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"The web is not a selling medium"
Karl-Erik Tallmo talks to web design expert Jakob Nielsen

"You might say that my web page is so brilliant, so wonderful that people will wait for it. No they won't!"  Photo © Karl-Erik Tallmo.

  You have built up quite a reputation during the last years, and people often have referred to you as "Sun's web design guru". So, why have you now left Sun?

I really don't have anything bad to say about Sun: it was a great place to work at, especially in the early years of the Web, when there was no doubt that Sun was one of the companies with the most smart employees who understood the Internet revolution. Eric Schmidt (now CEO of Novell) is the most famous of these people, but there were many others. During these early years, most other people thought that the Internet was a fad or that proprietary online services would rule.

On the other hand, it has now become obvious that a computer company is not the right place to be for the next step in improving the Internet.

Yes, we will talk about the next step later, but how did you end up at Sun in the first place?

I was a university professor in Denmark back in the 80's, and I got tired of teaching the same class, so I got an offer from Bellcore, the last of the old Bell labs, they had been split up at the time when the telehone companies were reorganized in the US. I joined Bellcore because it was truly the leading outstanding place and they had the best people, it was the number one place in the world at the time in the user interface field. You could always argue which was really the number one ... I really had a very nice time there, on the other hand there are also downsides to working at telephone companies, which is mainly that - at least at that time - they were not that aggressive at moving into the intranets, so at one time I got an offer to become a distinguished engineer at Sun ...

And at Sun one very visible result was your redesigning their homepage. You started to publish your appreciated columns on design, the Alertboxes. But suddenly you removed them from Sun's pages. Why?

What happened was that we had different ideas about how to do the Sun web site, and in 95 I was part of a team that designed a magazine metaphor for the web site with stories and articles, at that point in time most corporate web sites had a menu of things. So I started a column for the web site, but the following year we found that the the magazine metaphor was not really working for a company web site, because that is what publishing companies do, so we stopped after a little more than a year.[Note 1]

The computer industry has really had an impact even on designing for printed publications, a very wide group of branches talk about user friendliness, isn't it strange that this thinking started with computers?

I think it started with computers, because they really emphasize the need for it, they are so complex, you can really do anything with software that you can dream up ... so it is really important to drive down complexity and make it really easy to use, and the same principles apply to anything else in the world. It's just that with most other things it's not important in this systematic manner, like Don Norman [Note 2] talks about how doorhandles are designed and things like that, it's just that the need for usability design for door handles is not as great as for computers.

The computer is a machine that contains other machines, as David Gelernter [Note 3] says, or you could put it like McLuhan that the computer is an extension of our cerebral system ...

Oh yes, the cognitive machine, and most other things are much more physical, their properties are more immediately comprehensible. You can put this cup on the saucer and it doesnt go through it, you can see what happens, you know what will happen. On the computer it is quite the contrary. On the computer, appearance has nothing to do with what it is really doing, a good designer can visualize what it is doing, but if you don't do good design, it is completely inunderstandable.

In a sense you have to reinvent natural laws that will work on the screen ... [Note 4]

That is true, but not natural laws, you should actually invent new laws that ultimates and optimizes this new medium. For example, it turns out that the best way to do animation is not physical animation but cartoon animation. If you run out of a cliff you don't fall down immediately, or if you are arriving at something you dont stop immediately, it goes like this ... a little jiggle. Or the acceleration when you start moving is not linear. If you want to open a window you doubleclick on an icon and it should jiggle a little bit before it opens, to give you the feeling that it will soon start doing something, then the window will open with a varied acceleration speed. Cartoon animation is actually the best way to communicate movement ...

Yes, but not just the movement, but also the actual drawing style of symbols and icons. I remember that Peter Bickford [Note 5] wrote a column in AppleDirections about that when he was with Apple ...

I think several people have done that ... too many people who work with computers have very literal engineering backgrounds and they look up in the physics handbook how things move, but that is not how they move in cartoon animation, to found out that you have to watch Walt Disney and Walter Lanz and those guys

Well, let's move to how to convey a message in a broader sense. We who advocate the widespread use of information technology, how can we talk about this revolution without sounding as religious fanatics?

We advocates tend to give people the impression that this is an important big thing, then they see in the real world that nothing much is happening, so there is as tendency to exaggerate the short term importance. On the other hand there is a tendency to underestimate the long term changes. We can of course not truly predict the future of the internet. What we can do is how much our imagination allows us to do, the really important changes that will happen, we have not thought of.

When I say long term I only mean 5-10 years, not really long term. If you look two years ahead, there is not that big a change, so for example there is always people predicting the bandwidth growth, and that we will have beautiful full motion video and things like that. But the only way to get better bandwidth is to send our guys and trucks and dig up the streets and that takes a long time, so the majority of web users will have slow modems the next several years, which means that the dominating criteria for web design has to be fast download times, snappy response times. Interaction is the value of the web and interaction requires sub-second response times. This is not something I have discovered, back in the 60's people made studies about this, from when you hit enter till you get to the next screen, it must be less than a second, otherwise people think this mainframe has stopped running. This was back in the old days ...

So what do you think will happen the next few years?

My prediction is that the Internet will be ten thousand times as important in five years as it is now. This number comes from multiplying a factor of ten for technology improvements, a factor of ten for increased number of users, and a factor of a hundred for increased richness and number of services.

We both have written articles about how people are getting more and more annoyed with big ads or animated ads [Note 6] that slow down the loading of pages and even causes system crashes sometimes. Speed and simplicity seem to remain important issues for a while ...

Speed is of the utmost importance. Any design project is short term, because you know that everything will change next year anyway, so you only design for about one year's time frame. In the short term speed rules. You might say that my web page is so brilliant, so wonderful that people will wait for it. No they won't! Because there are two million other places they can go instead. Nobody is so good that you can afford to just ignore this basic principle that has been known since the sixties.

With hyperlinks you have so many ways out from a site. And I guess that is really a tremendous problem with banner ads.

Well, banner ads don't work. People experiment with other things like interstitials, sponsored content etc. I think the basic point about the web is that it is not an advertising medium, the web is not a selling medium, it is a buying medium. It is user controlled, so the user controls, the user experiences. My hand is on the mouse, I decide where I want to go. If I don't like it here, I will go a lot of other places instead.

"There is another problem, my clients will force me to design bad web sites," says Jakob Nielsen.  Photo © Karl-Erik Tallmo.

So you cannot count on giving people such a rich experience that they will enjoy so much that they will sit and take in whatever you're showing them. That is television thinking or magazine thinking. But the web is about: what can I do? It is not that one doesn't want to spend money. On the contrary. If people can buy something they will buy it. The problem with online commerce is quite often that you can't buy. It is either too difficult to buy, the usability doesn't work, or the product selection is not sufficient, a lot of companies just put up, for example, three products. The web is optimized for comprehensive product selections, having thousands of products in all colors and sizes.

Do you think advertizing will become more "non-commercial", that it will consist more of straightforward information, more of tips about similar products and such things, that computers are good at keeping track of, like, for instance, are doing?

Yes, they make it easy for you to buy. That is the key on the web. It is very user driven so it is not so much to say "let me get my message across", as saying: "what do you want to do?" Find som things that people want to do and then give it to them and they will take it.

There is also some talk now about paying the user for looking at ads.

That is, I think, completely stupid, because the only people who will pay are the ones who are not good prospects. The people who you really want to reach - their time is too valuable for getting payed to to sit and watch an ad. If you have your own web site up, then of course you have to promote it in other media. The customer is always right, that is an old-fashioned saying but on the web it is really true.

Do you think the ad agencies have matured? Only a little more than a year ago many of them rushed in believing they knew everything, claiming computer people knew nothing about marketing. On the other hand the marketing people knew very little about the web ...

Exactly. I also think they have learned something about interaction. The model for advertising is that you as the user really want to watch this film on television, but in order to watch it we just have to make you also watch this Diet Coke commercial. That is the method for television advertising. The interaction has been absent, it has only been about to keep the user's hand away from the remote control. On the Internet it is just the opposite, get the user to move around on your website. That is the goal of web design.

And in a magazine, sometimes you read just to look at the ads, like if you are planning to buy a used car or something like that, but mostly if you are reading a magazine, you have big display ads that we want readers to look at instead of the text. On-line you don't need that, you don't have to shake them up, they are already looking at you, so the requirements of glamour and fanciful design drops dramatically, and what goes up dramatically is the requirement for the user to be able to do something, get some value out of the web site. In a magazine, the only thing you can do is to turn the page. On the computer you have all these options, and this complexity, so unless you make it really easy for people to use, they will get lost in the web site. The good agencies have begun to understand these differences now.

Hard earned experiences in many cases ...

Very hard earned. But the difference between a good professional and a bad professional is whether they will make the same mistake, will they make something new they never tried before. They will probably both make mistakes, but the good ones will learn from experience. Now there is another problem, I do know how to design good web sites, but my clients won't allow me to do that. My clients will force me to design bad web sites, because they want a web site that looks glamorous when they give a demo to their vice president of marketing. Most of them care mostly about internal politics, they have meetings only with each other and never see a customer.

Do you believe interactivity could be overstressed, both in ads and other content, so that it distracts and interferes in a wrong way?

I think you should have a very clean message, which takes you to the web site, and there you give people all the options. It's ridiculous to try to design a full-featured user interface in a banner ad. And you have to be honest. There are trick ads, that look like dialog boxes, that take advantage of people being stupid, fooling them to click on them. And sure they will get a very high click-through rate, but they will also get a very high bail-out rate, when people hit the back key immediately when they see where they end up. So you really should count click-through rates minus bail-out rates, only people who are staying at a web site are interesting.

Banner ads should really be as simple hypertext links, and then we go back to basic hypertext theory. A hypertext link has two ends, a starting point and an end point. At the starting point, the point of departure, where the rhetorical issue is to explain to people why they should leave their current context, and what expects them at the other end of the rainbow, at the other end of the link. Then you end up in a new context, different from the one you came from, and you have to orient yourself in this new world. That is the rhetoric of arrival, how to inform people of the meaning of the new world. That is the two basic points, almost all of these ads completely miss them. They just say "look at me", but don't explain where I am going to go. And when you arrive, there is often no connection to why you clicked this specific link.

You said in one of your Alertbox columns that micropayments might be a way out of the problem to make huge multimedia productions since it is so hard to clear the rights with lots of rights holders. But on the web, don't you think this could have the same effect as the WIPO suggestion two years ago - they wanted to charge the user for each viewing of a picture etc.

Basically I believe in micropayments, that are so small that if you sometime click by mistake it will not really hurt you. If you have big payments you will have more of this I want my money back, I didn't want to go to this web site. But if it is a very small payment, it will not be worth it. It is a huge difference, as long as the payment is very low, around one cent is the typical payment that we are talking about, then your monthly fee for using the Internet is going to be 10-20 dollars ...

Don't you think this discourages people from coming back and read good stuff again or just check up something? They will rather download it on their own harddrives.

The next time you come to a website to get the same information, it will be free or almost free. So in other words, it will not be worth it for you to keep your own copies. I say almost, because there is still some service that you should pay for, maintaining the individual copy, it is much better to have the archives kept on the Net, that is one of the powers of the computer network, and you don't have to worry about it.

Will content providers, authors, photographers etc. soon deal directly with the reader or user instead of via copyright organisations, do you think?

When I say directly I don't mean you will draw a contract with each user, that would be too complicated. The user will go directly to the individual author, artist or whatever, but the payment  will be handled by a micropayment clearance service, which will be more of the nature of a bank. An interesting question is who will constitute such micropayment clearance services, there are many options. It could be a bank, it could be the phone companies, since they are used to handle very small payments for calls, it could be an ISP, because they know how to handle Internet communications.

Do you believe that information wants to be free? We have two interpretations of this slogan, that information wants to flow freely and that it should be free of charge. We have this nice quotation from Thomas Jefferson that we may light each other's candles ... but on the other hand we have a protectionistic tendency, that I can feel myself. If I have a good idea for an article I don't want to tell everyone about it. This might also lead to protection not only for the specific expression of an idea, like we have today, but maybe also protection for the idea behind the work, as with patents.

Patents are going to be very big on the Internet, by the way. There is a huge patent bonanza coming on, as people figure out how to run networks and do business on the Net. In a store you can't patent the doors or something, but on the Net, if you design software to automate something you can patent it. A lot of companies who are early out will get great benefits from being the first, one reason to go out on the Internet now is in fact the patent issue.

But to go back to information, I don't think information wants to be free, I think information wants to be cheap.  People used to do copyprotected software, which is actually copyright transferred to the computer, but if another company made a product that was not protected, people would buy that instead, even if it was not as good. Make it so cheap that it just isn't worth it for people to make pirate copies!

Yes, people often overlook the fact that there is such a big market on the Internet. But on the other hand people who provide information in small languages like Swedish or Danish have a problem, the English market is so much bigger.

Maybe the micropayments must be a little higher on smaller markets, but I still think that payments must be relatively low, as other expenses go away, from print and paper. But it cannot be free, good information has to be edited by somebody and those people have to eat.

You could also put it: information is aimed at somebody, it wants to reach somebody, otherwise writers and artist wouldn't do what they do ...

That is why it has to be cheap. Some services, like Los Angeles Times, charge 1.5 dollars for an article, and that means that nobody uses it, unless they desperately need to get a certain article.

You mentioned some sort of fame-rating in one of your columns, like the Alexa service, I guess. But if you depend on user rating too much, don't you think there is a risk for populism, like in televison where they are bound up very tightly by viewer statistics?

A great question, but no. Alexa is not a perfect service, but it is the first example of a new type we need. We should not count that 10,000 people liked this while 100 people liked that, so therefore the first one is better. That is not the goal. The goal is to keep track of who likes what, and then use that to predict what you would like. The point is that there are millions of people there, there will soon be a billion people on the Internet, so no matter how obscure or oddball or weird taste or ideas you have, there are people like you on the Internet, and a service should be able to find those people.

You have now formed the Nielsen Norman Group together with Don Norman, and I read on your homepage that you will not design websites but rather help designing the  ideas  behind a specific, user-friendly website.

Technology is irrelevant for the next phase which will be dominated by the growth of an unprecedented number of diverse services with close and direct contact between customers and companies over the net. Dealing with this flood of service providers - essentially any company in the world that wants to survive in the 21st century - is much more important than improving the technology.

My areas of expertise have been usability engineering and hypertext: both were very much considered as esoteric specialties that only a few computer companies and university research departments would care about. With the growth of the Web, every single company will have an interactive hypermedia system as their primary contact with their customers, and usability becomes a core competency for business in the network economy. If your site is hard to use, it's the same as having a shop that is only open Wednesday from 15-16: you will do very little business and most customers will prefer to go elsewhere.

A lot of people don't look at the web as an intractive system, they just look at it as a channel that can blast at the user. But if you view the web as if it were television or a newspaper or a one-way communications channel, you are losing the power of the web, and all you have left is an empoverished medium. The power of the web is to engage the user in interaction.

(This interview took place in Stockholm in May '98 with a few additional questions and answers exchanged through e-mail in August '98.)

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