CALIFORNIA (CNN) -- Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen talks to CNN's Kristie Lu Stout about what makes a good Web site stand out, and what he believes is the future of the Internet.
Lu Stout: What is the biggest mistake in Web design right now?
Nielsen: The biggest mistake is really not getting to the point, not telling people what they can do on the Web sites, what it is about (and) smothering the information in hypertalk, in slogans, in indirectness, in cuteness. People don't want that, they don't want to sit there and read a lot, they don't want to click a lot, either. Get to the point -- that's the number one guideline for Web design.
Lu Stout: Is search another area that really needs improvement?
Nielsen: Search is crucial on the Web because there's so much information that at any given time people only want a little of it. So getting them to what they want as fast as possible is key and often people turn to search. We're seeing a great success for the best search engines, but when you go to Web sites, individual Web sites, their search is often horrible compared to the relatively good search that is available on sites like Google, Yahoo as well, several big sites. But individual Web sites have miserable search and you can't find anything, and people complain bitterly because they know it can be done better.
Lu Stout: The discipline of Web design is at least 10 years old and yet poor Web design exists in bounds. What's going wrong in here?
Nielsen: Well first, to be positive, I think that things have indeed improved over the past 10 years. We've had commercial Web sites but they've not improved to the point where things actually work. They came from such a horrible state that even getting to a bad state is actually progress but why are we still at a bad state? Well, that's because the Web designers still ultimately believe that if they think it's good, it is good, and you just cannot judge your own design. You're not designing for yourself, you're not designing to get a design award, you're designing for the average person to come to the Web site and click and find what they want -- and you just cannot judge that yourself. You've got to use usability techniques with things like user testing, see what normal people actually do when they are on a Web site. And even though some sites now are doing user testing, most do not. Most Web managers have no clue what their customers do on their Web site, and if they ever saw, they would tear their hair out because their customers are leaving them in droves.
Lu Stout: Besides the Web manager, you also need to convince the CEO why usability is important. But why should a CEO care about usability?
Nielsen: From the top management perspective, usability is important because it's a matter of your customers doing business with you, or if it's an Internet, your employers being productive, as opposed to wasting your time. For a Web site, if it's difficult to use, the customers have one answer: that's called the back button -- they leave. So, you might as well not have a Web site if it is difficult because it's going to have no business value. Your investment in building that Web site is completely wasted, and a small investment in making it easy, all of a sudden, you have customers. And for your internal design on your Intranet, every time your employers wander around not finding what they need for their work, that's time. You're paying their salary and they do not do any productive work -- a complete waste of money. So, from the top management perspective, usability equals money -- money lost because customers are leaving, or money's lost because employees (are) wasting their time not getting their work done. And you can recover that money by making it easy.
Lu Stout: You once said, quite famously, that the superior Intranet design could save the world economy $1.3 trillion. How does that work?
Nielsen: Well, for Intranets, if you add up the number of hours people waste in millions of companies around the world everyday, it actually does come -- and you multiply that by the average salary of employee -- it comes to more than US$1 trillion per year that's being wasted by people not being productive when they're on the computer. Now, for any individual company, it might be a million or two, depending on how big the company is. It could be many millions for small companies and maybe just $20,000 and $100,000. That's enough money, though, to take action and to improve it. But add it up over millions of companies and you get to the total penalty for the world economy of bad usability, which is more than $1 trillion for Intranets alone. Then you can turn to Web sites and that's probably just as bad and that's maybe another trillion.
Lu Stout: What are some of your favorite Web sites out there right now and why?
Nielsen: Often the best Web sites are the simplest ones, so you think of a Web site like Google. When you go there, there's just no doubt what you can do, there is a box -- you type your word and you click search and they tell you 10 places where you can go to. They also give you good places, which is another important parameter, not just that it's easy, but you give people something good. Amazon would be another good example if you're trying to buy a book, you can find the book easily by searching for it or by going to categories, and they are reasonably good categories -- they could do a little better there, but it's mainly good. When you're on the book page, it gives you all the information about the book, and if you say, 'OK, I like that,' one click and you got it. So it's really minimalist in terms of the interface. No big spinning logo, no pop-up windows to annoy you, nothing to slow you down, just get me straight to the point. And why is this good for the company? Because they get my money, because I can buy very easily, so it's good for everybody: the users like it because it's easy and it's fast and the company likes it because they get more of our money because we like to shop there.
Lu Stout: Easy, fast, no logos, straight to the point. But in the art of Web usability, is there any room for aesthetics?
Nielsen: Oh there's certainly room for aesthetics, it can certainly look good and looking good is better than looking bad, but it's just not the number one point. The number one point is getting straight to the point, and if you can show people, let's say a photo, that illustrates what people want, then it's good. For example, we did a user study of some travel Web sites for different resorts and hotels around the world, and people really loved it when they could see photographs of the swimming pool or the mountain for a ski resort. So those kinds of images are fine, when they show something that gives you an idea of what it would be like to be on vacation if I went to that particular spot, those photos are great. But then you've got other Web sites where the photos are just stock photos, just photos of models, I call this the "smiling lady." You know just like one random person off a catalogue, and they smile and they look happy, supposedly to illustrate that you would be happy if you brought the product. But people are not that stupid, they know it's just a model, not a real customer, so those types photos add very, very little. So definitely yes, make it look good, definitely yes use photos or drawings or other little illustrations when they illustrate a point. But no, do not add so much aesthetics where it gets to be good looking but no information, do not add photographs that do not really show any information that's relevant to the users.
Lu Stout: Will there be better days ahead for Intranet and Web site design?
Nielsen: I completely anticipate better days ahead because it is the survival of the easiest, which I call the sign Darwinism. An easy Web site gets more clicks, people return to it, a complicated Web site people look at it once and maybe say, "Oh, it looks cool," and leave, so it gets no business, it goes away and it's not going to be here next year. So, ever so gradually, the easy Web sites get bigger, they remain here and the difficult Web sites die and they go away, and so over time, it's going to get better and better, and so that's the good news.
Lu Stout: And how will the further rollout of broadband, high-speed wireless and the introduction of alternate PC devices like tablet PCs, how will all that affect the future of Web design?
Nielsen: Well, I think the most important may actually be the tablet PC and the ability to also have mobile and wireless connection to get online at anytime and at any place. Because that means we will use Internet-based information for many more purposes, which will have a bigger role in society. That means there are many more things that can be done with Web sites, beyond the more simpler things now where you can click to buy a book or click to make a hotel reservation -- many, many more things will be done when you always have the Web with you. I also think that they might get to really replace newspapers. One, you can read them on a flat screen instead of hold at your breakfast table, instead of going to your office and read it on a traditional monitor, that's not really good enough to replace the printed newspaper. But I think 10 years from now, we might use the Web much more for news -- we even do it to some extent today, but I think it'll be much bigger in 10 years. That's going to be a huge change. Also, of course when we get broadband we can do more in terms of multimedia and other types of so-called rich content. But the difference is do not make the Web into television -- television is its own media form and it's nice to sit and watch a television show that's great. But that's not what you want to do when you're on the Web. You don't want to sit and watch for half an hour a pre-planned program. On the Web you want to click, you want to move, you want to get the answers to your questions. So the Web is to be much faster and to the point, and quick little clips, so video clips on the Web should be maybe half-minute segments and no more, not a long segment like you can do for broadcast television.
Lu Stout: Let's say I'm managing a Web site. What can I do to make it better?
Nielsen: I think if you're in charge of a Web site, the number one thing you can do is a simple user test, just get hold of about five of your customers and sit them down in front of a computer, one person at a time and give them a task to do, ask them to find some information or buy a product on your Web site. And you sit back and you watch them, and you will suffer, because I guarantee when your customers try out your Web site, they will fail again and again, they will complain bitterly about many design elements that you never even thought to question, and that's why user testing is the ultimate reality check. Any Web site should do that, it should be a crime to release anything on the Internet that has not been tested with real people, so go and do that.