Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is a book by Steve Krug about human-computer interaction and web usability. Originally published in 2000, the book is in its second edition (2005) and has sold more than 300 000 copies.
It has received a great deal of positive feedback and is, by many reviewers, one of the best books on web usability ever written. People in the usability community regard the book as the laypersons' usability bible. Why? Because it's short, easy to read and covers all the essentials really well. Most of the topics in this simple and pleasurable writing, that – according to the book's introduction – could be read on a two-hour flight of an airplane, are actually just common sense.
As a professional web consultant, Krug believes that with a little instruction people could do a lot of it themselves. "No question: if you can afford to, hire someone like me. But if you can't, I hope this book will enable you to do it yourself (in your copious spare time)," he says. "After all, usability really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing – whether it's a web site, a fighter jet, or a revolving door – for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated."
The main premise of the book is that a good software program or web site should let users accomplish their intended tasks as easily and directly as possible. How do you do it? The most important thing you can do to make sure your web site is easy for people to use is not to make them think. Krug points out that people are good at satisficing, or taking the first available solution to their problem, so design should take advantage of this. Krug actually practices what he preaches, in the writing and the design – the book itself is intended to be an example of concision and well-focused writing.
The first and most important law of usability, as the title of the book also suggests, is DON'T MAKE ME THINK. According to the author, it's the overriding principle – the ultimate tie breaker when deciding whether something works or doesn't in a web design. If you have room in your head for only one usability rule, make this the one. It means that as far as is humanly possible, when one looks at a web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory. One should be able to "get it" – what it is and how to use it – without expending any effort thinking about it.
One simple but common flaw that Krug directs attention to several times throughout the book (a recommendation that is actually implemented quite easily) is made with the clickable areas (it often requires thought whether things are clickable or not).
He frequently cites Amazon.com as an example of a well-designed web site that manages to allow high-quality interaction, even though the web site gets bigger and more complex every day. "Amazon was one of the first sites to use tab dividers for navigation, and the first to really get them right. Over time, they tweaked and polished their implementation to the point where it was nearly perfect, even though they had to keep adding tabs as they expanded into different markets," he writes.
Despite of being about rules and principles, the book is written in a humorous style and the author uses great examples to get his point across. You can get an idea of his sense of humor throughout the book: starting with the introduction and finishing with the subheadings, quotes and footnotes that can be found on almost every page and here and there just make you laugh out loud. One of the lasts, Chapter 11, for example, has the following title: Accessibility, Cascadig Style Sheets, and you. Just when you think you're done, a cat floats by with buttered toast strapped to its back.
While preparing for the second edition, Krug had one major dilemma – how to add new material and still keep the book short enough for an airplane ride read. He took his own advice and did a form of user testing. Ironically, to his big surprise, a large number of people suggested moving the chapters on user testing to another book. As a result, he compressed the three user testing chapters into one slightly shorter one that covers the important points everyone should know about. And in 2010, published a sequel, Rocket Surgery Made Easy, which explains how anyone working on a web site, mobile app, or desktop software can do their own usability testing to ensure that what they're building will be usable.
The chapter of user testing, as it appears in the second edition, was probably one of the chapters I personally found the most useful, regarding the IMKE course of Interface and Interaction Design.
His main points about user testing are:
- 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.
- The importance of recruiting representative users is overrated. Meaning: It's good to do your testing with people who are like the people who will use your site, but it's much more important to test early and often.
- The point of testing is not to prove or disprove something. It's to inform your judgment.
- Testing is an iterative process. Meaning: Testing isn't something you do once. You make something, test it, fix it, and test it again.
- Nothing beats a live audience reaction.
He suggests usability tests over focus groups by explaining that focus groups (small groups of people, usually 5 to 8, sitting around a table and reacting to ideas and designs that are shown to them) can be great for determining what your audience wants, needs, and likes – in the abstract. They're good for testing whether the idea behind the site makes sense and your value proposition is attractive. And they can be a good way to test the names you're using for features of your site, and to find out how people feel about your competitors. But they're not good for learning about whether your site works and how to improve it. In a usability test, on the other hand, one user at a time is shown something (whether it's a web site, a prototype of a site, or some sketches of individual pages) and asked to either (a) figure out what it is, or (b) try to use it to do a typical task. Krug complements the chapter with a sample test session (pp. 146-155).
I also really enjoyed Chapter 10, Usability as common courtesy, which explains that every time we enter a web site, we start out with a reservoir of goodwill. Each problem we encounter on the site lowers the level of that reservoir. There are things that diminish goodwill (such as asking for information that is not really needed, putting sizzle in the way, hiding information that users want like customer support phone numbers, shipping rates, and prices) and things that increase it (such as knowing the main things that people want to do on the site and making them obvious and easy, save them steps wherever possible, providing them with creature comforts like printer-friendly pages, etc). The good news is that even if you make mistakes, it's possible to restore the goodwill by doing things that convince the users that you do have there interests at heart.
And, of course, Chapter 12, Help! My boss wants me to _____., is hilarious. Krug encourages people to face up to their bosses/clients/stakeholders who insist that they do the wrong thing. He has written two e-mails (signed by himself and ready for use) on the two questions about usability disasters imposed from above that tend to come up over and over:
- My boss wants us to ask users for more personal information than we really need.
- My boss wants our site to have more "pizazz" (read: splash pages, animation, music, etc, etc).
However, the greatest thing about the book is, since it is about design principles and not technology, that it is not likely to be out of date anytime soon. The principles are still valid today. There are many recommendations that just make sense and are quick and easy to implement.
About the author
Steve Krug is best known as the author of Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. Ten years later, he finally gathered enough energy to write another one, the usability testing handbook Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.
The books are based on the 20+ years he's spent as a usability consultant for a wide variety of clients like Apple, Bloomberg.com, Lexus.com, NPR, the International Monetary Fund, and many others. His consulting firm, Advanced Common Sense ("just me and a few well-placed mirrors") is based in Chestnut Hill, MA.
Steve currently spends most of his time teaching usability workshops, consulting, and watching old episodes of Law and Order.