On Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think”

I once took a class on document design and publication. It was a journalism course that was heavily weighted toward the design of print documents, but I’m finding that many of the principles we learned in that course carry over into Krug’s ideas about web design (and he also notes this similarity on page 32). I particularly like his “It’s not rocket surgery” mantra. Krug also notes that, once the general ideas behind usability testing have been made obvious to someone, “anyone with some interest can learn to do it” (5). The problem with this is that, although I find Krug’s writing to be engaging and witty, I was initially feeling a little déjà vu. I had almost slipped into autopilot when I got to page 28.

There, Krug gives his impression of watching designers and developers watch usability testers for the first time. He also describes the silly things (my obviously slanted opinion) that users do. These actions end up antagonizing the designers/developers, obviously, and when I got a vibrantly clear mental picture of myself yelling “Just click on ‘Software,’” I thought I’d better clue in and pay good attention to what Krug was saying. Just because I think I know some principles of “good” design doesn’t mean that my users know how to navigate that design. And if they can’t navigate my pages, does it really do me any good to call them “silly” and write them off? Nope.

Creating a clear visual hierarchy, for example, is a lot harder than it sounds. Krug suggests using prominence, proximity, and nesting to make sites visually clear. These are fairly easy suggestions to follow, but I always struggle with making my pages follow these ideas and still look interesting and dynamic. As a former journalist, I’m very used to “boring” pages filled with nothing but a masthead and gray type. I’m also drawn to—and jealous of—the vibrant, animated pages often produced by graphic design students. I was feeling very artsy inclinations when I came to page 38, where Krug warns against noise. In the end, a functional and usable page is more important than a pretty page. (But I do hope I can learn to make pages that are all of these things by the end of this class!)

If Krug hadn’t completely won me over already, he finished the job on page 45 by citing The Elements of Style. I know that Englishy people sometimes look askance at peers who support Strunk and White’s famous book, but I can’t help it. There’s just something very brave about authors willing to put out a prescriptive set of rules when everyone else is hemming and hawing. (And, besides, like Krug, they defer to common sense. The rules they give aren’t really so prescriptive if you’re paying attention.) Omitting needless words is something I hold in very high regard (even if I’m not very good at it when I have my English hat on). Having read thousands of press releases, the section entitled “Happy talk must die” made me grin ear-to-ear. Krug’s revision of Verizon’s survey instructions was also very informative and eye-opening. I appreciate that he not only advises readers to avoid happy talk and instructions, be he also provides concrete examples of exactly how to minimize these lurking dangers. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this book.

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