Don't Make Me Think

January 23, 2006

There are very few web design books that have any currency after about 2 years. Very few. And half of these are notable because their very outdatedness is instructive. The rare remaining 50% of this minority of web design books is the "on-every-designer's-shelf" collection. Among them is certainly Steve Krugman's "Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability."

It is, he writes, a book for "people in the trenches — the designers, the developers, the site producers, the project managers, the marketing people, ... and the one man band people who are doing it themselves."

The rule, "don't make me think" is an obvious principle, but it can be translated many ways.

One great translation is the user's maxim 'the more difficult it is to use, the less I will use it." You must design for users, not yourself. Always second guess your new aesthetic vision, and, if at all possible, conduct a usability test with real users.

Another reformulation of the main theme is "no one cares as much about your site as you do." And really, it doesn't matter to users if they understand everything about your site. (This is difficult for many developers, who are intensely interested in how online stuff works.) Users want to know how to use it to do specific tasks. This is the age-old (ie 1990s) principle of "satisficing" — being satisfied and sacrificing. If you expect more than 10% of your web page to be read by a single user, you have high expectations.

The corollary to this principle is that, if a user can make your site work for them, they will stick with it. Secondly, you must respect a counterintuitive fact: it is difficult to make a site simple and easy fill it with confusing design. I am fond of saying that web design is a process of subtraction. There are a number of helpful hints for building subtrative process into your design method:

  • Create a clear hierarchy from the beginning.
  • Use conventions.
  • Spend a lot of time on the navigation. Harness the power of links by focusing your design energy on that navigation bar.
  • Remove words: Take out that useless banter.
Steps designed to ensure hierarchy, conventionality, easy navigation and conciseness are the basic rules of content development for the web.This is what it means to write for the web.

Krug also poses the wonderful "Trunk Test of Web Usability":

  • 1. Print your page.
  • 2. Hold it at arms length and circle:
  • a. The site name
  • b. The sitewide search box
  • c. The sitewide navigation
  • d. The page name
Does your site pass the test? Can you easily identify the most usable, important parts of your website? Yes, this is common sense, but, again you have to be sure: can your users really use your site easily?

There is also great chapter devoted to designing your home page, the most important page of your site. In brief, here are a few things that your colleagues (or inner slacker) may offer as excuses to creatign a truly usable site.

There is also great information about working with teams of developers. Namely, stay away from "religious debates," in which people are "expressing strongly held personal beliefs about things that can't be proven." Contrast, for example, opinions about Macromedia Flash, the web's animation format. Some people (namely graphic designers and CEO's) love Flash. Some (namely me) don't care for it in most situations. Arguments begin. People waste their time going round and round with the religious debate about Flash. The way out of this cycle, Krug explains, is to ask: does this use of Flash in this situation, on this site, with this content and our users work?

Lastly, it must be recognized that Krug always carries to flame for testing: you must test your website, Krug writes. Stop thinking that usability tests cost $50,000. They cost closer to $100, if you have a tape recorder and a computer. Get a few of your potential users and let them tell you what is really happening on your web site.