Monday, April 21, 2008

25 Years in Usability

Jakob Nielsen looks back on 25 years in usability ...

"Since I started in 1983, the usability field has grown by 5,000%. It's a wonderful job — and still a promising career choice for new people.

I became a full-time usability professional in 1983, and celebrated my 25th anniversary in the field a few months ago. Seems like a good time to take stock...
Evolution: How Things Have Changed
The field's main difference today compared to when I started is size: it is much larger now. In 1983, usability was a narrow discipline pursued by a few people, largely confined to academia, phone companies (mainly Bell Labs), and a few pockets of enlightenment in the biggest computer companies.

When we met at conferences, we all knew each other. Although new people did join the field (as I did in '83), the new membership rate was about a handful per year. All told, there were maybe 1,000 usability people in the world (primarily in the U.S. and the U.K.).

Today, by my estimates, there might be as many as 50,000 full-time usability professionals in the world, supplemented by about half a million people with part-time usability responsibilities or interest.

Usability now exists in a vast range of companies in any industry you might imagine — far beyond its origins in the high-tech sector. For an example, just look at the 1,345 companies that sent 2,187 people to my usability conference in 2007. Over the past two years, 67 countries — from Estonia to Peru — have been represented; usability has truly become an international field.

Yes, some big organizations like Amnesty International, the California Franchise Tax Board, Cathay Pacific Airways, HP, PayPal, Verizon, Virgin, Wells Fargo, and the World Bank sent large teams last year (often 10 or more people). But the average of only 1.6 participants per company shows how widely dispersed usability interest is.
Highlights of 1983
Usability basics haven't changed in 25 years. Methods for user testing were already well established by 1983 — the year that John Gould and Clayton Lewis presented a paper outlining 3 main principles for successful design:

* Establish an early focus on users and run field studies before starting any design work.
* Conduct empirical usability studies throughout development.
* Use an iterative design process.

These are the same 3 things we teach today as the most important usability steps. The main difference now is that Gould and Lewis talked about collecting quantitative measurements during their tests, whereas I've emphasized faster, qualitative studies for most projects since I started evangelizing "discount usability" in 1989.

In 1983, character-based user interfaces dominated, and GUIs were still new. In a February 1983 BYTE magazine interview, Larry Tesler — now Yahoo's head of user experience — discussed the role of user testing for Apple's Lisa (the precursor to Macintosh). Later that year, a Xerox team presented a study on the best way to design a mouse: 1, 2, or 3 buttons? The winner was 2 buttons, but that didn't prevent the launch of the 1-button Mac the following year. It took several more years before we got a widely used 2-button mouse.

The prevalence of mainframe systems during the first years of my career came to good use many years later: the first generation of Web-based applications was similar to the good old IBM 3270 screens. More recently, when we tested Flash-based applications, we reprised many findings from the studies I did of Macintosh software during the second half of the 1980s. (Our application usability seminar is based on 25 years' of experience — the examples are recent because the audience dislikes old examples, but they often illustrate UI principles I first saw in testing PC, Mac, or mainframe apps many years ago.)

In general, it's good for usability professionals to have experience with many generations of user interface technologies — this allows you to:

* Generalize the underlying issues in interaction design: when you see something every year for 25 years, you know there's some truth to it.
* Avoid being swayed by the surface appearance of the latest gizmo."    (Continued via Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox)    [Usability Resources]

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