A few notes on Don’t Make Me Think

Encountering Steve early in my transformation to a UX geek profoundly affected me. I’ve been re-reading his seminal book lately and captured a few thoughts I’ll share with you.

His book “Don’t Make Me Think” is one of the most shockingly plain and easy discussions of web usability I’ve seen, with lots of subtle lessons woven into a deceptively easy-to-read discussion. Easy to follow, both anecdotal and evidence-bound, and contains many dozens of insights distilled down to the very nut of the problem. No overlong self-pleasuring discussion of theory or why things should be different than they are – Krug recognizes first and foremost that the best systems give users the easiest path to success, and leaves the art of user experience design up to the definition of ‘success’ (to be struggled over by users, designers and stakeholders).

One of the great lessons of this book is typified by the following passage in chapter 8:

“The point is, it’s not productive to ask questions like ‘Do most people like pulldown menus?’ The right kind of question to ask is ‘Does this pulldown, with these items and this wording in this context on this page create a good experience for most people who are likely to use this site?’ And there’s really only one way to answer that kind of question: testing. You have to use the collective skill, experience, creativity and common sense of the team to build some version of the thing (even a crude version), then watch ordinary people carefully as they try to figure out what it is and how to use it. There’s no substitute for it.”

This lesson has echoed in my head for a year while I ruminated on it. I suppose I wanted to find a shortcut, see of there were other reasonably-equivalent ways to achieve the same outcome; you know how it goes, and you know how it turned out. Now I quote this idea at people all the time, and I keep hammering myself over the head with it every time I try to take a shortcut. Doesn’t mean I don’t take the shortcut sometimes, but I’m making sure I’m aware that I’ve optimised out the most effective way to determine the best design.

Another one that resonates every time I read it: “What testing can do is is provide you with invaluable input which, taken together with your experience, professional judgment and common sense, will make it easier for you to choose wisely – and with greater confidence – between ‘a’ and ‘b’.”. User testing gets presented by some practitioners (usually the ones fesh out of academia, or those who are terrified of the lack of rigor and thoroughness in the business world – or both) as a terribly important practice with lots of rules about statistical validity and ability to “prove hypotheses”. In my own experience even, it’s amazing to get that outside perspective – even if you throw some or much of the feedback and observations away.

I’m also permanent changed by Krug’s perspective and emphasis on navigation. Thinking of it like the navigation you need when walking into a department store is brilliant, invaluable advice. I think of this every time I design a web site (and in some cases even do a passable job of reaching a reasonable level of clarity).

Every UX/usability tome I pick up gets compared to this, and many predictably (and deservedly) fall short. It makes for much quicker reading sessions on the dry or artificially-academic doorstops.

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