Don’t Make Me Think, Steven Krug’s guide for website usability, is considered a classic in the design field, and for good reason. It was first written in 2000, when websites looked like this and using the internet caused your parents to miss calls on the land line. Despite the book being ancient in terms of the short life of modern web use, all of the main points remain solidly relevant. Few books that have to do with technology of the day can say the same, a fact I confirmed during a recent visit to the large programming section of the Harold Washington Library. Books much newer are completely archaic and obsolete within the constantly-evolving world of what makes the internet run. But not Don’t Make Me Think. This book remains a treasure trove of useful information, with the author’s wisdom packaged in a time capsule from the year 2000. Not only is the book readable, funny, and quick, it’s also fascinating to see how things worked back then, and nothing beats the warm feeling of nostalgia for the experience of using the giant family apple desktop computer as a kid.
I also think it’s important to remember where we’ve come from as web designers, both to appreciate how far we’ve come but also to know when a rule that used to be hard and fast has actually lived out its usefulness. For example, Krug makes the point that “above the fold” content, which is what appears on the user’s screen without any scrolling down, was the most valuable real estate in 2000. And it was, of course, back when scrolling down required holding a mouse, moving the curser to the right side of the page, and clicking an arrow or dragging a bar. But in the age of track pads and the fact that every smart phone user is trained to scroll down almost immediately, this rule of thumb is no longer accurate. However, people will continue to say this all the time. I’ve heard professional designers ask that things be above the fold, and although I learned in my design class that this isn’t a rule we need to follow anymore, having a better understanding of why this rule existed in the first place is useful (and fascinating).
First, because I’m a millennial and we love nothing more than nostalgia and endlessly reflecting on the awesomeness of our childhoods, here are a few screenshots that appear throughout the book:
Even when web designers were incredibly limited in how pretty they could make websites and information architecture was often an afterthought, Amazon was killing it. Yes, this was the cream of the crop in 2000.
Tabs are just as useful for organization as they were back then, and still somewhat prevalent. Amazon started off only selling books, and when it started to incorporate other items, their navigation bar got kind of out of control, leading to this insane double row tab design.
Remember when menus looked like this? I do, and I now realize what a chump I was for not figuring out that F5 was the keyboard command to refresh the page.
Alright, enough of this stroll down memory lane. (Though if you want to continue walking, check out this list of websites http://mentalfloss.com/article/53792/17-ancient-abandoned-websites-still-work from the 90’s that are still up and running. And if you make it to the end of this article, I’m putting a few more of my favorite old-timey internet pictures at the end.) One of the most useful parts of Don’t Make Me Think is Krug’s advice for convincing others to do things your way, which is: don’t. Let the research guide you. I personally feel that this is the cornerstone of UX design. Do solid research and make sure that research is guiding your decisions. That way, when your colleague, or boss, or CEO questions your designs or wants you to make a change you know will be terrible, all you have to do is step back and let the research do the talking. Because it’s not about you and what you think will work - it’s about the research and what the research told us will work. If you can always say something like “all 10 of our users in the last test had trouble figuring out how to make a purchase, and 6 of them never got there at all,” no one will be able to argue that the current check-out process is fine the way it is.
I love the varying looks of concern and anger on the cartoon people’s faces. And even though this example seems extreme, it’s not. Many people who are frequent website users believe they know what makes a website easy and pleasant to use, but they don’t. (If they did, the thriving field of web design wouldn’t exist.) Designers can and do get these absolutely wild directives, and part of the job is often helping people understand what will work and what won’t, always, of course, letting facts grounded in research, rather than personal taste, lead the way.
That’s not to say that personal taste isn’t valuable - a great designer has spent years seriously thinking about what makes online experiences great, which informs her taste, which makes her taste a valuable thing. But we still need research and data-informed decisions, because at the end of the day we all have our preferences, and our preferences aren’t always what will work for any given challenge. Take the argument illustration from Krug’s chapter “The Farmer and the Cowman should be Friends,” which is all about working on teams with all the people who make a website happen and the futility with “religious” arguments about usability. (Also - “dropdowns” used to be called “pulldowns.” Am I alone in finding tidbits like this so fascinating?) We all have our preferences, but Krug makes the excellent point that something that doesn’t work in one setting can work beautifully in another. The question is not “are dropdown menus good?” In fact, the question itself is flawed. We need instead to ask, as Krug does (with the awesome use of “pulldown”): “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?”
Notice the quote used the phrase “most people.” While it’s important to think about the average user when designing, there’s never going to be a way to please everyone. We need to aim to please the most people possible and not obsess with giving everyone in the world the perfect online experience, because it’s impossible. That said, we do need to user test, which is the final piece of advice I’ll highlight from this wonderful book. There are tons of excuses not to, and Krug provides a nice little cartoon to shoot down every one of those excuses.
He also reminds the reader that focus groups are not the same as user tests, then or now or ever. Focus groups should come first, as part of the always essential research that happens before anything is made, while user tests are done at various points throughout the design of the product. Ideally user testing is done somewhat frequently so that you’re able to make changes in the right direction without it being a big deal.
As a final note, while this book is not just full of useful information, it also helps us look at far we’ve come. In the final chapter about accessibility, Krug makes the case for designers utilizing CSS to style their sites, as this helps screen readers that people with low vision use to view websites. In case that point just went over your head, this piece of advice from the author is informing us that CSS used too be optional. This got me curious about the history behind what feels like such a standard, baseline practice to the modern designer. HTML was introduced in 1991 with no method of styling. CSS came 5 years later but wasn’t fully implemented until another 5 years after that. It’s fascinating to learn about the evolution of the internet and as I went down this rabbit hole, I realized just how often the decisions made by the community and people running the show were strange or downright arbitrary. This incredibly fascinating article about early styling languages that CSS beat out explains: https://eager.io/blog/the-languages-which-almost-were-css/ “As with many other examples over the history of the Internet, it was the technology which was easiest for a beginner to pick up which won, rather than those which were most powerful for an expert.” It’s a sort of existential-lite activity to learn and think about all the ways that the internet and its design could have been but weren’t, for one reason or another. Like our individual lives, a few different decisions many years ago would have caused us to go down extremely different paths.
And as a designer who spends a lot of time thinking about what’s coming next, going back to the past makes thoughts of present trends and the future of the internet even more compelling. In 15 years will we be laughing at how obsessed we were with big beautiful hero images on every home page? Will minimalist web design seem archaic? Will we realize that Amazon was really onto something with their double row of navigation tabs? Maybe the community will push to use something that makes CSS a thing of the past all together, and the styling languages that died years ago will come back to life.
From dolling out practical advice for the ages to pushing me as a reader to think about the past of web design and where the future is going, I can clearly understand why Don’t Make Me Think is such a classic. If you haven’t read it yet, pick up a copy from the library to read on your next flight or over a few days of train commuting. It really is a must read.
Since you’re still reading, here’s another one of my favorite finds from the book :
“etour: surf the web without searching.” I think what this site did was search for keywords and take you to different home pages of sites that had that keyword. This seems like an awkward and unnecessary service now, but again, back when searching for something was actually a lot of tedious pointing your mouse around a clicking, and things loaded slowly, making every click a valuable use of time, something like this made sense. This example, along with a lot of other sites the author mentions, are noted to have collapsed when the dot-com bubble burst. (Remember that? I don’t. I was in 5th grade.)
DVD players! So many to choose from. Which one should I buy?
Along with Gushers and Alanis Moresette, The Gap has managed to make the transition from childhood to my current (quasi) adult life.
Productopia: Another site that went under during the dot-com crash, this is probably the prettiest site in the book. I’m not quite sure what it does (Krug uses it as an example of a great site that doesn’t do a good job showing the user what it’s all about) but just look at those boxes of colors! Even back then styling options were incredibly limited, a designer managed to make this. Hopefully in 15 years I’ll look back on my work with such pride.