You should read Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. It’s concise, funny, and practically a picture book for adults. And it just makes sense. Krug wrote these no nonsense guidelines for making good websites so the book is useful to anyone who is involved in the website building process, from managers to developers.
There are a lot of overviews out there already (like this one) if you’re just looking for a summary, so I’ll skip that and just highlight some of the more important lessons that Krug introduced or reinforced for me.
A Quick Note About Editions
I read the second edition which is supposedly quite similar to the first. Between the two editions, Krug tightened up the information on user testing and added some information on advocating for usability. While all the principles in the book are clear and still relevant, some of the examples are so out of date that I think they imply that certain old trends and practices are still encouraged.
This was the most useful point I took from the book, so it goes first!
Early in the book, Krug introduces the term “satisficing.” It’s a term originally from rational-choice economics that is a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice.” The word was coined to express the fact that when faced with many options and the need to make a quick decision—which is pretty much every action we take on a computer—a person doesn’t chose the best of two or more options, they pick the first plausible option.
Satisficing is Krug’s “Fact of Life #2.” Fact #1 is, “We don’t read pages. We scan them.” Fact #3 is, “We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.” Taken together, here’s how people use the web:
- People glance at a page and identify some of the information on it.
- They take the first action that gets them closer to their goal.
- They either reach their goal or make the next choice that gets them closer to their goal. That next step is often going back one or more steps try a new path to their goal.1
I think satisficing best explains the book’s title. People don’t “think”–that is identify a complete set of possibilities, compare them, and select the best one—when using the web, they take the first decent option. If you build a site that requires making complex decisions, think again.
That Makes Me Think of…
I don’t think Krug makes this point in particular, but his discussion of satisficing illuminated this incongruity:
- We often make decisions regarding websites by identifying multiple options and picking the best solutions.
- The systems we build are used by satisficing users who don’t identify options or make decisions.
I don’t think these two facts will change. This is one of the reasons why Krug suggests testing early in the website building process. Find out whether you have problems before you over-think or become over-attached to a decision.
You Are Not A User
This point is short and sweet: Even if you are in the exact target demographic for your site, you know too much about your website to make any assumptions about what is “intuitive” or “obvious” or “easy.” You’re not a user, you’re a you-ser.2
In particular, Krug addresses the common problem that home pages do not identify what the site is about. It’s almost impossible to be too blunt or obvious about your site’s purpose.
And that’s why…
Testing is Good [and Not That Hard]
Even watching a single person try to use your site will give you valuable information about what people “see”3 and whether they act the way you expected. Krug is a big proponent of in-person one-on-one testing. That’s probably hard to beat, but there are some useful online tools—like the web app suite from Usability Hub—that allows some online testing.
I can attest to this fact. Actually observing the process of “muddling through” is eye-opening and invaluable for improving both the specific site I’m testing and future sites I will build.
Accessilibity is the Right Thing to Do
You can go back and read my slightly longer explanation, but accessibility is a key facet of usability, and it’s just “the right thing to do.” To put it really really bluntly, not making a website accessible is like telling someone to their face, “Sorry, I didn’t take the time to make this site available to you or other people like you.” Don’t do that.
[A lot of] Accessibility is not that Hard
It’s a myth that accessible websites are easy and cheap to implement. However, a lot of accessibility is easy and cheap to implement. Krug specifically hightlights:
- Add “alt text” to every image.
- Make sure your forms are accessible by using the <label> element with a descriptive text label for each form field.
- Put a “Skip to Main Content” link on every page. You wouldn’t know it, but there’s even one of this very page. Accessibility can still be beautiful!
Like I said, this book is short enough and good enough that you should just read the whole thing. There are plenty of important points I left out, so if you thought this stuff was good, there’s more where it came from!
Share Your Tips
If you’ve read this book feel free to share your favorite lessons from Don’t Make Me Think in the comments!