Recently renowned Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen visited Australia to preach the word of good usability practices. We caught up with Nielsen to talk about the Web, open source software, the future of 3D interfaces and mobile devices.

What are the most common questions you get about UI design?

On the current tour search was a big question people were asking about. One common question from every city was -how many people click on paid search ads?”. The truth is that it is only a few percent but its still more than banner ads. More people are going to click on what are called organic search results.

Do you think this is because it is disguised as content?

It’s true. Honestly I don’t think it means that means its worth more to advertisers, it might be worth less to advertise this way because you don’t necessarily want more clicks, you want high investment return clicks. People click when they are in the market for your product. You don’t need to pay for regular browsers or freeloaders on the Web.

Much of the Jacob Nielsen fame has come around from your research in Web sites. As the browser becomes less of a focus to vendors such as Microsoft, what is the future?

Well I think there is still a lot of work to be done on this concept of internet based information. It’s not so much based on the technology, it is the human needs. As in search, that is always going to be a need. Then there is the next step of internet-based applications, where more functions and features will appear. That is there now but it will become much more advanced in the future.

Many smaller Web sites’ search functionality is inadequate according to your latest results from the Nielsen Norman Group. Should developers buy into proven search technology or building their own?

I don’t care if they licence Microsoft, Google, Yahoo or anyone as most of them are vastly better than the home made search engines that most companies have. Each of these [search]companies have hundreds of top engineers working on improving their software so the probability that you can do it with one person is quite low.

What do you think of Web sites that run content management solutions where users get to choose their own design such as DotNetNuke?

It’s a good idea. You really want to avoid having everybody design their own Web site because they usually do it wrong. These templates might not always be the right ones, but in principal you can put resources into making good templates and they can be reused and work well. Most intranet’s run this way and overall it works well.

There is much hype in the industry about free and open source software. From a usability standpoint how do you rate open source software compared to proprietary software?

Poorly, I’m sorry to say. I think the reason is that it’s biased highly for one specialised area which is the very technical such as IT systems administrators. But Linux for the average user or other open source solutions for someone who is not a geek rates particularly low.

The reason is, the motivation for open source is not because the person gets paid but the person gets prestige. The developers are designing for each other and they are so feature rich–geeks love features–and you get more prestige by adding features. For the average person fewer features is better and easier to understand.

The value systems are kind of opposite for what average users need and what open source developers want to do. As long as they are designing for other people like themselves it works quite well. But as soon as they try and design for the average person it breaks down and you have to have the more hierarchical project manager, you have to do user testing and you have to do documentation. No developers like to write documentation.

The second problem is that open source when they turn to the general tools they tend to be in the line of -let’s implement what we already know” so they will take Microsoft Office and they will clone it. Since we’ve been criticising Microsoft for years for cloning Apple it is only fair to criticise open source for cloning Microsoft. The point being that you don’t move ahead but you have to do something new.

With a lot of commercial interests in these projects, do you think this will change?

I can certainly see that and I can also see about the office tools. We could look beyond [cloning] and there could be a new set of productivity software. It could really be done another way. The real problem with Microsoft Office, besides being Microsoft, is that it is an office product based on paper. It comes out of research about how to do office automation.

In the new world what we need is not memos but we need to build Web sites and intranets so when you communicate in companies it is via a collaborative environment. Some areas where they have had success is in Wikis and some of the blog software, but of course it is still quite primitive. But you could make something quite more interesting based on this on things like intranets.

Many of the next generation operating systems and interfaces such as Apple’s Mac OSX, Longhorn, and Sun’s Project looking glass have 3D interfaces. What are your thoughts on the 3D interface?

I think we should mainly work on the 2D design. There are cases where 3D works well like construction, engineering, medicine and so on but most of the things we do with computers are more information orientated. As long as we’re stuck with a 2D computer screen that means the information needs to be in a 2D medium.

Do you think there will be more litigation in the area of usability, especially when it comes to discriminating against some users?

Probably yes, I’m not in favour of this however. I’m more in favour of the companies saying -we’ll do it because we want to serve those customers” .People tend to be loyal customers if they are discriminated against everywhere else they go, and you treat them well, then they tend to like you. But most companies don’t seem to appreciate that so more likely there will more litigation.

In the world of mobile devices can you see history repeating itself again with mobile applications like we did with Web sites when they were emerging?

Probably not. Every time we move into a new technology we see that it is used wrong and companies developing for it they do not recognise the special user limitations. We found that with WAP and it’s sad to say I think its going to happen again. One of the downsides of the usability field is that people only tend to care about it after they have been burned.

In a recent article you predicted the next thirty years of computing. In that article you predict software will protect against social engineering. How will software ever protect against that?

I know [laughs] that is why I put it into my thirty year prediction but I really think it is necessary. We have to find a way which we can help people against social engineering and it will take a long time.

Lastly if you were to give developers one piece of advice what would it be?

Look at users and study users. No matter what you are doing go and get hold of an actual real life end user and see what they do with the software.