There have been a lot of books written about web usability, web content, user experience, and design. I own a lot of them. But there are two I go back to time and again:
Don’t Make Me Think, A Common Sense Approach to Web and Mobile Usability By Steve Krug
Letting Go of the Words, Writing Web Content that Works By Janice (Ginny) Redish
Don’t Make Me Think (DMMT) is on its third edition (which added the “and Mobile” part of the title). The first DMMT was published in 2000, not long after I started my first full-time web editor job. It was the first or second book on usability I bought. It is much loved and full of highlights and marks. I kept it on my desk and pulled it out frequently to back up my recommendations. I call it the “bible for web usability.”
Letting Go of the Words (LTOTW) came out as a second edition also in 2014, after first being published in 2007. It is also filled with highlights and has always been on within easy reach. Steve Krug wrote the forward. He recommends it to his audiences (as he did in his edUi 2016 keynote address).
As for me, I recommend the two together as the books every person who does any work on the web need to have. When I do writing workshops, I make strong suggestions that the client buy the set for each of the attendees. I did that for the web editors at the American Society of Civil Engineers when I was web director there. And now I am saying to all of you:
Get these books and read them, if you haven’t already!
Why Don't Make Me Think?
As Steve says, "don't make me think" is the most important principle of making a website easy to use. Or, as he calls it, "Krug's First Law of Usability." Sounds simple, doesn't it? It should. But simple is not always easy.
If more people kept this principle in mind, using the web would be like frolicking in a Disney-movie forest. But it's not. We are constantly frustrated by horrible experiences, stopped in our tracks by things that don't make sense, and clicking on the wrong things because someone didn't make the interface or copy easy to understand.
Not only is the principle simple, but the book follows its own advice. At 200 pages, with the index, it is filled with comics, examples, illustrations, and relatively short chunks of text. You can easily get through it in a few hours. And you will be rewarded handsomely. Among the things you will learn:
- How we really use the web and how to design for that. This includes scanning, satisficing (a cross between satisfying and sufficing), and muddling through.
- Why users make mindless choices and how to provide just-in-time guidance for making choices.
- How to help people find their way around your website with "clear, simple, and consistent" navigation and sign posts throughout the site. Just like on a map, people want to know where they are on your website.
- How to design a home page that conveys the big picture by answering the questions:
- What is this?
- What do they have have here?
- What can I do here?
- Why should I be here and not somewhere else?
- How testing avoids arguments about usability among stakeholders. He advocates for do-it-yourself usability testing and explains how. (He also wrote a whole book on that: Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems)
- How mobile (i.e. small screen) is different. The principles are basically the same as for any other screen size, but with new usability problems. Meet them in the same way as other design problems: trade-offs, affordances (visual clues about how to use something), and testing on mobile devices.
- What increases goodwill. Things like making it easy for users to do what they want to do, answering questions, and make it easy to recover from errors. Also, what diminishes goodwill. Like hiding the information people want, asking for information you don't need, and putting a lot of marketing and disingenous copy on your site.
Krug's Laws of Usability
Here are the Krug's Laws of Usability:
- Don't make me think!
- It doesn't matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.
- Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left.
Why Letting Go of the Words?
As the title suggests, this book is tome to help you use fewer words when writing for the web. While the principles didn't change from the first to second edition, Ginny emphasizes content as a conversation in the latest edition.
People come to your website for the content. Not to admire the design or see what cool technology you've implemented. They want information that answers their question or helps them complete a task. Information needs to be easy to find, easy to understand, accurate, up to date, and credible.
Do you sense a theme? You should! Content is a big part of what makes a website usable. Help them find their way and everyone wins. Content and design go hand in hand, and Ginny provides a whole chapter on Designing for Easy Use. She calls for design and content to be integrated from the beginning and to use real content throughout the process. Color, space, and typography support better conversations.
Like DMMT, LGOTW uses lots of illustrations, examples, case studies, and chunks of text to show how to write and design better content. My favorite part is her use of green, orange, and red faces and text boxes to illustrate what works and what doesn't in the examples.
You quickly find ways to improve your web writing and move toward having a conversation with your readers by following her numbered lists of guidelines for each chapter. Get this book if you want to:
- Have a better home page that is findable through search engines. SEO tips are included in just about every section.
- Help people find what they came for. Pathway pages are like tables of contents and should help people get from here to there in the shortest and easiest way possible. This is where you need to cut the most text.
- Present just the right amount of information on a page in the right way. The key guideline to do this is to not hog the conversation. In addition to breaking up and organizing the content and focusing on key messages, you want to
- Announce your topic with a clear headline
- Include useful headings
- Tune up your sentences
- Use lists, tables, and illustrations effectively
- Write meaningful links
There are also tips for getting from draft to final copy in ways that you might not have considered. Hint: the first draft is not the final draft. There is no substitute for testing. See also DMMT for more on that. But it's not secret that Ginny and Steve have the same philosophy.
Get to the Bookstore!
What are you waiting for? If you want to improve your website, getting these books, reading them right away, and starting with one of the easy-to-implement guidelines is the fastest and cheapest way to do it. You have to have a website. You're going to do the work anyway. Why not do it as close to right the first time as you can?
PS - I get no compensation from the authors or publishers for endorsing these books. My high regard for these books comes from my own personal experience.