What’s the most important thing designers and developers need to know about making good websites? Don’t make me think.
That’s Steve Krug’s first law of usability: Don’t make me think. He goes into detail about it in his book Don’t Make Me Think (Revisited): A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Usability. It’s all about understanding how people actually use websites and then trying to make websites better.
Krug has a ton of practical insights that can help any web project. We’ll explore some of those ideas and give a quick overview.
How People Use Websites
It’s helpful to realize that when people look at websites, they don’t study it and figure out how things work. They poke around aimlessly, they click on the first thing they see, they skip around. Very rarely do users actually read every word on a page or click through every item in your menu in order.
- We don’t read pages, we scan them.
- We don’t make optimal choices, we choose the first reasonable option.
- We don’t figure things out, we muddle through.
“Every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, especially if it’s something we do all the time like deciding what to click on. And as a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things.”
The more you make your users think, the faster you’re going to lose them. So don’t make them think.
How Do We Do ‘Don’t Make Me Think’?
It’s vital to make everything as simple and clear as you can. You avoid making people think by making things self-evident, or at least self-explanatory.
- Take advantage of conventions: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use what works. There are times when it’s OK to break conventions, but you better make sure you have a good reason and that it’s better.
- Create effective visual hierarchies: Everything should be organized and logical in a way that makes sense at a glance.
- Break pages up into clearly defined areas: People tend to group things and ignore what’s not important.
- Make it obvious what’s clickable: “As a user, I should never have to devote a millisecond of thought to whether things are clickable—or not.”
- Eliminate distractions: You should ruthlessly cut out what’s not necessary. If everything is important than nothing is important.
- Format content to support scanning: Use headings, short paragraphs, bulleted lists, and highlight key terms to make things easier to skim.
4 Specific Website Areas to Make Easier
Let’s look at four areas where Krug gives specific advice.
1. What Do You Do?
Perhaps the most important part of Don’t Make Me Think is the fact that people don’t know what your website is about. What do you do? Everyone thinks they’ve made what their website is about clear, but more often than not, it’s clear as mud.
When someone lands on your homepage (or anywhere in your site), they need to understand what you do at a glance. And that’s a difficult bar to reach, in part because you can’t trust yourself.
“You can’t trust your own judgment about this. You need to show the home page to people from outside your organization to tell you whether the design is getting this job done because the ‘main point’ is the one thing nobody inside the organization will notice is missing.”
Above any other usability issue, you need to make sure you get your main point across on the homepage.
Here are three ways to do it:
- Tagline: A good tagline is clear, informative and to the point. It should be right next to the logo on every page. It should be helpful, not just a marketing slogan or motto.
- Welcome blurb: A quick, short description of what you do should be prominent on the homepage. (While it’s called the “welcome blurb,” it should absolutely not welcome people to your site—that’s just unnecessary small talk.)
- Learn more: Sometimes what you do is complicated. That’s OK. Give people an opportunity to learn more about it. Include a video or a link to a section where things are explained in more depth.
2. Navigation & ArchitectureIt’s easy to get lost, even in a virtual space. So websites always need to help people figure out where they are.
There are a number of things that can help serve as those sign posts:
- Site ID: The logo and name of the site need to be on every page. People can show up on any page from anywhere, so it’s important that it’s always clear where they are.
- Page name: Pages need to be clearly identified so users can know they’re getting to the right place. If they’re looking for services and they’re on the Services page, it gives them confidence. But if they’re not sure what page they’re on, you’re introducing unnecessary anxiety into the process.
- Sections: What are the major sections of the site? This should be clear and simple for users. Well-designed sections will help users find what they’re looking for faster.
- Local navigation: Primary navigation gets all the attention, but lower-level navigation is just as important. This is where users are likely to spend more of their time. It’s hard to do well, and it doesn’t get a lot of attention.
- You are here: A good way to combat feeling lost in a website is with ‘you are here’ indicators. Much like the map at the mall, they help users orient themselves. A common way to do this is by highlighting the current location in the menu or showing breadcrumbs. The key is to make it prominent.
- Search: There should always be an option to search. Stick to the conventions here: Don’t use fancy wording, don’t bother with instructions, and don’t give search options from the start (giving options to narrow or restrict a search is fine on the results page).
Help users figure out where they are and how to find what they’re looking for.
3. WordinessAs a writer and someone who loves to read, it pains me to say this, but: People don’t read.
On the web, we scan and skim and skip around. If and when people find something they’re interested in they absolutely will read (which is why long-form blog posts can work)—but in general they don’t read. Never expect people to read every word on a page.
Yet our text often balloons with unnecessary words. We babble on and say way more than we need to.
Here are three ways to address it:
- Omit needless words: This is the classic advice from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Go through your copy and ruthlessly cut out extra words.
- Ditch small talk: Even on the web there’s a tendency to fill space with meaningless words. A lot of secondary pages have introductory “welcome” text that doesn’t say anything. Get to the point or get rid of it.
- Instructions: Another place we get wordy is with instructions. People rarely read instructions and they’re only necessary in the rarest cases. If someone needs to read instructions to take your survey or sign up for an email list, you’re doing it wrong.
4. Usability Testing
The final lesson from Don’t Make Me Think is about the importance of usability testing. Everyone wants to make a site easier for the user, but it’s hard to know what will do that. The best way to figure that out is by testing it.
Usability testing isn’t as complicated or as expensive as you think. The book has loads of insights on why and how to do testing, and Krug has even written a second book all about how to do it: Rocket Surgery Made Easy.
Here are a few usability testing tips:
- You can do simple usability testing on your own. It doesn’t require hiring an outside firm or spending tons of money.
- Test early and test often. Too many times testing comes way too late to make a difference.
- Get stakeholders to observe testing. More often than not they’ll be shocked at how real people actually use your site.
- Focus on improving the most important things. You’ll never identify all the problems, and even if you did, you don’t have time to fix them all. So focus on the biggest issues.
If you’re ready to move beyond “don’t make me think” and actually do some usability testing to improve things, take a deeper look at Krug’s work.
Don’t Make Me Think
User experience, in a nutshell, is that simple advice: Don’t make me think. Apply it to your sites and make sure they’re crazy simple to use.
“The main reason why it’s important not to make me think is that most people are going to spend far less time looking at the pages we design than we’d like to imagine. As a result, if web pages are going to be effective, they have to work most of their magic at a glance.”
Get the Book: Don’t Make Me Think
Five years and more than 100,000 copies after it was first published, it’s hard to imagine anyone working in Web design who hasn’t read Steve Krug’s “instant classic” on Web usability, but people are still discovering it every day. Don’t be surprised if it completely changes the way you think about Web design.