Web Design

“Don’t Make Me Think” (5 Key Takeaways on Web Design & Usability)

Steve Krug is largely revered as the grandfather of web usability. For over three decades his consulting firm, Advanced Common Sense, has worked with top companies like Apple and NPR to assess…

Estimated Read Time:  9 minutes


Steve Krug is largely revered as the grandfather of web usability. For over three decades his consulting firm, Advanced Common Sense, has worked with top companies like Apple and NPR to assess how users interact with their products, websites, and software. Most notably, Krug is known as the author of “Don’t Make Me Think”, a beginners guide to web usability. This has been often referred to as the bible of web usability and has been adopted by many companies and universities as a textbook for classes and education.

In “Don’t Make Me Think”, Krug takes a common sense approach to the content. He breaks down the key concepts into clear chapters which are quick to read and paired with lots of images to help the reader understand. He follows his own advice about keeping things simple by using a tone that isn’t too formal. It would be comfortable for most students and professionals of all levels to read and understand. Most importantly, the book isn’t terribly long. If you’re a slow reader (like myself) it may take a few days to get through by reading in small chunks at a time. However, for those that are much faster at reading, it would easily be gleaned through within a few hours.

Over the course of the book, Krug presents a lot of information about how to design websites to be easy for users. Here are the five biggest takeaways for web designers to learn about web-usability and implement.

Facts of Life for Web Designers

In the first few chapters of the book, Krug presents some hard truths about how users interact with websites and why the often make the decisions that they do. He calls these the three web design “Facts of Life”. They are:

  • Users don’t read pages. They scan them.
  • Users don’t make optimal choices. They satisfice.
  • Users don’t figure out how things work. They muddle through.

Ultimately, these are true because users are almost always in a hurry and because there is no real consequence for failing to make time for what’s best for them.

For web designers, these are important to understand because these truths directly affect the visual elements of a site. For instance, because readers scan, not read sites, important homepage elements are generally broken down into blocks of images with headlines. The visual division makes it easy for a users to read and find what is important. Krug calls this “billboard” design because it stems from large billboards drivers only have a few seconds to see.

If Users Get Frustrated, They Will Leave

If there is a single takeaway from the book that is more important than all of the others, it’s that frustrated users will leave your website. What this essentially boils down to that no matter what your industry or product is, making your website easy to understand and use for users should be a top priorities. Taking a common sense approach to the usability and design of a site is what will ultimately drive web users to convert.

Krug goes on to offer a variety of solutions for making websites easy to use by digging into the basic elements that compose a site. These are broken down in the chapter “Billboard Design 101 into five general design rules.

  • Create a clear visual hierarchy.
  • Conventions are your friends.
  • Break up pages into clearly defined areas.
  • Make it obvious what’s clickable.
  • Keep the noise down to a dull roar.

Persistent Navigation Is The Single Most Important Design Element of a Website

The longest and most complicated chapter of the book is dedicated to de-mystifying and building effective website navigations.

The problem, which Krug argues, is that because websites don’t exist as physical spaces with clear boundaries of how big they are (like a department store), users need to know where they are at all times. He sums this up by simply stating “People won’t use your site if they can’t find their way around it.”

The solution is what is known as a persistent navigation. This is a type of navigation that exists at the top of every page on the website. With the exception of a few page types, this navigation should essentially be the same across the entire site. It is what will be a users North Star as it provides visual consistency to remind users that they’re still in the same place and they move from page to page. Furthermore, he breaks down what every effective persistent navigation should have into five parts:

  • Site ID – This is going to be the company logo.
  • Sections – These are the main overall categories or pages of your site.
  • Utilities – Utilities are quick links to important pages that may not exist in the overall flow of the regular site.
  • A Way Home – A dedicated link in either the main navigation or subsequent “utilities” to ensure users can “reset” their journey if they need to.
  • Search – A means to search your website in case the user does not want to use the navigation.

Don’t Lose Site of the Big Picture on the Homepage

One of the biggest problems with designing home pages for complex sites, Krug argues, is that the big picture is often lost. There can be forms for logging in, image banners for promotions, but too often we are left in the dark without enough information to know what the site actually is.

From a very basic level, he outlines four simple questions that a homepage should, at a glance (because users don’t read, they scan), “correctly and unambiguously” answer so users aren’t in the dark:

  • What is this?
  • What can I do here?
  • What do they have here?
  • Why should I be here – and not somewhere else?

However, the challenge lies in answering these basic questions for the user while keeping in mind that if it’s all too complicated, a user will become frustrated and leave.

If You Want a Great Site, You’ve Got to Test it, and Keep the Testing Simple

The entire book comes to a head when Krug points out that the only way to know if your site is going to work is it you test. Not just once but in multiple times in an iterative fashion. What that means is that you test, make changes, test those changes, so on and so forth. While he does write that testing at least one person is better than testing nobody at all, his ultimate recommendation is to start testing early and often.

Once again though, we return the notion that like a website, if a user test is too complicated, the results can be obfuscated. As an antidote, Krugs serves up what is called “Lost our lease, going-out-of-business-sale” usability testing. This is essentially a low cost plan on how to garner usability data and interpret those results on as little as $300.

This can be accomplished by recording a user’s journey through the site with a video camera on a tripod while a facilitator asks them generalized questions about themselves and the pages they are looking at. For example, a facilitator may show the homepage and ask, “What do you think this is?” and “What would you click on?”

But keeping the test honest and effective is no easy task, so Krug offers some basic guidelines for doing so:

  • Protect the Participants – Don’t damage a user’s self-esteem
  • Be Empathetic – Be nice and thank and reward them for their time
  • Try to See the Thought Balloons Forming Over Their Heads – Observe their thought process
  • Don’t Give Them Hints About What To Do – This will skew results
  • Keep Instructions Simple – Ask them to do general things like “Tell me what you would click on next”
  • Make Notes – Write down as much as you can about the session

Overall Reaction & Dislikes

After finishing “Don’t Make Me Think” I felt a sense of validation and pride. I already knew and understood many of the concepts Krug presented. This made it clear that in my career as a web designer, I was clearly doing the right kinds of things.

However, the ultimate drawback of this book is that it’s quite dated. While there have been a few editions of the book at this point, the edition I read was the first which came out in October of 2000. This leaves many of the website examples irrelevant as the book is entirely desktop web-design focused. In fact, mobile design wouldn’t be an area of design to fully develop until nearly a decade later (the first iPhone was released in 2007). While the overall concepts will ultimately still ring true, the dated references and design examples made parts of this book difficult to follow at times.

Another overall thought after finishing this book is that I can’t help but think about how web-design has evolved in general over the last twenty years. Many of the concepts outlined in the book have clearly become so baked into the standards of design across the web that I found kept saying to myself, “oh so THAT’S why we do that!”. It almost seemed pedantic at times that Krug viewed the user and web-designer with so little regard. Although I suppose that is why it’s ultimately meant to be a guide for beginners.

Overall I feel a paired down and updated version of this book would prove to be a fantastic guide for anyone who needs to learn more about web-usability. I give it a 7/10.

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