Nielsen: Its Time for a Redesign

Q&A: After making his name as a champion of minimal, easy-to-use Web design, Danish-born Dr. Jakob Nielsen believes companies can achieve 1,000 percent ROI simply by making their intranets more effective.

Danish-born Dr. Jakob Nielsen, 46, who completed his doctorate in computer-human interaction at the Technical University of Denmark in 1988, made a name for himself in Silicon Valley during the late 1990s as a champion of minimalism and ease-of-use in Web site design.

In fact, a list of the sobriquets bestowed on him by the media neatly recalls those overwrought times: "the reigning guru of Web usability" (Fortune); "eminent Web usability guru" (CNN); "perhaps the best-known design and usability guru on the Internet" (Financial Times); "the usability pope" (WirtschaftsWoche Magazine, Germany).

If Nielsens status today is less papal, hes nevertheless continued to build a body of research, best practices and technologies (including a remarkable 73 patents), all of which relate to how companies can actually get the increased productivity and business value from IT that has so long been promised.

"Its still a horrible experience to do business with most companies," Nielsen says, "because, honestly, their computer systems remain so cumbersome and customer-hostile."

In 1998, Nielsen and fellow futurist Don Norman formed the Nielsen Norman Group. The group has consulted on projects at a number of well-known firms including General Electric, General Motors, UPS, Hallmark Cards and Each year, it recognizes the "Ten Best Intranets." Meanwhile, in his regular online column, "Alertbox," Nielsen continues to build his reputation as a gadfly.

Executive Editor Brad Wieners recently caught up with Nielsen by telephone and asked him what, if anything, weve learned in the decade since everyone awoke to the need for a Net strategy.

Lets start with your research findings, some of which seem rather sensational. You report that an average, midsize company can expect a return on investment of 1,000 percent, and a gain of $5 million a year in employee productivity, simply by improving the usability of its intranet.

Thats right.

How do you figure?

That number came from 2002. And I am sorry to say that Ive not seen huge improvements in intranets these past two years, so that potential is still there. But I also want to point out that that estimate is really going from a company being average to above average, to just being in the top 25 percent. Its not going from average to being the best, which would have even more of an impact.

And that particular figure [$5 million per year] is estimated for a company of 10,000 employees. But this is linear, so it applies to companies of all sizes. Multiply the number of employees by the number of hours per year that they waste.

Then, theres this even more eye-popping number: that superior intranet design could save the world economy $1.3 trillion.

Thats true, but thats really, truly worldwide. And thats how I can say [that] usability is not just a small issue. Its one of the biggest driving factors for really getting our productivity up in the white-collar economy, the service economy, and its really in many ways the equivalent of what was done in the old days when people were studying productivity on the assembly lines.

The problem is that nowadays most work is knowledge work. So, this means to get productivity gains today, we have to adjust the machines—and by machines now, we really mean software. So, how do we adjust machines to human thinking? Well, by studying human thinking; in other words, by doing these usability studies and adjusting the technology.

Next Page: Comparing Top 10 Mistakes in Web Design from 1999 to now.