”Don't make me think” - three things we can all still learn from Steve Krug
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
One factor that drove me to write my own book was the fact that there isn't a lot of great literature available on delivering a good visitor experience or advising website designers on how to improve their websites. There are, unsurprisingly, an absolute glut of books available on SEO, and a lot of detailed and focussed user experience (UX) advice, but few that take a stand back and communicate the underlying principles of web design.
Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” (available on Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) is one exception. Published over 20 years ago, it had an impact on my very early career and has stuck with me since. I recently got hold of an updated version of the book and felt it worth sharing the three biggest take-outs that any web designer could benefit from remembering.
1 - The titular rule - “don’t make me think”
This is the best known part of the book and also one of the simplest, but most helpful lines of advice in it. Here, Krug argues that a key metric of how effective a website element is, is how instantly it can be understood. Whilst, for example, reducing the number of clicks (and hence number of decisions) that a visitor has to make is worthwhile, it is much better to give them a slightly higher number of easy decisions rather than a smaller number of harder ones.
He gives an example of how this applies to different button layouts and designs, and how quickly they allow a visitor to make a decision (the best one looks the most ‘buttony’ and has concise, simple text that clearly communicates the button’s action). However, I'd suggest the importance of this - the importance of limiting the visitor’s cognitive workload - can extend into areas of the site that aren't always first thought of when considering UX:
Using easy to understand, concise, visitor-friendly language across all parts of the website. Long words, whilst sounding impressive are hard for most people to understand and process. Most of the time when visitors are reading content they are scanning it for the most important bits, and so require simple sentence structure to be used. Tripping a visitor up with an overly convoluted sentence or phrasing can break their flow and mean they don't absorb your key messages.
Navigational consistency with other sites of a similar type. I've written in the past about the supermarket analogy. Someone visiting a new supermarket for the first time has a pretty good idea of how to navigate it because most supermarkets are designed in the same way, which visitors learn, and have enforced, with each experience with a supermarket. I once worked with a client who had decided to go against supermarket convention and move their frozen section away from the back of the store and towards the middle, and this caused no end of customer confusion (the decision was eventually reversed). To avoid similar problems on your website, look at how your navigation structure compares to other sites like yours. If most of them are designing their navigational structures it in a consistent way, then copy that. Don't force the visitor to have to re-learn their navigation behaviour.
Basic design decisions such as font or colour selection. Avoid any instinct to look overly unique or arty, and pick a font that is easiest for the reader to process. When choosing colours, be mindful of their implied meaning (for example red means bad or cancel, and green means good or confirm). Avoid putting coloured text on a coloured background as it slows the reader down and forces them to pay closer attention to the content in order to read it.
Call-to-action buttons. When using these elements, you want the visitor to do something - to take action. In general, people don't like taking action, and that is especially true for actions that they have to think about before taking. Keeping the text on these straight-forward (e.g ‘read more’, ‘sign up to our newsletter’) helps visitors process them, as does aligning them to an aim the visitor is already trying to achieve (e.g ‘start saving today’).
2 - Omit needless words
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
Krug argues that many words that are written online are self-congratulatory and that there’s too much ‘happy talk’ (text welcoming us to the page or warming up the visitor). Ultimately, he suggests that most of the time you can remove half of the words in a piece of content whilst preserving its meaning.
Brevity is the cornerstone of good writing, and no visitor is ever going to feel aggrieved that they had to read too little. Trying to cut back the word count by half (or even just a third), is a worthwhile aim, and can be helped by properly appreciating the reasons why content ends up running long in the first place:
The writing itself is just bad, or rushed. It is far harder to write concisely than it is to churn out a lengthy essay - taking words out takes longer than adding them in. With deadlines and a myriad of other tasks looming, this challenge often gets ignored - to the detriment of the overall website. Content is the most important part of any site, and if a message is worth communicating then it's worth doing right.
SEO pressures force the insertion of set phrases and key words. This can be hard to avoid, but if you're having to artificially insert these into a piece of content then the chances are that that content isn't really relevant to your SEO ambitions. Never let a piece of content suffer because of SEO demands.
Content doesn't have a focussed-enough purpose. Every bit of content should be written for a reason - whether that's to inform, educate, entertain, impress or inspire. Pick just one or two of these and make sure they are kept in mind throughout. Avoid filling any content with a collection of ideas that are unrelated or don't ladder back up to a central or overarching theme.
Kitchen sinking. There is a temptation to tell the visitor absolutely everything you can about a topic. Don't. For example, if writing a list of benefits for your company or website, keep that list focussed on the most powerful ones and avoid communicating hygiene factors (things that the customer either expects or presumes to be true already). Long lists might look better than short ones, but the most important messages get diluted by weaker ones if this is allowed to happen.
3 - The importance of mobile and accessibility
Krug’s attitude towards accessibility is both succinct and compelling:
“Unless you’re going to make a blanket decision that people with disabilities aren’t part of your audience, you can’t really say your site is usable if its not accessible”
There are specific things you need to do in both circumstances - too many to cover in this article alone. What's interesting to note though, is that many of the tenants of good accessibility design are also applicable to good mobile design. Working on one will likely be of benefit to the other, giving you even further incentive (should you need it) to get both of these right.
However, the biggest bit of advice I can offer in this article is also the simplest: test everything. The best way to test how your website performs on different devices is to experience it first hand. Get hold of your phone, simulate an actual visitor experience by setting set yourself a specific mission (such as looking to research a specific product), and visit your site with that in mind. Note down how your site appears when accessed in different ways, and where in the journey you run into pain points and difficulties. You can also do this by putting yourself in the shoes of certain visitor groups who might be struggling with your site, for example by accessing your site using a screen reader, or in colour blind mode. Again, note difficulties you have, make amends and re-test.
Alongside reading books like these, we have extensive experience helping big brands improve their visitor experience. Find out how we can help amateur designers who don't have the luxury of extensive research budgets.