This Week’s Agenda: The Usability Industry

Jakob Nielsen is one of my heroes.

Six years after the Web was spun, he remains the usability guru. His methodology of putting people in front of a site, asking them to do a few things, and keeping quiet has become the standard.

In Web site design, “users are the one stakeholder who do not have a voice at the table,” he told me recently, “so speaking up for their needs is an important job.”

“Simplicity falls by the wayside if it is not explicitly and vigorously defended at all times. It is so tempting to add another feature or to make a fancier Flash animation that design bloat is the natural direction of all projects unless somebody fights against it,” he explains.

But while Nielsen has fought a good fight, and built a professional practice based on it, he hasn’t built a large business, or even an industry.

Michael Roberts is trying to do just that. He built USWeb’s original usability lab and was a partner in marchFirst. “Without Nielsen, we wouldn’t be around,” he admits.

But the time has come to go beyond mere Web site usability, he argues. “It’s not just looking at design, but process,” he says. At MarketFace Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, that’s what he’s about. And he already has a handsome list of clients.

By looking at how sites are designed, not just the final result, Roberts feels that usability can gain a permanent place at the Web production table and its benefits can be extended throughout the enterprise.

“We’re at the point where people are asking what to do next,” he explains. “Smart CEOs see the failures, see the expense, and wonder why [they should] put more money in without a vision for a return. They need it to support their business goals — and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there.

“At that point the companies with a Clue are going to have someone in there being held responsible for specific goals. Those are the sweet spots for us. The clients identify the processes they need for success, and our work helps make sure the sites do those things.”

This is the way the Internet is evolving, Roberts feels. It’s not separate from your intranet; it is your intranet.

It’s also a medium in its own right, just as TV and print are media.

Businesses don’t just throw together their video efforts, and they don’t just throw together their print materials, either.

There are professions and industries specializing in various aspects of these media. Producers turn to directors, and publishers turn to designers. In the same way, Web designers should turn to usability experts.

All this is still evolving, Roberts says, and no single approach paints a complete picture. So he’s using a combination of analytic methods, not just usability studies, to create a process he can recommend to clients.

“We do heuristic analysis along with user testing, as well as pre- and post-test surveys. We ask people about their experiences on other sites, then ask how this compared after doing the testing. We’re finding a combination of approaches is producing very positive results.”

I still like Jakob Nielsen. But a guru isn’t a profession, and a profession isn’t an industry. To build that, you need a lot of people like Michael Roberts, working on process and building business models.

The result should be better sites for everyone.

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