February 5, 2002
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Is clearer type worth $2K/yr?

In his latest Alertbox, Jakob Nielsen argues that clearer computer screens can improve reading speeds 10%. If a $50K/year professional spends 20% of his or her time reading from the screen, Nielsen argues, this gain is worth $2000 a year.

Nielsen's argument is correct only if the time saved by faster reading is used profitably. That might be a good assumption, and I can't see any particular reason to fault it, but it might not turn out to be true. Nielsen's argument also raises an important red flag: people do not generally behave as if it were true. Almost nobody is willing to spend $2000 on a better screen for themselves, nor do they spend this kind of money on office lighting, on home video equipment, bedside lamps, or custom eyewear. This doesn't mean Nielsen is wrong; lots of people do things that aren't well advised. But, most of the time, most of the people are likely to be right.

Though Nielsen might be off-base on this specific question, I'm convinced his underlying argument is right: better hardware and (especially) better software can make people much more productive. And it's not just a question of percentages, saving a few minutes here and there every day; having the right tool at the right time can mean the difference between capturing (and acting on) a great idea, or forgetting all about it. Having the right tool can make the difference between convincing your boss (or your staff) to pursue a new course or a better strategy. Having the power to make your argument, and to make it effectively, can make all the difference in the world -- not 5 percent, but five orders of magnitude.