New Riders Interview with Don’t Make Me Think Author Steve Krug
Michael Nolan: Your book Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability has been on top of the bestseller list for several years. Has Oprah been in touch with you about making it part of her book club?
Steve Krug: [Laughs] Actually, my highest aspiration was to get on Terry Gross' show, Fresh Air.
Michael: You'll come to her attention, certainly! Don't Make Me Think is the kind of book that extends beyond just web design. I've referred to it over the years in daily lifetime experiences. When you're trying to explain something to somebody or otherwise make things clear, "Don't make me think" is a good rule to follow. How did you boil it down to such a simple concept?
Steve: I started practicing [that principle] with clients in presentations about 15 years ago. It struck me that a large amount of usability lies in rounding off those rough edges where people have something in a "thought bubble" over their heads that they don't really need there—when they're trying to figure out the difference between two things, or puzzling over what they're looking at.
Michael: How did you become interested in usability as your practice?
Steve: I was a tech writer for a long time. I wrote user manuals for about 10 years, and came to realize that what I was trying to do most of the time was to explain away the parts of the interface that people couldn't understand right away. I didn't have to write about the parts that were clear; it was the parts that were confusing that I had to try and make excuses for. As a tech writer, I was working with programming teams, and they started asking my advice on interface issues because they knew that I was spending more time thinking about the interface than they were. I was just fortunate in that somebody offered me the opportunity to do some user profiles and user interviews, and that segued into doing user testing. It was kind of accidental.
Michael: So you actually had an impact on how the programs were designed.
Steve: Yeah, as opposed to explaining the problems away.
Michael: As the Web became more of a focus, you just shifted from computer programs to websites?
Steve: Actually, when the Web really hit, I happened to be working on an online project for Apple—their Apple-branded version of AOL. I worked on that for about a year and a half, and in the middle of that, AOL added a web browser when the visual web started to emerge. So I was one of the people at Apple responsible for helping to figure out how to present web properties. From that point on, I was kind of associated with web usability. It's very rare that people ask me to do software any more, because I'm so associated with the Web—which is nice, because the Web is actually easier than software.
Michael: Why is it easier?
Steve: There's less variability and fewer possibilities. The average application is fairly complicated, with a lot of different kinds of functionality, and people can make up new functionality. On the Web, you're somewhat constrained in terms of what you can do, and in terms of what people want to do. When you get into web apps, it's a different matter, but people are trying to keep web apps fairly constrained, too, just because of response times, technology, and whatnot. It tends to be less complicated. Very few things on the Web are as complicated as Photoshop, for instance.
Michael: What are your clients struggling with these days? Is it the same thing that they were asking you for five years ago—usability enhancement?
Steve: The issues are still pretty much the same. As Jakob Nielsen says, "Technology changes pretty fast, but people change very slowly." Most usability issues are about people; they're about cognition and perception, and whether people can understand something that's being portrayed onscreen. The technology actually has less to do with it than the wording, the visual arrangement, the overall clarity.
Michael: Do you think that we're making progress in making the Web more usable? Or is it as bad as it ever was?
Steve: On average, I think that it's much more usable. A lot of standardization has emerged fairly quickly. Eight or nine years ago, if you wanted to buy something online, you were kind of rolling dice when you got to the shopping cart as to whether you'd be able to understand it, or whether there'd be some major problem with it. But people have standardized a lot of that—and a lot of other things. There are conventions now, and functionality that everyone copies from everyone else. I think that that has helped a lot. And design is much more savvy. Again, eight or nine years ago, web designers were recycled print designers, and didn't have a very good understanding of the requirements of designing something that people would interact with. Most designers have become pretty savvy about that—which is not to say that the Web isn't full of problems, because it'll always be full of problems, but they're not the same kind of really bad, basic problems. I think that things have improved a lot.
Michael: Are there any recent trends in web design that surprise you or bother you?
Steve: In design, there's nothing new. Designers want to do tiny gray type on a dark gray background because it's aesthetically interesting, and a lot of other things that would work fine in print, but end up illegible online. But that's been going on forever.
Michael: Your session is called, "Yes, Virginia, there is a perfect web page." What are you going to be sharing with the attendees?
Steve: I've been evolving this talk for six or eight months now. There are some best practices in web design that I think you have to do if you want your site to work well, and I've noticed in reviewing sites for a long time that a couple of those practices get overlooked, so the sites aren't as good as they could be. And these things aren't that hard to do.
Michael: Can you give us an example?
Steve: Well, for example, having a page title at the top of the page, so that when I come to that page I can tell at a glance what the topic of that page is. A lot of times it won't be clear which of the things at the top of the page is the page title, or the page title won't have a clear connection to the content. It's fairly straightforward: There are only a couple of places where the page title should be, and only a couple of ways it should look, but people don't do them right, and as a result the site becomes much harder to navigate.
Actually, the most interesting part of the presentation is the "Stump the Chump" session at the end. I ask people to give me the URL of their site, and we take a look at that site to see whether they're actually doing these things or not.
Michael: Do you find people receptive to doing that?
Steve: Yeah, you always have a couple of brave people in the audience, or a couple of people who have been trying for years to convince their bosses that they're not doing it right, or they're not allowed to do it right, and they just want some ammunition. It's very interesting to go and look in detail at an actual site.
Michael: If you go to their site and it's absolutely cringingly horrible, how do you handle that?
Steve: I start off by saying that it's pretty much impossible to get all of this stuff right, and nobody should feel bad about the problems at their site. I wouldn't want anybody to look too closely at my site, and I'm a usability person. There are always going to be issues, and the question is, how hard are those issues to fix?
Michael: If people want to look at your site, where do they go?
Steve: To sensible.com. I got one of the last English-language words that was available as a domain.
To listen to the audio version of this interview, please visit our Voices That Matter website.