Don’t Make Me Think…

Originally suggested to me by Darren McMillan in this topic on the Software Testing Club as a possible book to read in order for my wife to learn more about usability, I recently decided to read it myself…

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (Second Edition), by Steve Krug.

First up, what an easy read!  Steve mentions in the book that it’s the type of read you can complete on a plane ride.  Well, not so much for me as I’m a terribly s-l-o-w reader, and my plane rides are short; however I did complete it quickly for my standards.  I think the ease of the read is due to Steve embedding usability into the book.  The text is a great size, there are larger blocks of white space at the bottom of most pages,  sections are broken up logically with distinct headings, and the use of pictures are a visual treat.  You never get the sense you a reading a ‘boring’ text book, which is a common thing when reading books of this nature.  

It’s been a great way to start my new learning journey.

Steve begins by explaining the second edition and how it differs from the first.  It’s actually an interesting couple of pages and sets the scene well for the remainder of the read.  Along with additions to existing chapters, Steve has added 3 (I think) new chapters.  So I would suggest it’s worth the read if you have only looked at the first edition.

Chapter 1 explains Steve’s number one rule of usability, ‘don’t make me think’.  This explanation is highlighted by some great visual representations of a user’s view of a web site.  It was very thought provoking and amazing to read about milliseconds of a user’s thought actually making a difference to their experience.  Even the label used on a particular button can make a huge difference in how long it takes most users to realise what the button does/can do for them.  A good example that Steve uses for different labels on the same button is – Jobs – Employment Opportunities – Job-o-Rama – I agree that I would have to stop and think before clicking on Job-o-Rama.  The different ways in which search functions can be executed was also a great way to highlight the potential thinking time of users.

Note – Steve doesn’t just highlight the issues, but also provides potential solutions for each throughout the book.

Chapter 2 takes brief, but powerful look at the way users use the web.  In this chapter I finally learned what satisfice means.  Even though I’m a regular visitor to James Bach’s web site I have never taken the time to learn what that actually is.  A combination of satisfy and suffice; in essence picking the first reasonable option (in the context of picking what we see on a web page) instead of searching for the ‘best’ option.  Think about it… when scanning a web page for a particular piece of information, if you see a link that ‘could’ be related to that information, you’ll likely click on it.  Steve goes on to explain how this impacts people’s decision making and also provides a great metaphor in relation to fire fighters.

Following on from this, chapter 3 talks about designing pages for scanning rather than reading.  Steve covers loads of different information in relation to how to set out your web pages.  Hierarchies, conventions, and breaking up your page into readable and usable sections are all written about neatly and concisely.  One particular ‘a-ha’ moment for me was how Steve related the layout conventions of a web page being similar to printed media, even newspapers which have been following such a convention for years.  Each newspaper follows the same convention, thus making it easier for readers to scan for the information that want, no matter what newspaper they are reading.  Such conventions are very useful on web sites.  It allows the user to scan quickly for what they’re after.

Chapter 4 is a very brief one that looks at why users like mindless choices.  Steve makes a good point when stating the amount of clicks is not as important as how hard each of the clicks are; i.e. How much do the users need to think before making the choice to click.

Chapter 5 tackles writing for the web and as I was reading this my mind quickly went back to the wonderful book Weinberg on Writing.  In this Gerry often mentions that unnecessary words should be removed from your writing, and Steve covers the same in this chapter.  One very useful section of this chapter is where Steve takes a blurb from a web site which is 103 words in length, and reduces it down to 41 words while covering all the same information.  Each logical section of the blurb is broken up while Steve comments on how each of them can be improved, finishing with his 41 word version.  These types of examples that are spread throughout the book are extremely useful and thought provoking.

In keeping with the ‘usability’ theme Steve provides a warning, so to speak, that chapters 6 and 7 are lengthy ones; so a packed lunch is advised.  Personally, I love this.  It suits my reading style, as I rarely commence reading a chapter unless I think I have time to finish it. Luckily I had just sat down on a plane so I was comfortable to get reading.

Chapter 6 covers navigation, and you can understand why this is one of the bigger chapters… as navigation is right up there when it comes to usability!  Using a metaphor of physical shopping Steve provides some very good examples of how navigation in a physical location directly relates to a users experience on the web.  There are some minor flaws in the process diagrams which Steve is aware of; however the impact of those diagrams is not lost because of them.  This chapter is jammed packed with useful information and I had several ‘a-ha’ moments throughout.  I think the majority of it is so obvious that we simply take it for granted.  When it is described for you it provokes thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t have been, and that was very useful for me.  One section that I do want to single out is the Trunk Test.  Look it up, it’s great.  I have actually used this on a project with some great information being gleamed.

The next large chapter is 7, and once again you can understand why as it’s all about the home page.  The first page that users see; the page where they decide if they are going to stay or go (i.e. the most important one).  Steve talks about the common battle amongst stakeholders for their slice of the screen real estate pie!  Having not worked on a web design team, this was new to me; however completely understandable.  The memorable moments from this chapter come from the many home pages that Steve includes in the book along with his comments on where they go wrong, and where they go right.  There are little exercises for the reader in which they need to determine the point of the site the home pages are representing.  Once you have a go then Steve walks you through the exercise as he sees it with loads of great information.

Chapters 6 and 7 are definitely the ‘meat and potatoes’ of this book, and cover enough valuable information to cover the cost of the book by themselves.

Chapter 8 takes a look at the web design team arguments and how they can be avoided.  The key take away for me was that each member of the design team will have their on take on what the ‘average’ user likes and dislikes; however this will be tainted by their own likes and dislikes.  The fact is, as Steve points out, there are no ‘average’ users.  All users are unique.  The answer for such arguments?  Testing.

This is where my eyes widened… testing.  Chapter 9 is all about usability testing, and more than that; about doing it inexpensively.  I loved this chapter, and I think that’s because I have lived through it on many occasions.  Steve provides a great method for keeping usability testing costs to a minimum, so that you can do more.  Many smaller rounds of testing are better than fewer big rounds of testing, and Steve tells you how to keep them small and valuable at the same time.  There are lots of great pointers in this chapter and after reading it I’ll definitely be grabbing Steve’s second book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.  A whole book on the subject of usability testing.

Chapter 10 is actually quite an entertaining read.  Steve opens up with a story about one of his web site experiences and then goes on to talk about a user’s ‘reservoir of goodwill’; and how quickly it can be drained!  Steve covers both things that can diminish goodwill, and those that can increase it.  It’s a clever little chapter that reminds us of the small things that can be done to help the user’s experience be a positive one.

Many of us see usability and accessibility as two separate things; and I guess they are… but you can’t really have one without the other.  Chapter 11 covers accessibility along with cascading style sheets (CSS).  I think one of the more profound pieces of information for me was that to help accessibility of your web site, you need to get the basic usability in order first.  Making a site easier to use for a non-disabled person will almost always make it easier for a disabled person as well.  So logical, but something I had not really thought about before.  I would normally jump straight to the accessibility type issues (screen readers, etc.) and forget about all the basic usability issues while doing so.  So thank you Steve for that little gem.

The final chapter, number 12, is a great little chapter that talks about what you do when your boss wants you to make a change in the design that is actually a poor choice in relation to usability.  Steve actually offers to write your boss and email explaining why a certain decision is a bad one, and provides the email template that he would use.  It’s classic!

Despite that being the final chapter, there is more.  Steve provides a great list of recommended reading and I think I’ll be looking into most of the recommendations he gives.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  As it’s my first of it’s type, and the beginning of my self education in this particular area I think it did a great job of opening my eyes to the common issues faced when dealing with usability.  I actually feel that I’m better armed with useful information that I can apply straight away (and have done so).

Thanks Steve!

2 thoughts on “Don’t Make Me Think…

  1. I’m learning more on this subject as well so interesting to follow your progress. Those books are on my To Be Read pile….
    What did you do before when you were doing usability ? Or didn’t you cover that area ? What will you be doing differently after your reading, what are the main lessons learned ?

    • Hey Phil, thx for the comment.

      What did I do before? Muddled my way through mate. It was great to read that I was actually on the right track with a lot of the issues (according to Steve anyway) I had found in the past… then there were those that I didn’t even think of!

      I’m actually creating checklists of all the areas in the book. So hopefully quick reference points to help me with test ideas.

      I think the overall lesson learned for me is the importance of usability, and how simple it can be to make changes for the better. It doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs a little of your focus.

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