Why thinking is the enemy of great design

Written by John De Clerck

I was sorting through some old boxes the other day, in preparation for a house move, when I re-discovered a well-worn copy of the book 'Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability' by Steve Krug.

My copy was written in 2000, although it is still in print today. This relatively short book was compulsory reading for new designers and developers at my first digital agency, and reading it again all these years later served as a good reminder of how ideas become best practice over time.

The book is an engaging introduction to user-centric design and testing, based on the premise that a well thought-out website helps users to accomplish their intended tasks. Whether it’s buying a product, booking a service or researching information, users must be able to find what they need as easily and efficiently as possible.

The International Standards Organisation defines usability as the “effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users achieve specified goals in particular environments.”

Back in the late 90s there was little consensus. It was the days of the browser wars; sites proudly declared whose side they were on with badges like ‘best viewed in Netscape' or 'best viewed in IE at 800 x 600 resolution'. Meaningful content would seem like an afterthought, buried amongst the rows of links, scrolling text and animated gifs, or hidden behind the splash screens that were so prevalent at the time.

Web monetisation was on the rise, yet few people really knew how to do it right; this was prior to the likes of Jakob Nielsen evangelising his findings from years of observing human-system interaction. All sorts of people with little to no previous experience in digital marketing found themselves responsible for signing off decisions on information architecture and interaction design, with nothing in the way of solid guidance.

Which shows that Krug was onto something when he published his first book back in 2000.

Throughout this book Krug references the early incarnation of Amazon.com, one of the pioneers of ecommerce, long derided by designers for its apparent lack of aesthetics. Although there is much more to their success than just the website, the old adage ‘clarity trumps persuasion’ is very much in evidence here.

To illustrate why focusing on the content that matters together with the wants, needs and expectations of your audience is key, here are the three big rules mentioned in Krug’s book that still stand the test of time.

Rule #1 ‘Don’t make me think’.

Krug advises that you should be able to understand what a page’s purpose is, and how to use it, immediately and with minimal cognitive workload.

Visitors tend to scan for what's useful, ignore what isn't and decide on their next action. Putting things where your visitors have grown accustomed to finding them [conventions] minimises distraction and maximises conversion.

Satisfaction is paramount - the competition is only a click away so users shouldn’t have to pause to decipher abstract options, guess what's clickable or what the outcome of a click may be.

Rule #2 ‘It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice’.

The mantra of “X clicks to get anywhere” has always been a hot topic of debate, but in reality Krug proposes that, within reason, it’s not the number of clicks but rather how much thought is required to make each click that counts.

For instance avoiding generic links such as ‘click here’ when we ought to be using descriptions that convey meaning rather than pointer actions.

Consider the phrase ‘To subscribe to our newsletter click here’ from the perspective of a visitor scanning your page.

‘Subscribe to our newsletter’ is not only more prominent and immediately readable but conveys the desired action in a much more friendly tone, more concisely and without ambiguity.

Rule #3 ‘Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left’.

This one is more tongue-in-cheek, and depends of course on context, but Krug recommends being ruthless in eliminating filler copy that conveys no useful information.

Simplify, shorten and optimise your web copy wherever possible. Whilst it may be tempting to shoehorn as much information as possible into a web page, over qualifying everything with imposing blocks of text is going to discourage visitors who just want to know ‘What does this do?’ ‘Do I need it?’ How can it help me? ‘What can I do next?’

These rules remain the same regardless of Internet's rapid and continual progress. We now have to cater to myriad devices and the context in which they’re being used, so although it’s largely common sense, these principles are not necessarily obvious until after they’ve been pointed out.

Devices have changed, and will continue to change for the foreseeable future. The way in which people access websites and other online information sources will change too. But what isn’t likely to change is the way people react to how that information is presented. These days, usability essentially means making sure something works well for anyone, on any device at any time. But when you stop and think about it, wasn’t that always the case?

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