Book review: Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Famous designer Yves Saint Laurent once said: “Trends come and go, but style is eternal”. Although the quote is exclusively about fashion, I cannot but extrapolate it to the world of user experience.

On the one hand, such comparison may seem extraordinary because every website should be unique in its instance. On the other hand, it seems logical since following the guiding principles of web usability leads to the easy-to-use product. Isn’t it the holy grail for information developers who write text for the web and create help systems?

Having read the book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” by Steve Krug, I can surely say it is. Technologies and tools may change, but common sense is always in style.

The book has 12 chapters that constitute four extensive groups:

  • Guiding principles to web usability 

As it is in fashion, a good style has rules to follow. Steve Krug introduced three simple, yet comprehensive laws of usability. Let’s look at each of them in detail.

  1. Don’t make me think!

Do you think the user wants to do the tiniest mental effort to figure out which button to click to get to the registration form on the website? Not at all. Once the user opens your website, it should be understandable which step to take next. A good website should be self-evident, obvious, and self-explanatory. The same is true for web-based help systems. You have to anticipate all the possible questions and difficulties that the user can encounter and strive to avoid them. Pitfalls can be found in marketing-induced names, company-specific names, and unfamiliar technical terms. What is clear as daylight to you, can be Greek to the user.

Therefore, UI labels on your deliverable should be clear, as well as links and buttons should look like something that can be clicked.

  1. It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.

The second rule comes as a logical continuation of the first. What is more, if the first rule is implemented, the user’s interaction with the web-based deliverable will go naturally and effortlessly. It doesn’t matter that the users have to click four times to get to the needed topic as long as they are sure they will get there eventually.

  1. Get rid of half the words on each page, and then get rid of half of what’s left.

Does it ring a bell? Omit needless words…Not only is this true for writing technical documentation, but it also comes in handy when writing UI text. Less is more, isn’t it? Consider reducing happy talk which is a welcome text on the Home page.

  • How to get the navigation right?

Having learnt three simple rules, you have to dedicate some time to organizing straightforward navigation and the Home page design of your web-based help system. If you can answer the following questions after the first look at your deliverable, then its navigation is good to go:

  • What is the name of the product you are using? (application name)
  • What page am I on? (page name)
  • What are the major sections of this help system? (sections)
  • What are my options at this level? (local navigation)
  • Where am I in the scheme of things? (“You are here” indicators, breadcrumbs)
  • How can I search? (the Search box)

There is no best way for designing a Home page of your deliverable. Remember that the user should know where to search and browse within a matter of seconds.

  • How to make sure you got the navigation right?

Testing is the key to success. The earlier you start it, the better the final result will be. During the stage of testing, you have to become the most scrupulous examiner, paying attention to all the moves the user makes and asking guiding questions. Just as it is with interviewing the SMEs, come prepared.

The testing procedure described by Steve Krug resembles a psychotherapy session: an office room with two chairs, a computer, and a video device to record the user’s interaction with the system. You can do the “get it” testing to see if the user understands the organization of web-based help system, or the “key task” testing to see if the user can complete certain tasks. The next step is examining the results and making a statement about the usability of the product.

  • What else can influence web usability?

Remember about the reservoir of goodwill that the person has when opening a web-based help system. It is the users’ general attitude towards the product and the feeling of their interests being taken into account by its developers. At the beginning, it is full, but with every obscure step or unexpected mistake, it gets lower and eventually leads to the user leaving disappointed and never coming back. Nobody wants that. Putting efforts into improving your web-based deliverable by conducting testing sessions will ensure that the reservoir of the goodwill remains full.

The book “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” is already a classic of information design and web usability. Check it out to learn how to put yourself in the position of the user and make your web-based deliverables easy to use.

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