Don't Make Me Think, Revisited

Don't Make Me Think, Revisited

A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability

Steve Krug

Another needless source of question marks over people’s heads is links and buttons that aren’t obviously clickable. As a user, I should never have to devote a millisecond of thought to whether things are clickable—or not.

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every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, especially if it’s something we do all the time like deciding what to click on. And as a rule, people don’t like to puzzle over how to do things.

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We’re thinking “great literature” (or at least “product brochure”), while the user’s reality is much closer to “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour.”

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When we’re designing pages, we tend to assume that users will scan the page, consider all of the available options, and choose the best one. In reality, though, most of the time we don’t choose the best option—we choose the first reasonable option, a strategy known as satisficing.1 As soon as we find a link that seems like it might lead to what we’re looking for, there’s a very good chance that we’ll click it.

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One problem with conventions, though: Designers are often reluctant to take advantage of them. Faced with the prospect of following a convention, there’s a great temptation for designers to try reinventing the wheel instead, largely because they feel (not incorrectly) that they’ve been hired to do something new and different, not the same old thing. Not to mention the fact that praise from peers, awards, and high-profile job offers are rarely based on criteria like “best use of conventions.”

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Occasionally, time spent reinventing the wheel results in a revolutionary new rolling device. But usually it just amounts to time spent reinventing the wheel.

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If you’re not going to use an existing Web convention, you need to be sure that what you’re replacing it with either (a) is so clear and self-explanatory that there’s no learning curve—so it’s as good as the convention, or (b) adds so much value that it’s worth a small learning curve. My recommendation: Innovate when you know you have a better idea, but take advantage of conventions when you don’t.

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CLARITY TRUMPS CONSISTENCY If you can make something significantly clearer by making it slightly inconsistent, choose in favor of clarity.

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The truth is, everything can’t be important. Shouting is usually the result of a failure to make tough decisions about which elements are really the most important and then create a visual hierarchy that guides users to them first.

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If you really want to learn about making content scannable (or about anything related to writing for screens in general), run, do not walk, to an Internet-connected device and order Ginny Redish’s book Letting Go of the Words.

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I think it’s safe to say that users don’t mind a lot of clicks as long as each click is painless and they have continued confidence that they’re on the right track—following what’s often called the “scent of information.”1 Links that clearly and unambiguously identify their target give off a strong scent that assures users that clicking them will bring them nearer to their “prey.” Ambiguous or poorly worded links do not.

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E. B. White’s seventeenth rule in The Elements of Style: 17. 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.1

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Some people (Jakob Nielsen calls them “search-dominant” users) will almost always look for a search box as soon as they enter a site. (These may be the same people who look for the nearest clerk as soon as they enter a store.) Other people (Nielsen’s “link-dominant” users) will almost always browse first, searching only when they’ve run out of likely links to click or when they have gotten sufficiently frustrated by the site. For everyone else, the decision whether to start by browsing or searching depends on their current frame of mind, how much of a hurry they’re in, and whether the site appears to have decent browsable navigation.

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On pages where a form needs to be filled in, the persistent navigation can sometimes be an unnecessary distraction. For instance, when I’m paying for my purchases on an e-commerce site, you don’t really want me to do anything but finish filling in the forms. The same is true when I’m registering, subscribing, giving feedback, or checking off personalization preferences. For these pages, it’s useful to have a minimal version of the persistent navigation with just the Site ID, a link to Home, and any Utilities that might help me fill out the form.

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the Home page is the waterfront property of the Web: It’s the most desirable real estate, and there’s a very limited supply. Everybody who has a stake in the site wants a promo or a link to their section on the Home page, and the turf battles for Home page visibility can be fierce. Sometimes when I look at a Home page, I feel like the boy in The Sixth Sense: “I see stakeholders.”

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The one thing you can’t afford to lose in the shuffle—and the thing that most often gets lost—is conveying the big picture. Whenever someone hands me a Home page design to look at, there’s one thing I can almost always count on: They haven’t made it clear enough what the site is.

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We know now from a very elegant experiment (search for “Attention Web Designers: You Have 50 Milliseconds to Make a Good First Impression!”) that a lot happens as soon as you open a page. For instance, you take a quick look around (in milliseconds) and form a number of general impressions: Does it look good? Is there a lot of content or a little? Are there clear regions of the page? Which ones attract you? The most interesting thing about the experiment was that they showed that these initial impressions tended to be very similar to the impressions people had after they actually had a chance to spend time on the page. In other words, we make snap judgments, but they tend to be a pretty reliable predictor of our more reasoned assessments.

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one of the things I’ve seen most often in usability tests is that people form ideas about what things are and how they work which are just wrong. Then they use these first bits of “knowledge” to help interpret everything they see. If their first assumptions are wrong (“This is a site for ____”), they begin to try to force-fit that explanation on to everything they encounter. And if it’s wrong, they’ll end up creating more misinterpretations. If people are lost when they start out, they usually just keep getting...loster. This is why it’s so crucial that you get them off on the right foot, making sure that they’re clear on the big picture.

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All the stakeholders need to be educated about the danger of overgrazing the Home page and offered other methods of driving traffic, like cross-promoting from other popular pages or taking turns using the same space on the Home page.

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I usually call these endless discussions “religious debates,” because they have a lot in common with most discussions of religion and politics: They consist largely of people expressing strongly held personal beliefs about things that can’t be proven—supposedly in the interest of agreeing on the best way to do something important (whether it’s attaining eternal peace, governing effectively, or just designing Web pages). And, like most religious debates, they rarely result in anyone involved changing his or her point of view. Besides wasting time, these arguments create tension and erode respect among team members and can often prevent the team from making critical decisions.

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While the hype culture (upper management, marketing, and business development) is focused on making whatever promises are necessary to attract venture capital, revenue-generating deals, and users to the site, the burden of delivering on those promises lands on the shoulders of the craft culture artisans like the designers and developers. This modern high-tech version of the perennial struggle between art and commerce (or perhaps farmers and cowmen vs. the railroad barons) adds another level of complexity to any discussions of usability issues—often in the form of apparently arbitrary edicts handed down from the hype side of the fence.3

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Where debates about what people like waste time and drain the team’s energy, usability testing tends to defuse most arguments and break impasses by moving the discussion away from the realm of what’s right or wrong and what people like or dislike and into the realm of what works or doesn’t work. And by opening our eyes to just how varied users’ motivations, perceptions, and responses are, testing makes it hard to keep thinking that all users are like us.

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while usability testing will sometimes settle these arguments, the main thing it usually ends up doing is revealing that the things they were arguing about weren’t all that important. People often test to decide which color drapes are best, only to learn that they forgot to put windows in the room. For instance, they might discover that it doesn’t make much difference whether you go with cascading menus or mega menus if nobody understands the value proposition of your site.

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Focus groups can be great for determining what your audience wants, needs, and likes—in the abstract. They’re good for testing whether the idea behind your site makes sense and your value proposition is attractive, to learn more about how people currently solve the problems your site will help them with, and to find out how they feel about you and your competitors. But they’re not good for learning about whether your site works and how to improve it. The kinds of things you learn from focus groups—like whether you’re building the right product—are things you should know before you begin designing or building anything, so focus groups are best used in the planning stages of a project. Usability tests, on the other hand, should be used through the entire process.

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testing is really more like having friends visiting from out of town. Inevitably, as you make the rounds of the local tourist sites with them, you see things about your hometown that you usually don’t notice because you’re so used to them. And at the same time, you realize that a lot of things that you take for granted aren’t obvious to everybody.

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The purpose of this kind of testing isn’t to prove anything. Proving things requires quantitative testing, with a large sample size, a clearly defined and rigorously followed test protocol, and lots of data gathering and analysis. Do-it-yourself tests are a qualitative method whose purpose is to improve what you’re building by identifying and fixing usability problems. The process isn’t rigorous at all: You give them tasks to do, you observe, and you learn. The result is actionable insights, not proof.

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Experts are rarely insulted by something that is clear enough for beginners. Everybody appreciates clarity.

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If you’re redesigning an existing site, you’ll also want to test it before you start, so you’ll know what’s not working (and needs to be changed) and what is working (so you don’t break it).

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throughout the project, continue to test everything the team produces, beginning with your first rough sketches and continuing on with wireframes, page comps, prototypes, and finally actual pages.

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You can download the script that I use for testing Web sites (or the slightly different version for testing apps) at

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my definition of usability: A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing [i.e., it’s learnable] to accomplish something [effective] without it being more trouble than it’s worth [efficient].

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I’ve always found it useful to imagine that every time we enter a Web site, we start out with a reservoir of goodwill. Each problem we encounter on the site lowers the level of that reservoir.

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I should never have to think about formatting data: whether or not to put dashes in my Social Security number, spaces in my credit card number, or parentheses in my phone number. Many sites perversely insist on no spaces in credit card numbers, when the spaces actually make it much easier to type the number correctly. Don’t make me jump through hoops just because you don’t want to write a little bit of code.

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You just don’t have the ability or resources to do what the user wants (for instance, your university’s library system requires separate passwords for each of your catalog databases, so you can’t give users the single login they’d like). If you can’t do what they want, at least let them know that you know you’re inconveniencing them.

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the right thing to do. And not just the right thing; it’s profoundly the right thing to do, because the one argument for accessibility that doesn’t get made nearly often enough is how extraordinarily better it makes some people’s lives. Personally, I don’t think anyone should need more than this one example: Blind people with access to a computer can now read almost any newspaper or magazine on their own. Imagine that. How many opportunities do we have to dramatically improve people’s lives just by doing our job a little better?

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Screen-reader users scan with their ears. Most blind users are just as impatient as most sighted users. They want to get the information they need as quickly as possible. They do not listen to every word on the page—just as sighted users do not read every word. They “scan with their ears,” listening to just enough to decide whether to listen further.

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UX sees its role as taking the users’ needs into account at every stage of the product life cycle, from the time they see an ad on TV, through purchasing it and tracking its delivery online, and even returning it to a local branch store.

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You want your enthusiasm for usability to be infectious, but it just doesn’t work to go around with the attitude that you’re bringing the truth—about usability, or anything else—to the unwashed masses. Your primary role should be to share what you know, not to tell people how things should be done.

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Preserve the distinction between visited and unvisited text links.

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