Don't Make Me Think: Classics Illustrated does Web Usability
By David Walker (Google profile)
I once took part in a Web design exercise which set the participants a "budget": we sliced up an imaginary heap of money for spending on design activities, all listed on cards. At the end of the exercise, my team had one hundred imaginary dollars unspent. So on a blank card we scribbled a new category - "lunch with the guy who controls the pursestrings" - and assigned the $100 to that. This whimsical touch started heads nodding all around the group. Everyone in the group agreed that creating a usable Web site required real organisational commitment, commitment that could only come from senior management. And most of the designers and design managers around the table that day wanted to build such support. But few knew how to teach their colleagues about the importance of site usability.
Enter Steve Krug, with a book you can hand to your collegues and your manager for them to browse overnight, a carefully-crafted little volume that will sell Web site usability painlessly to your colleagues. As a bonus, most usability practitioners will enjoy its stylish condensations themselves.
By the standard of current texts like Joann Hackos and Janice Redish's hefty User and Task Analysis for Interface Design or Jakob Nielsen's ubiquitous Designing Web Usability, this book is a carnival midget - eleven large-print chapters, some under 2000 words long, the text broken up by scores of cartoons and other pictures. As Krug himself suggests, he's created the Classics Illustrated version of all those bigger usability texts, the comic-book version that tells you what's in the big books you haven't read.
The Classics Illustrated approach starts with the name. Krug titles his book Don't Make Me Think. Like everything that follows it, that title packs maximum effect into minimum space. Krug calls the phrase his First Law of Usability:
"When I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory. I should be able to 'get it' - what it is and how to use it - without expending any effort thinking about it."
When Krug talks of eliminating effort, he's targeting mental effort that holds up the user for even fractions of seconds. The defining chapter of Don't Make Me Think (available online) argues that site designers work as though users will pore over every detail of their work, when they should expect users to take almost no work at all. In particular:
- Users don't read; we scan.
- Users don't make optimal choices; we look for the first good-enough solution (a process that economics calls "satisficing").
- Users don't figure out how things work; we muddle through.
In other words, designers should think "roadside billboard" rather than "A Suitable Boy".
Krug doesn't ruthlessly strip out material the way the billboard analogy implies. Indeed, many of his page designs look almost as cluttered as anyone else's. But the principle holds. If you want your site used, pare everything down to the essentials.
Actually, the principle of paring everything back has produced good design for thousands of years. The book itself works because it has slimmed the messages of Web site usability down to an essential core. It makes itself useful to designers by powerfully reinforcing a handful of key ideas that most designers already use. It makes itself useful to the designer's non-designer colleagues by teaching those ideas in a concise but highly engaging style. It is least useful when it tries to dig deeper into issues such as navigation design.
Before Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug was a relatively obscure figure in Web site usability. His book suggests a flourishing consultancy practice, and contains endorsements by the likes of information designer Richard Saul Wurman and designer Roger Black. But Krug's most convincing qualification is Don't Make Me Think itself. Like some of the very best Web sites, it lets its audience learn without ever feeling that they've had to make an effort.