By - Neal Cole

11 Usability Insights From Don’t Make Me Think!

Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Don’t Make Me Think!

Steve Krug communicates almost everything he needs to say with the title of his book – Don’t make me think! Everything on a web page should be self-evident, obvious and self-explanatory. A good design should be intuitive and almost instantly recognisable for what it does or sells. If it isn’t that obvious you are probably doing something wrong.

Steve hates clutter, jargon and designs that asks lots of questions. The more questions a design raises the greater the cognitive load and the more distracting it becomes. People don’t like to have to work things out when browsing and a lack of attention to the design of a page can quickly undermine confidence in the whole site.

Don’t make me think is probably the most well-known and easiest books to read on usability. This is because Steve Krug understands users so well. Here are eleven valuable usability insights from his book that can be applied to any website or app you want to improve.

1. We don’t read pages. We scan them.

The paradox of the web is that whilst we browse to find information, most of the time we scarcely read any of it. We mainly scan the information we are served on the web and research in 2008 found that given the average time on a page we only have sufficient time to read at most 28% of the words on a page.

We scan text for a number of reasons:

  • We’re good at it. Our brains are configured to search for patterns and so we learn from a young age to scan books, newspapers and magazines to find the information we are interested in.
  • Users are impatient. Much of our use of the web is motivated to save time and so users don’t want to read any more than is absolutely necessary.
  • Users know they don’t need to read everything. When looking for information on a webpage we are only interested in a fraction of what’s on a page and we scan to quickly find the most relevant nuggets and ignore the rest.

To help users scan for the most relevant information on a page we can use headings, subheadings, bullet points, short paragraphs, directional cues and high-contrast call-to-action buttons. Avoid clutter or dense content that makes scanning difficult. It is especially important to design web forms with this in mind as users can easily get distracted and abandon forms if they are difficult to complete.

2. We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.

In the vast majority of instances users don’t evaluate all the available options and select the best one for their needs. When visitors go to a website they will normally select the first-reasonable option, an approach known as satisficing. This is because users are impatient, they don’t want to spend time weighing up all the options and the penalty for guessing wrong on a website is usually pretty minor.

To allow for satisficing don’t offer too many different options as Hick’s Law confirms that the more choices a visitor has the longer it will take them to make a decision.  Summarise the options available and use simple graphics to highlight the difference between choices. Use social proof to confirm your most popular option as people can use this as a short-cut to evaluating all the choices available to them.

Image of pricing plans to create a high anchor price
Image Source: Survata.com

This pricing page from Survata.com clearly shows the most popular option and communicates the difference between each plan in a way that can quickly be digested.

3. We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.

Hardly anyone reads the instructions for a new gadget or an app they have downloaded. People prefer to muddle through and often don’t understand how thing work. This is the same with most websites, users prefer to try and figure out things as they go and prefer intuitive sites that assist this process.

This means users will often make mistakes as they try and work things out. Allow for mistakes and provide support, not heavy handed criticism in the form of meaningless error messages.   Build in helpful tool tips to forms (see example from Virgin Atlantic below) and offer Live Chat to allow users to interact in real-time with customer services. Onboarding messaging can also help guide new visitors to navigate and fine what they are looking for.

Image of tool tips on Virginatlantic.com

This doesn’t mean that it’s not important that users “get it”. If visitors understand your site they are more likely to find what they are looking for and become aware of the full range of services or products available on your site.  You will then have a better chance of directing users towards other parts of your site that you want them to visit and they are more likely to feel in control and comfortable about browsing your site.

4. Conventions are your friends.

Web conventions are the designer’s friend because they allow users to recognise and interact with key elements of a new website without having to use up lots of cognitive effort to figure out how things work. They allow users to learn from their experience and reduces cognitive load.

Web conventions allow new sites to benefit from the mere exposure effect as they provide a reassuring sense of familiarity and confidence with interacting with a site. As a consequence we automatically look in the top left-hand corner for a site logo and we expect the primary navigation to be either along the top of the page or down the left-side.

Sometimes web designers are reluctant to follow web conventions because they feel they have been hired to create something new and different.  However, Steve Krug believes there should only be two instances when they don’t follow web conventions.

  • When it is so clear and self-explanatory that there is no learning curve to slow a user down.
  • It adds so much value that it is worth a small learning curve.

So, unless you have a better idea than the current convention it is likely that it is not worth trying to reinvent the wheel.

5. Break up pages into clearly defined areas:

To help users quickly scan a page to identify information that is most relevant to what they are looking for and to decide where they want to go next it is essential to break a page into clearly defined areas. This means having clear separation of navigation from the body of a page, headings, maybe a hero image and copy to communicate more detailed information on the topic.

This web designer obviously wants to break with tradition. However, having no clear distinction between the navigation and the body copy makes the experience confusing and potentially frustrating.

Image Source: flueras.com/

Eye tracking studies have also shown that users quickly decide which sections of page are likely to have useful information and will ignore the rest of the page as if it doesn’t exist. This is partly because our brain can only consciously focus on a very narrow field of vision.

6. Make it obvious what’s clickable.

A landing page or homepage only have two purposes. One is to establish credibility and secondly to signal where the visitor should go next. For the later reason it is important to make it obvious what’s clickable and what’s not. This is essential for any page as you don’t want to create dead ends where it is not clear where the visitor should go next.

Web pages that use flat design like this one from Very.co.uk have removed many of the visual cues that tell the user what is clickable. This can make it difficult to quickly identify what is clickable on a page and slows navigation down as the user has to consciously look for what might be clickable. At the bottom of this webpage from Very you can see that it’s not obvious that both the “Hotpoint” and the “Shop Hotpoint Deals” boxes are both clickable buttons.

Example of flat design website from very.co.uk
Image Source: Very.co.uk

Button shaped call-to-actions are better at communicating something is clickable than a hyperlink. Always include a relevant primary call-to-action on a webpage as this helps users decide where to go next.

 7. Keep the noise down to a dull roar.

Visual noise is one of the greatest threats to conversion.

Busyness: Some webpages have so much happening on them that you feel that everything on them is competing for your attention. These pages may have lots of banners, multiple call-to-actions, animation, auto-play and pop-ups asking you to sign up.

It’s difficult to know where to start looking on this homepage from Comms-Express.com as there is so much going on. The page gives the impression that anything goes with the design of the page and so creates a poor impression of the site.

The Comms-Express homepage has too many conflicting CTAs and distracting content
Image Source: Comms-Express.com

Back-ground noise: Other pages suffer from lots of minor distractions that on their own may not be a problem, but when placed together on a single page can be quite off-putting and annoying.

8. Happy talk must die.

Remove unnecessary introductory text that welcomes visitors to your site or informs users what they are about to view in the part of the site they have just landed on. Happy talk tends to be about you rather than the customer. It is often self-congratulatory promotional writing that conveys no useful information.

Happy talk is similar to small talk; it’s a way of being sociable. Unfortunately most users don’t have time for small talk as they want you to get straight to the point and so you should remove as much as you can.

9. Instructions must die.

I once worked for a business with a poker app and the product manager asked me if I thought we should include some instructions on how to use the app when users first opened an account. I said no as if you need instructions to explain how to use an app the designers have obviously failed.

As Steve Krug points out “the main thing you need to know about instructions is that no one is going to read them.” As we have already mentioned most users try to muddle through and believe this should be sufficient for any well designed site or app.

Often the need for instructions is the direct result of using meaningless icons without any labels. Avoid inventing icons that new users won’t understand and add labels to icons to confirm what they represent.

10. The Myth of the Average User:

There is no such thing as an average web user, just like there is no such thing as an average sized pilot. For a pilot to fly a plane safely designers have had to build the ability to adjust the cockpit to fit the individual pilot’s dimensions. This means they can adjust the seat height and the distance from the controls to make the user experience match the pilot’s needs.

Web design is no different. There are no simple right or wrong answers as each site is unique and visitors have a tendency not to follow the “average path”.  What works for users is a carefully thought out and integrated design that meets a need, is well executed and is tested. Context is also critical in design decisions as what works on one page may not be appropriate for another. This is why site-wide templates that incorporate calls-to-actions and navigation are often a bad idea as it is unlikely that all elements will be relevant for every page on the site.

11. Focus groups are not usability tests.

Focus groups are often used to get feedback on creative ideas, but they are not appropriate for usability research. User research needs to be one person at a time so that they can either work out what it is your site is for or try to complete a typical task. The group interaction that you get from a group discussion would completely undermine this process and is not typical of a normal browsing session.

When was the last time you browsed a site with a group of people you have never met before? It doesn’t happen.

When conducting usability research it’s important that the user is not distracted by other people and they feel comfortable to focus on the task in hand. One user test is one hundred percent better than no user tests and testing one user early in the project is better than testing 50 hear the end.

Testing is not designed to prove or disprove anything, it’s about informing decision making. Don’t get too hung up about recruiting representative users as it’s more important to test early and often than worry about getting someone who exactly fits your target audience.

User research is an iterative process. It’s not something you do once. You create a site, test it, fix it and test again.  Usability research also makes your user experience come to life. There is nothing better at showing stakeholders where users may be struggling with your site than a live or recorded usability test.

Conclusion:

Steve Krug’s book is full of valuable insights about web design and usability research. He is the master of keeping things simple and focusing on user needs rather than the opinions of stakeholders. I cannot recommend Steve’s book enough as he is so good at putting his own recommendations into practice with a concise and no nonsense approach to writing.

Remember users scan, they are not looking for optimal solutions. Users muddle through rather than read instructions, don’t break with web conventions unless you have created something better, ensure you clearly separate different sections of a web page and make sure it is obvious what is clickable on a page.

Keep the noise to a minimum, eliminate meaningless happy talk, don’t design for the mythical average user and remember “focus groups are not usability tests.” Test early and often, usability testing is an iterative process.

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  • About the author:  Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for  brands such as the innovator incubator RGAx, the music streaming  brand Deezer.com, online gambling brands Foxybingo.com, partypoker.com and Bgo.com and the e-commerce retailer Very. Neal uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
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