Don’t make me think - A bible on usability by Steve Krug

on 23rd July 2020

(Last updated 5th July 2023)

There is one book that everyone who is interested in usability should read, and that is “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug. It was originally published in 2000, when the web was only just starting to kick off and before touch screen phones existed. Despite this, the core principles of the book didn’t need to be changed, only new examples and a couple of mobile specific details needed to be added.

How to improve the user experience

“Don’t make me think” is a surprisingly short book that gives the reader a set of simple guiding principles in a witty and to the point manner. There are plenty of illustrations and cartoons throughout which demonstrates the user's journey. I would like to share with you a few aspects of the book which made an impression on me.

The title of the book is Steve’s first, and most important, law of usability. His main principle is to make everything as self-evident and as self-explanatory as possible. This might seem obvious but Steve emphasizes this point by illustrating the “Cognitive load” which can occur in users while using a website.

What is cognitive load?

Human brains have a limited amount of processing power already, so if you start questioning:

  • Where am I?
  • Where should I begin?
  • Where did they put this?
  • What are the most important things on this page?

You will find yourself wasting time rather than accomplishing a task. This unnecessary effort will add up and end up overloading your brain. Therefore, the more we minimise cognitive load, the better the user experience will get. In this book, Steve applies cognitive load to web design and suggests how to reduce it to make the website effective.

A well-known fact when reading a website is how we tend to scan pages for information, rather than read every word. In order to make a site more scannable for users, we must create effective visual hierarchies. This allows the users’ eye to jump from element to element much quicker and more naturally. Steve suggests that breaking up pages into clearly defined areas, making it obvious what’s clickable, and reducing any visual noise reduces “mental chatter” for the user. Reducing this ‘cognitive load’ makes the website easier to use.

How to plan website navigation

An anecdote I particularly enjoyed from this book was Steve’s comparison of a website to a shop. Steve notes that as you walk into a shop you have a choice to follow signs or ask staff to find what you are looking for. It’s the same process for a website, you can either explore the site via navigation links, or use a search box. However the differences are the lack of a sense of scale and direction. With a shop you can see physically how big it is, and your location within it. For this reason, we put a lot of thought into the navigation for the websites we build. We want it to be as close to the experience of using a well laid out shop as possible. 

It doesn’t just apply to website design

Despite mainly being aimed at web design, I also find the contents of the book relevant to other aspects of life. For example, I can see this book applied to my coffee machine- its design has been reduced to the simplest it can be, so getting my coffee is trivial and quick. It is true that there is no ultimate guide to making the perfect website, however the principles in this book are definitely worth keeping in your mind, they may even help in situations beyond designing a website!

This article was posted in Design, User Experience