Book Review: Don’t Make Me Think

dontmakemethink“Don’t make me think.”

People often say that when asked to choose, but I’ve found this phrase to also apply to designing websites. The less a visitor has to think, the less he has to click. The easier a site is to navigate, the more likely that person will be to stay, read or buy.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a book that confirmed what I already knew.

Don’t Make Me Think is a real gem among gems. If you’ve ever wanted to know what makes a good site great – and in easy-to-understand language – then Steve Krug’s book is for you.

Billboard Mentality

The book is small, with only 197 pages between the covers, but don’t let size fool you. Krug kept his book small for a reason.

You see, Krug’s book drives home repeatedly that people browsing the web don’t read; they scan and skim. That’s important for content writers, but it’s even more important for web designers.

Krug compares websites to highway billboards. Billboards are designed in a way that their messages can be read and absorbed in seconds as people whizz by in their cars. Having worked in the sign industry designing many billboards, I appreciated the analogy.

Krug made a point of keeping his book small and simple so that people could read it quickly. As he states, “If it’s short, it’s more likely to be used.”

Use it I did. I finished the book in less than two hours.

It’s Not Rocket Surgery

“It’s not rocket surgery” is Steve’s corporate motto, and it sums the book up nicely. Common sense like that is irresistible. I read the words and knew I had a winner in my hands.

Don’t Make Me Think conveys that anyone can create a well-designed site. The book is full of advice based on common sense information, teaching the basic principles behind usability.

Krug says:

“After all, usability really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing – whether it’s a Web site, a fighter jet, or a revolving door – for it’s intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.”

Of course, Krug’s book doesn’t discuss selecting the right images or writing snippets of code. Technical skills are something completely apart. For that type of guidance, seek another book.

So what will you find in this book? Here are a few highlights:

  • Street Signs and Breadcrumbs. You may not realize it, but navigation is the heart and soul of any website. Without good navigation guiding people, a site is just a bunch of pretty words and images. Krug uses the analogy of searching for an item in a hardware store to illustrate his point, and it’s easy to see how frustrating visitors find it when faced with poor navigation.
  • Conventions and Expectations. No, this doesn’t mean ComicCon or Blog Expo. Conventions are universal symbols or methods that are easily recognizable to all. For example, a big red sign usually means stop no matter what country you live in. The same goes for websites. We have expectations on where the banner should be and where navigation bars should be found. We know to read the big block of content in the largest column. Krug uses the example of a web page in Japanese to demonstrate that you could look at the page and still know where everything is, even if you can’t read the language.
  • Be Clear, Never Clever. Let’s call a spade a spade, folks. The book says if you have a site that lists jobs, use the title “Jobs”. Don’t call the list “Job-O-Rama” or some other quirky name. The more time a visitor spends puzzling out what words mean, the more likely they’ll be to say, “Forget it,” and move on.
  • Obviously Clickable. Ever visit a website only to spend a few seconds trying to find a live link by hovering the cursor over an image or phrase? Ever miss clicking on an image because you didn’t realize that action would make something happen? Sometimes where to click isn’t obvious. We expect images and underlined or highlighted text to light up, change color or make the cursor change from an arrow to a pointing hand. Even a simple “click here” message helps people navigate.
  • Why Your Website Should Be a Mensch. “Mensch” is the Yiddish word for a stand-up guy. When applied to your website, the word means your site should be as user-friendly as possible. A good experience on a website means you’ll stay, browse or shop, and it also means you’ll return if you need those products or services later on.

Long-Lasting Benefits

If you haven’t changed the way you look at websites after getting your website evaluation, then read this book. It reinforces everything we’ve said.

Once you learn how to really look at a site, your new knowledge will reflect your new perspective in every site you create or design. Even if you can’t create a site, you’ll at least be able to communicate better with the people who are designing it.

You’ll spot what works. You’ll come to understand that sometimes personal preference doesn’t always equal reader usability. And you’ll know why elements do or don’t work.

What’s your experience with sites? What’s your usability pet peeve? Ever been to a site that drives you nuts? Which types of site layouts really help you stick around?

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Agent X is the name many mysterious and intriguing people take on when they guest post at our site. Their mission is to slip in like a thief in the night, leave you with entertaining, valuable and useful content, and slip away again - without getting caught.

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  1. Harry,

    I dare not go into what drives me nuts, but I will say that Steve Krug’s book has been on my shelves forever and still gets pulled out frequently. It’s one of my top books on accessibility for the web. Good choice for a review.



  2. @Kelly: *blinks* Alright, where did the time go tonight? That’ll teach me to drink coffee at 3 in the afternoon. Either that, or Dominoes slipped something into my pizza.

    I agree, this is definitely in my top 13.2. Jam-packed with excellent advice, easy to follow, and a quick read. Who could ask for more?

  3. And of course, Krug’s approach works very well for copy writing in these days of modern times. Readers (scanners) want to be able to follow the story without doing much thinking – so we need to supply shorter chunks and provide plenty of trail markers as we go.
    After reading the book, I posted this blog entry by the same name:
    Another man with a pen,
    Michael Kelberer

    Michael Kelberer´s last blog post…Got Case Study? 10 Ways to Leverage It

  4. Under the heading “Every Little Bit Helps” I’m adding this to my must go out and get books. If I’m gonna tap my fingers to da bone writing the king of content then I sure want to make sure Id spruce up the joint so folks will feel like hangin’ around.



    Tumblemoose´s last blog post…How to write the killer book proposal

  5. Very helpful review! I see this every day. When I work on my site I have the overwhelming desire to be eloquent, clear, and detailed. However, readers don’t like that! We have become ruthless and impatient. It’s not like I have to settle for anything on the internet. If I don’t like a site, I can leave and find another in 5 seconds without leaving my chair or knocking the bag of chips off my lap. I’ve been told a first impression is made in 3 seconds, websites are no different. In many ways the internet has dumbed down our tolerance. Think about how frustrated you get if a webpage takes more than a couple seconds to load yet we can wait 20 minutes for food to be prepared at a restaurant. The internet audience is fickle bitch!

    Chris Collins´s last blog post…Undiscovered Talent in Music

  6. I work for a web development firm in Rhode Island and we give this book to EVERY SINGLE client. For those folks who have chosen to write their own content, it really does help folks take the pages and pages of information they wrote about their organization or foundation and synthesize it down into some nice, readable website content.

    When it comes to user interface and site architecture we strive for clean, navigable, thought-out elements that engage the user and help them find what they want. It keeps the bounce rate down and the clients happy. What’s better than a happy client?

    Elisa DelBonis´s last blog post…Confession

  7. Beautiful!

    At work, my teams use the phrases “don’t make me work too hard” or “don’t make me think.” We use it as a gauge of usability on anything from our books to our sites.

    The less you force people to think about the basics, the more they can move up the thinking stack.

    J.D. Meier´s last blog post…Avoid Mental Burnout

  8. I have a feeling that this book would hit the spot even if you don’t do web design. Thanks for the review.

    Mark Dykeman´s last blog post…Does brainstorming really yield good ideas?

  9. This book opened my eyes to a lot of things that were necessary and unnecessary to good site design.

    One of my pet peeves is sites that don’t have an obvious RSS icon. If I find a site with good content that I want to subscribe to, but can’t find the icon easily, that ticks me off.

    Another peeve is long link lists in the sidebars.

    As for what makes a layout “sticky”, I’d say obvious and helpful category menus.

    Nate´s last blog post…Thai-Inspired Caesar Salad Recipe

  10. @Tumblemoose: It’s a bit of a catch 22, isn’t it? If you have the best content in the world no one is going to stick around to read it if the site is poorly laid out. And the opposite is just as true; a beautiful design is great, but if the content sucks what good is all the pretty?

    @Chris: I think you can still be eloquent, clear and detailed. It’s all in the presentation. Another point Krug brought up was to omit needless words. You can have detail, just get right to the point and leave out the fluff.

    @Elisa: Nothing is better than a happy client.

    @JD: Now that I think about it, that’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great to have everything filtered down to the most base terms, but on the other, it might make people forget how important the basics are, or not even bother to try to understand the basics.

    That was a point made in the book very early on; we often do things because we’ve found them to work through a lot of trial and error, and we don’t bother to dig deeper and understand why those things work – only that they do, so we keep doing them blindly.

    @Mark: It will at that!

    @Nate: Obscure RSS is a common problem we’ve pointed out in our Drive Bys and something that bothers me too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed when I’ve gone to visit a blog, decided I liked it and couldn’t find the RSS. I’ve gotten so used to using my feed reader that I don’t bother to bookmark these sites anymore. That would mean more clicking and needing to remember to check that site on a daily basis.

  11. That sounds like a good book to get, after I’ve finished implementing my Drive By advice. It’s taking me forever, but I’ll get there.

    Pet peeves are RSS links that are broken or nonexistent, unoriginal content, landing at a page after a search and finding it has no links, nowhere to go, and cutting the URL back to the basics gives an error.

    Omitting needless words is a big problem for me. I seem to write in this style I learn in grad school — scientist language that avoids short, pithy words. When I edit it, I’m unhappy with what I’m seeing.

    BTW, I would comment more, but sometimes it takes forever for MWP pages to load here in the DC area.

    Dot´s last blog post…About Your Business

  12. My all time favorite book on web design!

  13. The Office Newb says:

    I read this book a few years ago on the recommendation of a web designer friend and I LOVE, LOVE, LOVED it!

    It’s a must read for anyone who works with websites.

    The Office Newb´s last blog post…Why I Hate “Best Places To Work” Lists

  14. I Love this book! It is action-packed and wished I had been able to finish it before it was due back at the library. Ah well. For the price in fines I had to pay for keeping it an extra four weeks, you’d think I could have just broken down and bought a copy.

    Not only informative but highly entetaining as well. “Rocket surgery”.. snicker.

    Gina´s last blog post…Discomfort Creates Awareness

  15. @Dot: That’s okay, take your time and do it piece by piece. You’ll get there 🙂

    @Axe: Mine too! (so far)

    @Office Newb: It’s a must for anyone, whether they work with websites or not. My feeling is that eventually everyone will own a website or want to start one in their life, it’s good to know what to look for ahead of time.

    @Gina: Action packed? *chuckles* Yeah, I guess it is pretty exciting stuff at that. Krug was very entertaining. His footnotes reminded me of reading a Terry Pratchett Discworld book.

  16. Dot! I just took a peek and had to say good job! Much better already with the divisions between the two columns, and the separation of the posts. The neon green is a little shock to the eyes though, maybe use the blue of the “home” tab and make the headline text white? That would help pull it together more.

  17. I’ve been wanting to get this book for yonks. Thanks for reminding me that I still need to get it. What drives me nuts is the initial meeting with clients who list down every single damn thing they want (or what their boss wants). They don’t care about what their customers want. Everyone comes to us with lofty ideas of what their website should have but we try to tame them a bit with logic and commonsense. I would say that the type of layout I like a lot (which probably reflects the designs we do anyway) is simple, clear, easy on the eyes, uncluttered, no blinking stuff, no loud and harsh colours. I would like to think that how web designs are is a reflection of the web design team or else they aren’t very good at convincing their clients! I get turned off when I cannot find the info I want when I land at a website and yes, it has just a few seconds to convince me to stay or I’ll leave.

    Krista´s last blog post…Back on Monday, 2 Feb

  18. One of the best suggestions I’ve ever heard came from Armand Morin.

    He said if at all possible you shouldn’t make your site too dissimilar from sites the mass majority of your market visits every day. Sites like google, MSN, yahoo etc.

    Snooping around the top 15 sites ranked on Alexa would give an idea of what massive crowds of people are seeing and are comfortable with.

    Armand’s says the last thing you want to do is shock your reader when they come to site because you have an urge to be different. I guess if you don’t care if your site makes money or readership you can be as wild as you want but making your site as cozy to your reader as possible makes sense to me.

    You’ve done an awesome job Harry with your book review. It gave me a great idea of what to expect and definitely increased my desire to have it.

    Talk to you soon,
    Note Taking Nerd #2

    Note Taking Nerd #2´s last blog post…If I Could Hear The Questions You Ask Yourself Would I Think I Was In The Presence of a Leader Or a Victim?

  19. @Krista: I hear you. I think for some clients it’s like walking into a grocery store when they’re hungry. Everything looks good. The way to get around that is to keep the client on track and remind them that in the end, they’re making the site for the user, not themselves. Now that I think about it, that goes for almost any business.

    Like you said though, there is a bit of the designer’s personality in every design. That style is what brings in the customers – or sends them away. Do you find you have a difficult time when clients are insistent on all the blinking bells and whistles? How do you try to make them see a particular idea might not be right for them?

    @NTN #2: Shock value does have it’s place, but more often than not it ends up being a jarring “wtf??” moment for visitors. You can be different and innovative in subtle ways too and those are what start trends.

    Now go get that book!

  20. Well, usually we have to use lots of diplomacy to make them come around to see our point of view. It helps if you cite proper research. Most clients come to see that what we do for them is actually good for them. Those who don’t, well, I guess they don’t deserve to be our clients ;-). Of course we’ve come across obstinate ones and those, well, if after all the explaining and they still insist on their way, well, I tell them, do it at your own risk. Clients don’t like taking risks anyway so they will somehow comply. It does help if one is more assertive and have a bit of guts to contradict the client. Maybe it’s Asia or Malaysia but we’ve had pretty OK clients so far!

    Krista´s last blog post…Back on Monday, 2 Feb

  21. So, if no one likes to read or think, then why is so much web copy (especially around selling info-products) so insanely long?

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome´s last blog post…The choice of too much

  22. @ Alex – Because long sales copy is a virtual salesman, in which that “person’s” job is to address every possible point that goes through the consumer’s mind.

    It has to address the pain and present a solution. It has to keep that pain fresh in the person’s mind so they don’t forget how much it hurts. It has to address each point the person might have that prevents him/her from buying and reassure the consumer that it’s a good idea to buy.

    At some point in that text, the person becomes ‘hooked’ and starts scrolling. It may take me three paragraphs to hook while it takes others 8 or more. Who knows? And now they’re looking for a price…

    They miss the price and hit the bottom, which provides extra reasons to buy and more safety points (guarantees, bonuses) so that by the time they scroll back up and find the price, they have not only had their fears addressed, but they’ve been promised extra goodies or safety.

    And there’s the price… click.

    Harry never said people don’t like to read, btw. He said (in a roundabout way) that they don’t like to think harder than they have to.


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