1990s, the world needed an elite usability company. In any other field, you could find companies at all desired levels, from cheap local consultants to world-class — albeit expensive — experts. In usability, this was not so in 1998. All the best usability experts worked at big technology companies and focused on the companies' internal needs. Don's insight was that the usability field was expanding beyond the technology industry and thus opening up the niche we were to fill.

As Don was mulling over the idea of launching this elite company, he read an article in The New York Times saying that I'd left Sun Microsystems to focus on writing a book on Web usability. He called me up and suggested that we start a company together.

In addition to the timely newspaper article, there was a second piece of luck: We both lived in Atherton, California, a particularly snooty part of Silicon Valley that is often listed as one of the three wealthiest towns in the United States. Now, I would accept a call from Don Norman anytime, but if he hadn't lived five minutes from my house, I doubt that we would have been able to get together enough to found a start-up.

Despite all the Internet technology advances, sharing dinners at good restaurants and coffee at each other's houses remains the best way to build a personal connection.

The day we started the company, The San Jose Mercury News ' technology columnist, Dan Gillmor, called Don for a quote on a story. He also wanted my comments, and asked Don if he happened to know where I could be reached. Don said, "Jakob is right here." Ever the good investigative reporter, Gillmor put two and two together and asked if we were up to something. As a result, the Mercury News ran his scoop about Nielsen Norman Group and we never got to issue a press release.

Accomplishments

  • 6 books published and translated into 22 languages:
  • 1 million printed copies of books by Nielsen Norman Group authors, including classics written before we started the company, such as The Design of Everyday Things , Usability Engineering, and Tog on Interface.
  • 417 articles freely available on our websites, amounting to a total of 600,000 words — the equivalent of 6 additional books — of free content donated to the community.
    • About 135 million pageviews served.
  • 77,203 subscribers to the Alertbox email newsletter.
  • 43 research reports published, with 2,089 design guidelines, 8,058 pages of usability advice, and 4,661 screenshots of specific designs that worked or didn't work for users.
  • 1 training video that teaches fast-and-cheap paper prototyping methods.
  • 979 websites systematically tested with 3,100 users in 17 countries.
    • Usability studies conducted in Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, The Netherlands, the UK, and the US.
    • Even though most individual studies test only a handful of users, our overall conclusions are based on thousands of users, ranging from general consumers over highly educated B2B customers to special audiences like teenagers and senior citizens.
  • 15,596 formal usability findings documented in reports to clients across 239 consulting projects and resulting in:
    • About 7,800 user experience improvements (on average, clients implement about half of our recommendations).
    • Thousands of additional usability recommendations delivered in workshops or other non-written formats to many more clients.
  • The Intranet Design Annual awards, the world's most prestigious recognition of high-quality intranet user experience (awarded yearly since 2001).
  • 18,242 people trained in usability through our annual conference series (started in 2000).
    • The only conference organizer to produce regular world-class usability events in North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, including conferences in Australia, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, the UK, and the US.

What I'm Most Proud Of

I'm certainly proud of all of the accomplishments listed above, but none of them are what I'm the most proud of because they're all things I knew I could do before we started the company: I have written best-selling books since Hypertext and Hypermedia in 1989, and I have taught usability courses and done usability consulting since 1983. (One of the few benefits of being a low-paid university professor is that you're strongly motivated to get real-world industry experience on the side.)

I am most proud of our team at Nielsen Norman Group. It's amazing that so many incredibly talented people have become group members, and have stayed with us for so many years.

What will the next 10 years bring? Nobody knows. There might be some adversity, like when the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, just as Nielsen Norman Group was investing in a worldwide conference series. We made it through that just fine; in fact, we've done fine every single year.

Whatever the general outlook, I think the future is extremely bright for usability, for the simple reason that it works and has hugely profitable ROI for companies that embrace it. I also think that Nielsen Norman Group is well positioned to ride this growth curve and accomplish even more in its second decade.

We'll of course research new issues, such as multimedia usability and mobile access to websites and intranets. But we'll also keep our focus on the bread-and-butter issues that dictate the vast majority of online profits: writing for the Web, information architecture, making websites easier, intranet usability, application design, and email newsletters. Such topics will never go out of fashion — in fact, they're more important than whatever short-lived fad whips the blogosphere into a frenzy any given year.

The basics might be well established, but most companies still get them wrong, so we must keep pushing to make everyday user experience more suited for humans. That's what Nielsen Norman Group is all about.


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