Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

dont make me think coverA quick search on Amazon reveals around 6,500 books on usability. Back in 2000, when Krug first released Don’t Make Me Think, I’m pretty sure it was nowhere near this. Since then the idea of making software – particularly websites, web apps, and mobile apps – highly tuned for user experience, has become commonplace and a source of competitive advantage. We have a lot to thank Apple for in that sense; delighting the user has become a rich pursuit.

Although, usability has always been about the same basic things, and it shows in this updated third edition of Krug’s classic work. Not much has changed in his advice, the core lessons are all the same, just some of the examples now reference Facebook and YouTube. He’s also added a chapter specifically on mobile, but even that makes constant reference to the general principles laid down before.

Krug – pronounced Kroog – always intended his book to be short enough to read and absorb in a single plane journey. So even in its third edition, it’s pleasing to see that this is still the case. Despite the brevity, this is a hard book to summarize – firstly, because it’s a highly visual book, with examples to back up nearly every major point, and they add a great deal to the power of the book; and secondly, because almost every page holds a nugget of value worth repeating, to summarize is almost to reprint the entire book. Rather than read a review about it, it’s just more fruitful to go and read it yourself. If you work in the software industry, you can rest assured that it is worth your time.

Few books about software development have the power and immediate impact that this one does – you can literally stop after a chapter and go test and improve something in your product the same day.

A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.

That is Krug’s definition of usability. It implicitly touches on a crucial point about our behaviour on the web, namely that we don’t read pages, we scan them. We flick through the internet, zooming from link to link, consuming snippets of text, images and video, from many sources in just a single session. When we hit upon something to do, like book a flight, pay car tax, or schedule a meeting, we need it to be fast and efficient.

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One of the very few well-documented facts about Web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages. Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

Users tend to just muddle through most websites, clicking on the first option which looks plausible. It’s what Herbert Simon once called satisficing – a combination of satisfying and sufficing.

As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click on it.

The thing is, you can get away with it until somebody else builds a better website which makes people feel smart when using it. Consider what Facebook managed to do – enabling millions (of all age groups) to share and connect, making them feel smart and empowered.

The first law of usability

As the title suggests: don’t make me think is the first and most important of Krug’s usability laws:

It’s the overriding principle – the ultimate tie breaker when deciding whether a site works or it doesn’t. If you have room in your head for only one usability rule, make it this one.

Most sites are crowded with text and images – including menu bar navigation, side menu options, main content, secondary content, flashing ads, and so on. It can be hard for a user to quickly process what’s important. As they scan across the page many questions are popping up in the users’ mind…

When you’re creating a site, your job is to get rid of the question marks.

Many of the questions are small millisecond checks – like is this a clickable link, or not? But every question adds to the overall cognitive load, causing a distraction from the objective at hand. Sometimes the workload is frustrating, such as when booking a flight online.

Conventions and clarity

In everyday life we make use of powerful conventions, such as road signs, warning labels, street markings. The web is also full of conventions, like the shopping cart icon, the home icon, the top left logo being a link to home, and sharing icons. Designers can sometimes feel the need to create something new, but Krug urges us to reuse as many conventions as possible. Consistency is important, but not as important as clarity:

Clarity trumps consistency. If you can make something significantly clearer by making it slightly inconsistent, choose in favor of clarity.

And when trying to be clear, here are a few simple reminders:

  • Create effective visual hierarchies
    • The more important something is, the more prominent it is.
    • Things that are related logically are related visually
  • Break up pages into clearly defined areas
    • Be able to point at areas of the page and say “these are things I can do on this site!”
  • Make it obvious what’s clickable
    • Mouse cursor changes on hover over links, use distinctive styles for links
  • Keep the noise down to a dull roar
    • Home pages tend to have way too much information, and like an inbox with too many emails, it is hard to focus on the important things
    • Presume that everything is noise, until proven innocent
  • Format text to support scanning
    • Use plenty of headings
    • Keep paragraphs short
    • Use bulleted lists
    • Highlight key terms

The second law of usability

It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.

Above all, users like easy choices – if it takes several clicks to get where they want, it’s OK as long as those are mindless clicks. An example which I find contrary to this advice is Dell’s site – they ask you if you are looking for Home or for Work. Immediately this gives me a problem. Maybe I want a laptop for home, but I want it powerful enough to run office apps and maybe even a small web server for testing code. Does Work imply higher spec? Or does it mean just more expensive? Ultimately, I have to check both sections every time to see what the difference is. Does Apple make laptops for work and for home – or just laptops for people?

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The third law of usability

Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.

Most of the words on a website are just taking up space. Krug admits that his third law sounds excessive, but you should have no trouble getting rid of half the words on a webpage without losing the value – and the next half is just a reminder to be ruthless about it.

Focus on removing ‘happy talk’ – the stuff that says blah blah blah blah:

A lot of happy talk is the kind of self-congratulatory promotional writing that you find in badly written brochures. Unlike good promotional copy, it conveys no useful information, and it focuses on saying how great we are, as opposed to explaining what makes us great.

And forget about writing any instructions, and instead always try to make something clear and self-explanatory so it doesn’t require any additional instruction:

The main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them … your objective should always be to eliminate instructions entirely by making everything self-explanatory, or as close to it as possible.

The trunk test

Isn’t it odd how we talk about web navigation? We don’t talk about library navigation, or department store navigation. The reason is because figuring out where you are on the web is a far more common challenge than in physical spaces – by default we are lost online.

The home logo or button is a critical part of any site – it acts like a North Star for users. At any time the user can start fresh from the top again. Other navigation like breadcrumbs are useful, and navigation should follow the user everywhere, except in one particular case: forms. When the user has a job to do, such as filling out a form, or completing a checkout process, the navigation and other distractions should be removed.

Krug talks about the trunk test (for British audiences, it’s more appropriate to say boot test!). Imagine being blindfolded, thrown in the ‘trunk’ of a car, driven around and eventually let out – you have to immediately adjust and figure out where you are. Landing on pages in a website is often like this, and here’s six questions you should ask of any page on your site, and be able to answer them within seconds:

  • What site is this? (Site ID)
  • What page am I on? (Page name)
  • What are the major sections of this site? (Sections)
  • What are my options at this level? (Local navigation)
  • Where am I in the scheme of things? (“You are here” indicators)
  • How can I search?

The importance of the home page

Sometimes when I look at a Home page, I feel like the boy in The Sixth Sense: “I see stakeholders”

The home page is frequently the battleground for designer/developer/stakeholder disputes. There are so many things the home page has to deliver on: show the site hierarchy, provide teases, content promos, timely updates, deals, shortcuts, the site identity and mission.

Whenever someone hands me a Home page design to look at, there’s one thing I can almost always count on: They haven’t made it clear enough what the site is.

It should answer four questions the first time somebody lands on it:

  • What is it?
  • What can I do here?
  • What do they have here?
  • Why should I be here – and not somewhere else?

In today’s environment, users are most likely to land on a site page deep in the hierarchy, often via a search or through social media. But the next thing they are most likely to do is click on the home page to get their bearings. Krug likens this to a diver who has to surface to see where they are.

Usability testing

Krug’s other book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, is all about conducting usability tests. In Don’t Make Me Think he gives summary points about how to do it, cheaply, and frequently. Usability testing is perhaps the single most important piece of advice the book provides. It’s the only way to really improve the usability of a site or application, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.

  • If you want a great site, you’ve got to test.
  • Testing one user is 100 percent better than testing none.
  • Testing one user early in the project is better than testing 50 near the end.

Not to mention that user testing can put a stop to the endless debates between stakeholders: marketing vs project managers, designers vs coders. Having real feedback from users can clarify exactly what you need to be focusing on.

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Krug recommends making one morning in every month the regular testing day. Have a couple of people come in for an hour, ask them to look at a new page or piece of functionality, record them, and see what happens. You’ll end up spending the rest of the day fixing the obvious things which came up. Don’t put it off until the end of major milestones, or worse, just before launch – do it every month, make it a regular part of the process.

One of the most valuable things about doing usability testing is the effect it can have on the observers. For many people, it’s a transformative experience that dramatically changes the way they think about users: They suddenly “get it” that users aren’t all like them.

Designing for mobile

So, what’s the difference about usability when you’re designing for use on a mobile device? In one sense, the answer is: not much. The basic principles are still the same.

Many people have chosen the mobile first route – which is a good thing to do. You start with the most important features, then add more features and content to create the full desktop version. However, some people interpreted this to mean only include the things you think people will want when mobile – assuming people we ‘on the move’. This turned out to quite wrong, and in fact people want to do everything while mobile.

By all means, make the most frequent activities close to hand, but ensure that everything else is only a few taps away. You should always give mobile users the option of expanding to the full site, and let them zoom in and out to find the pages they need.

  1. Allow zooming
  2. Don’t leave me standing at the front door
    1. Clicking on a link in email via mobile takes you to the home page and not the actual page you wanted
  3. Always provide a link to the “full” web site
    1. There are many situations where people will be willing to zoom in and out through the small viewpoint of a mobile device in return for access on the go to features they’ve become accustomed to using or need at that moment.

Speeds vary a lot on mobile:

Be careful that your responsive design solutions aren’t loading up pages with huge amounts of code and images that are larger than necessary for the user’s screen.

Krug gives an example of the AP News app, which is good for sending alerts on breaking news, however when you click through to the article, it’s full of large images. Instead Krug uses the AP alerts, but then looks for the same story on Google News or the New York Times.

Also remember that there is no hover on a mobile. Pull down menus, tool-tips, mouse over color changes, are all gone. Find a suitable way to replace these visual tools for mobile users.

With thousands of mobile applications all competing for user attention (and money), it’s become important for designers to think about three usability aspects: delightful, learnable, and memorable:

  • delightful – it’s so competitive, you need that extra bit of wow
  • learnable – fast to learn and adopt, minimal barriers to entry
  • memorable – memorability can be a big factor in whether people adopt an app for regular use. Usually when you purchase one, you’ll be willing to spend some time right away figuring out to use it. But if you have to invest the same effort the next time, it’s unlikely to feel like a satisfying experience.

Mobile user testing is still just as important, and for $30 you can set up a rudimentary testing kit – what Krug calls his Brundlefly Camera:

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The world has moved on a lot since the first edition of Don’t Make Me Think but so many of the core principles remain the same. Krug’s book is packed with simple reminders – nothing you won’t already know – but put in a way that crystallizes the importance of the basics, so that you’ll take action right away. Judging by the amount of poor websites, and poor user experiences still out there, this book is still absolutely needed.

For reference, these are the books which Krug mentions as recommended reading for usability:

An interview with Steve Krug:

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