We’ve all come across it in our everyday lives—products that are seemingly popular in spite of their terrible UX.

So, if badly-designed products can continue be successful, has UX actually improved anything over the years?

I posed this question to the Nielsen Norman Group founder as part of our series of interviews with Jakob Nielsen.

Lee: I thought this was a fascinating question: how come badly designed products are still successful, and has UX actually really improved or got better?

Jakob: Well I think there are two parts to this question. So, for the first one, you have to recognise that design is only one element of product quality, and that user experience is only one element of product quality.

There are many other elements as well—price is certainly one, so if one thing is much cheaper than another thing, people would tend to prefer that. There is also the actual functionality, so if something has a really killer feature — even if that feature is hard to do — people may struggle more to use it because they really want it.

So I like to sometimes compare the user experience field to an athlete running a race of hurdles. They have to jump these hurdles, and the question is: is the user willing to jump the hurdle or not? That will really depend on two things, which are: (a) how tall is that hurdle? So if it’s a tiny little hurdle, more people will be willing to jump it. The second one is their motivation: if they really really want to get to the other side of the hurdle, they will put more effort into jumping it, and so therefore if there is a product that has other great qualities, whether it’s cheap or does something unique, or people for some other reason like it—maybe it comes from a company that they like, or sometimes if they are forced to use it, as would be the case for many government applications and websites also many enterprise applications as well —

Lee: Intranets as well.

Jakob: Yes exactly, which are often quite poorly designed. Well, that could be a reason they use it despite bad design. Now, for the second part of the question, “has UX actually improved?” I would say that there is no doubt about that.

If you think about my career, which is 33 years in this field, I started before the Macintosh came out. At the time we had mainframes and we had DOS—those were the two interfaces that were predominant, and both of those were really miserable.

Then the graphical user interface came out to the world (it was in research before then), but it came out to the world in the mid-1980’s and that was already a big step up. Then the web: when the web started there were a lot of terrible websites as well, but the web also has led to another increase in user experience, only because of the uniqueness of the web compared with kind of the previous innovation of software which was in the traditional world.

If you buy, let’s say in the year 1990 let’s say, you go and you buy Excel and you cannot figure out how to make a pie chart in Excel. Well, in 1990 Bill Gates has your money and why does he care if you can make a pie chart? Well, he cares anyway because they’ll get better reviews if it’s easier to use, and they’ll get fewer support calls and so what, but the point is: for traditional PC software, the sequence is first you give your money, second you have the user experience. For the web, you reverse that sequence. For the web, first you have the user experience, first you go to the homepage, does it make sense or not, can you find the information about what you want, can you navigate the site, when you get to a product page, does it provide the information you need in a way that you can understand it? And then second, if all those steps are good, then you may do business with other companies.

So on the web you have a sequence which becomes user experience first, pay money second, and that really vastly increases a company’s motivation to get their user experience improved. That’s not to say it’s perfect because there are always trade-offs, and you only have so much budget and all of that stuff. All that said, I think you can do any comparison you want: the mainframe and DOS versus the PCs and Macs of today, or a website in 1994 versus a website today—any of those comparisons will come back in favour of saying the user experience today is much better than it was 20 years ago, 30 years ago. Now, is user experience better today than it was last week? I mean I know that there’s progress that happens that fast, and maybe people are a little bit impatient!

Lee: Quite possibly!

In enterprise software, people that are purchasing and making the purchasing decisions are not necessarily actual users of that software. So, if we take an example of SalesForce — I’m not saying that SalesForce has a good or a bad UX — but typically, the people that purchase SalesForce, especially in larger organisations, are not the people that have to use it or would necessary care too much about the UX, and are maybe more feature driven… so do you think enterprise software has some way to go to catch up?

Jakob: Oh I definitely think so. However, I think that it is probably true in real life that when you have a distinction between the purchaser or the customer versus the user, that does lead to less good design. That said, I don’t think it should or ought to, because the people doing the purchasing should take into account the total cost of ownership for their enterprise.

So, all the cost of training is a cost of bad usability, every time somebody clicks the wrong button and makes an error, recovering from that error can be really expensive, that’s the cost of bad design. And of course, we all know that productivity, employee productivity, can go up vastly if you do better design of things like intranet.

Actually, every year we run an intranet design competition where we find what we think are the 10 best-designed intranets, and there are some good designs out there. Many of them have documented really vast improvements in employee productivity, also sometimes an ability to get new things done they couldn’t get done before because the information is finally structured in a way that they can find it.

We have things like big consultancies, engineering groups or big law firms, those type of companies, where the ability to find the person in the company who is really an expert on the current problem is key and what is sometimes called the employee finder to employee directory the feasibility of that feature can drive business success. It’s not just that you can find a phone number of somebody in ten seconds versus twenty seconds, even though I still say if you save ten seconds and you save it many times a day.

Lee: Over a year, it could be a huge amount of money….

Jakob: Over the year exactly, but that said I think some even more compelling arguments are these new businesses that result from people having this information that they couldn’t find before. Whether it’s just finding a paragraph or text or a picture in a file, or it’s finding the right person to talk to, quite often the contact in a really big company — I am not talking a company with 50 people where they all more or less know each other — but a company with several thousand employees, finding them to talk to is a big problem.

Lee: Yes it’s a significant challenge, that’s very interesting.

Check out the rest of our series of interviews with Jakob Nielsen