Usability as Barrier to Entry

by Jakob Nielsen on November 28, 1999

Summary: Increased user impatience will make new websites fail unless they are twice as usable as existing sites. Revolutionary Internet services must explain why users should care in no more than two lines.


Web users are getting more impatient every year: reduced desire to learn new interaction techniques, less ready to download plug-ins, and unwilling to tolerate slow downloads. If a site doesn't provide immediate gratification, they leave.

Impatient users imply increasing difficulties in launching new websites, since the users will not bother with anything that requires additional learning time. Usability becomes a barrier to entry: a new site will fail unless users can grasp it in a few seconds.

The usability barrier for new sites was clearly shown in two very different projects we advised on recently:

  • One site was in a very established field where the basic features are well understood and where there are several decent services available on the Web. When testing the site, users would spend a minute or two and then say "this is not worth my time: if this were not a test, I would leave this site and go back to X" , naming one of the main competing sites. Different users named different Xes, but they all wanted to go back to something they knew rather than learning the site we were testing. In my judgment, the X sites were not at all any easier to use, but they had the major advantage that the users had already suffered through learning how to operate their existing favorite.
  • Another site offered a completely new type of service that has never been seen in the world before since it is only possible to offer over the Internet. In my judgment, the service could be useful for many people and is a great example of the network economy. But in testing users could not understand from the home page why they would want to do something they had never done before . Instead of studying additional pages, they would leave the site.

I conclude that it is necessary for all new websites to have extremely high usability if they want to succeed. Unfortunately, current management fads for Internet start-ups do not encourage good design. There are two important issues in Web marketing:

  1. Getting people to your site in the first place: that's what the advertising budget is for.
  2. Making people stay on your site and convert them from one-time visitors to regular users: that's what the usability budget is for.

The business of a website is a product of two numbers:

number_visitors x conversion_rate

So to double your business, you can double one number, or you can double the other number. Considering that conversion rates typically run around 1%, that's where I would invest first.

Contrary to this advice, Internet start-ups typically spend 300 times as much money on advertising as they spend on usability. As a result, many of these new sites will fail to keep their users and will not grow into long-term successes. VCs should question the budget allocation of their portfolio companies and refuse to waste money on sites that don't have a thorough usability process in place.

Usability theory could have predicted the problems with impatient users making usability as a barrier to entry:

  • It may seem unfair that old sites with bad usability can beat new sites. But humans can learn anything and will prefer to stick with what they know, even if it was hard to learn in the beginning.
  • It may also seem unfair that people won't spend a decent amount of time to investigate revolutionary new features. But we have known about the paradox of the active user for twelve years: people would rather jump the gun and start getting something done than spend "unproductive" time up front on learning, studying the manual, and setting up their system.

User impatience will not go away. If anything, users will become even more impatient as the Web grows, even more services become available, and even more dot-com commercials clutter the airwaves. As a result, my advice is:

New entries in established categories need to have at least twice the usability of the main existing sites. Luckily this is easy to achieve since most existing sites are so bad.

Sites that aim to create a new category must present a crystal-clear positioning statement on the home page that focuses on what users will gain from using the site and why they should care about it. You get two lines to explain your value proposition. No more. This is easy to do for a site like AutoTrader.com: all they need to say is "Search the largest used car inventory on the Internet. More than 1.25 million listings, updated daily." Other sites need to work harder on making it clear why users should care when there are ten million other sites to go to. What's in it for me?


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