Review by Chris Farnum (January 30, 2001)

Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

If you've ever sat through one of those stomach-turning meetings in which the Web team is arguing for the umpteenth time whether or not to use a drop-down menu, Steve Krug has got a way to help you settle the debate. This book provides an introductory overview of why Web usability is important, explores principles for assessing a site's usability yourself, and explains how to start actually testing users without breaking the bank.

The author is a usability consultant with over 10 years experience and an impressive history with companies ranging from Apple to AOL. The book is easily digestible, and I found myself chuckling at his offbeat sense of humor. It's also highly practical and includes well-illustrated examples and specific techniques that you can start using right away.

As an information architect, I found this book valuable because it distills and collects much of the best current thinking on Web usability in one place. Seasoned Web design professionals may not find much in this book that they don't already know, but may want to buy copies for their bosses. Krug tends to demystify issues that other writers make sound like doctoral theses. One substantial chunk of the book describes his guiding principles for assessing Web usability. As you might guess, his central message is that navigation systems, main pages, labels, buttons, etc. can either make using a site obvious or they can discourage users by making them think too much. Along the way, Krug covers a spectrum of topics that range from information architecture to visual design. He includes analysis of various design conventions, such as tabs, as well as his heuristics for evaluating pages. For example, he provides a series of stress test questions to use to evaluate your site's navigation system (p. 87).

It is refreshing that although Krug offers many strong opinions, he exhorts his readers to think for themselves. Unlike some usability gurus, he leaves room for exceptions to his pronouncements and encourages people to learn methods for making their own judgments.

According to Krug, just about anyone can conduct a user test. The last third of the book provides a succinct introduction to testing, including sample questions to ask users. He even includes a transcript from a session he conducted. His approach to testing is very informal and centers on questions to determine if users "get it" and if they can perform key tasks. Instead of doing one final expensive scientific test, he strongly suggests conducting many simple affordable tests from beginning to end.

Some of his pronouncements, such as "the importance of recruiting representative users is overrated," may make some professionals cringe. Krug is more than willing to bend and break the traditional rules of user testing to make sure that people actually do it without fear of the time and cost. He contends that the value of testing is not collecting quantitative data, but rather gathering qualitative information for making better design decisions.

For the past year I've been incorporating informal user research into my information architecture methodology, and sometimes it's a challenge to get clients to understand its value. It is great to have a resource to recommend to clients that explains why these methods are valuable even though they aren't quantitative and statistical. I really appreciate this book for justifying informal qualitative testing and giving me new ideas about how to include it in my work.

Quotes from the Text

On designing for the way users really use the Web (p. 29):
"If your audience is going to act like you're designing billboards, then design great billboards."

On writing for the web (p. 47):
"Your objective should always be to eliminate instructions entirely by making everything self-explanatory, or as close to it as possible. When instructions are absolutely necessary, cut them back to the bare minimum."

On low level navigation (p. 71):
"…Users usually end up spending as much time on lower-level pages as they do at the top. And unless you've worked out top-to-bottom navigation from the beginning, it's very hard to graft it on later and come up with something consistent."

On the need for user testing (p. 137):
"Where debates about what people like waste time and drain the team's energy, testing tends to defuse arguments and break impasses by moving the discussion away from the realm of what's right or wrong and into the realm of what works or doesn't work."

On "lost our lease, going-out-of-business-sale usability testing" (p. 144):
"The idea of discount usability testing was a huge step forward. The only problem is that a decade later most people still perceive testing as a big deal… [You can] do your own testing when you have no money and no time."

On designing home pages (p. 101):
"As quickly and clearly as possible, the Home page needs to answer the four questions I have in my head when I enter a new site for the first time:

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