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Nielsen Calls Shenanigans On Apple Study

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-11-07

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Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen held his tongue when an Apple-sponsored study correlating high productivity with larger computer screens was released. But when Computer World published an article about it (seven months after we did), Nielsen felt he needed to put a stop to it.

WebProNews coverage of the study in March related France's Pfieffer Consulting's findings that worker productivity increased with the size of the computer screen.

But Nielsen cried foul recently after Computer World decided to get around to covering it. Dr. Nielsen, formerly a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer, is a User Advocate and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group which he co-founded with former Apple research veep Dr. Donald A. Norman (just in case you needed the credentials).

Nielsen called Apple's sponsored study "meaningless" because, frankly, it was done wrong. From his blog post summary:

A study of the benefits of big monitors fails on two accounts: it didn't test realistic tasks, and it didn't test realistic use. Productivity is a key argument for workplace usability, but you must measure it carefully.

If the method could be trusted, he says, which it can't, even Pfieffer's numbers were out of whack. "Reducing task time from 42.6 seconds to 20.7 seconds is actually a productivity gain of 105%, not 51%," he said.

But that's moot because the study focused on tasks, rather than operations (I know, now we're getting deep into splitting nerd hairs, but he seems to have a point).

Apple's study focused at the wrong level of work. Pasting spreadsheet cells is not a user task, it's an operation at a low interaction level. More meaningful productivity has to be measured at a higher level, where users string together a sequence of operations to achieve their real-world goals.

Nielsen also points out that researchers tested rote memory operations that had been practiced and perfected before hand, which was not a "realistic" representation of how users operate. "Skilled performance almost never happens on the Web, because users constantly encounter new pages."

So while trust in the Apple study is out the window, Nielsen does redirect the theme of productivity to Website usability. He recommends Web designers stick to simple, standard designs that users don't have to relearn in order to digest the sought-after content. While it is unclear that big screens are better than little screens for productivity (they may very well be, he admits), ease of use certainly does have an impact on productivity.

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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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