The Web won't wait for long

Jakob Nielsen recently left his position as a research engineer at Sun
Microsystems Inc. to start his own Web consulting company, the Nielsen Norman Group of
Atherton, Calif.


He has written several books about usability engineering and human-computer
interface design. Currently he is working with a federal laboratory on a Web project.


Nielsen said the spectacular growth of Web sites, from about 1,000 in 1994 to 3
million today, is nothing compared with the growth he expects over the next five years.
Nielsen predicts the Web will have 200 million sites by 2003.


Opportunities for electronic government will abound for agencies that know what
they are doing, he said.


GCN senior editor Florence Olsen interviewed Nielsen in Washington.


GCN: What will Web content be like
five years from now?


NIELSEN: My prediction is that the Internet five years from
now will be 10,000 times as important as it is today in terms of impact on everyday lives.
If you wait four years to go online, you’re not going to catch the sites that are
ahead of you on the learning curve.


Now is the time when you can afford to build a bad site and learn from the experience.
All our experience shows that being able to deliver good service across the Internet is an
organizational learning experience. It’s not just a matter of technology.


You do not get a good Web site by writing a big check and buying a huge server.
Becoming an Internet-focused organization is a learning process involving every level.


GCN: How do agencies acquire Internet
service skills?


NIELSEN: Experience is the only way. It’s not something
you can do just by hiring a consultant. You have to rethink how services are delivered,
how to collect data to get the feedback loop.


No organization can do a perfect Web site the first time it tries. It is impossible to
change everything around in one step.


The problem right now is that most people do redesigns without user feedback data. That
feedback loop is hugely important.


If you get the correct feedback, you can crank up the quality of your Web service quite
dramatically.


GCN: What should the government be
trying to accomplish on the Web?


NIELSEN: The goal should be to deliver government services
online to everybody. That includes new computer users and people with disabilities or
other problems. It means being 100 percent focused on making the experience easy.


The federal government needs to have an active program focusing on the user experience.
I recommend having a user interface architecture that would set some directions.


The government has more of an obligation than other organizations to make its Web sites
accessible to everybody.


The user experience, not just the individual screens but the overall process of doing
something online, has to be easy. It cannot be like tax forms.


Forms can be made easier if they are interactive. Conceive of Web services as making
things simpler for the citizen, not just simpler for the government.


Don’t structure your Web server according to the structure of your department,
because that means navigating the information space requires an understanding of the
internal structure.


GCN: When do you expect subsecond
response times from the Web?


NIELSEN: By 2003, the Web will stop feeling unpleasant for
high-end users. You need a T1 connection to the desktop to get a 1-second response time
when you download a page. This feels right when people navigate in hypertext.


GCN: Are there other technical
impediments to a good Web experience?


NIELSEN: With a good-quality monitor, reading from a computer
screen can be as pleasant as reading from a printed page. Nobody has good-quality monitors
now, because they cost $30,000.


With low-resolution monitors, reading is about 25 percent slower than reading from a
printed page.


This is a pragmatic point, but no federal employee should have a 15-inch monitor these
days.


Seventeen inches is the minimum. Anything less wastes the taxpayers’ money through
loss of productivity.   

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