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Chris Falter .NET Design and Best Practices

You've mastered web forms and controls.  You've prototyped a Silverlight 2.0 application.  AJAX? You're all over it.  But have you really learned how to design a good web page or web site? 

Steve Krug's "Common Sense Approach to Web Usability" provides surprising and sometimes counterintuitive principles that every good website must follow.  Krug preaches the importance of removing clutter in order to make the purpose and functionality of a site (or page) clear--and happily, he practices what he preaches in this remarkably lucid book.  Here are some of Krug's key insights:

  1. Don't make users think! Your job is to make sure users do not have to puzzle over a site's purpose, or how to use it.  Krug offers the search functionality at as a great example of this principle in action.  A user does not have to decide what type of search she wants (by author, by title, by ISBN, etc.); instead, she can just enter whatever text interests her, and Amazon offers a list of matches, ranked by relevance.
  2. Users don't behave the way you think they do.  You've been poring over your site--reading everything ten times or more--so you tend to think that users will do the same.  But they don't.  Instead, the users...
    • "don't read pages, they scan them." (In fact you only decided to read this review after you scanned the intro and decided it would be worth your while.)
    • "don't figure out how things work, they muddle through."
  3. Design pages for scanning.  Since users are going to treat your site like a billboard going by at 70mph (rather than a textbook that they carefully work through), you should learn to design great billboards!
    • Create a clear visual hierarchy. Highlight the important stuff, and indicate relationship by grouping.
    • Use conventions.  If your site design conforms to what users generally expect, they can more easily understand it at a glance.
    • Break pages into clearly defined areas.
    • Make what's clickable obvious.  Use arrows or underlines to indicate that text is clickable, for example.
    • Minimize noise.  Prefer clarity to pizzazz.
  4. Give users simple\mindless choices. It's okay to make a user traverse 4 or 5 links to get to his desired destination as long as each choice along the way is clear.
  5. "Omit needless words."Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what's left" is Krug's Third Law of Usability.  More words just make the site look more daunting, which can discourage the user in a hurry.  Krug's Third Law has 2 corollaries:
    • Happy talk must die.  "We're so glad you're at our site!  We think you'll like your experience here..." Oops, you just lost your user, who's too busy to keep reading.
    • Instructions must die.  Users almost never read them anyway (remember, they don't figure out, they muddle through).  So keep instructions brief and simple.

Krug then discusses some details about 2 features every site must have: navigation and a home page.  Krug recommends that the sections and subsections of a site be indicated with a clear set of links or tabs on the home page, and that the navigation remain available  no matter where the user goes.  (This answers the questions: what can I do on this site?  and Where can I go from here?)  Each page should have a visible name, and the site should a breadcrumb trail with arrows between the levels in order to allow a user to know where he's at in the site's hierarchy.  (These answer the questions: where am I at now? and How do I get back to where I was before?).

Krug's discussion of the home page acknowledges that the forces conspiring against simplicity are enormous in any ambitious site, because there are so many organizational interests competing for the valuable home page real estate.  Krug provides some useful tips for managing the problems, though, by suggesting how to use logos, taglines, and home page navigation. 

Next Krug addresses the often religious arguments that site development teams often endure (pulldowns or menus?  Flash animation or simple text?) with this simple advice: forget the arguments and start testing!  Simple usability testing will reveal the key problems with a site, and often they have nothing to do with what the development team has been arguing about.  Krug believes that frequent tests are more important than comprehensive (often expensive tests), and he offers advice on how to do testing on a tight budget (use 3 or 4 subjects; use an inexpensive screen recorder like Camtasia; try to get all the project stakeholders to observe).  He concludes with an extremely useful script of an interaction between a test subject and a test guide.

Those who have already read the first edition will be pleased to know that Krug has included some very helpful new material in the second edition.  Is your site accessible to sight-impaired users?  If not, Krug offers a top 5 list of tips for making sites accessible, along with a pointer on how to use Cascading Style Sheets to make your site more accessible.  Not to mention that CSS makes your site a lot easier to manage.... And what do you do when your boss (or the customer) wants you to do something that violates every known law of web usability?  Just compose an email that borrows liberally from one of Krug's friendly "here's how it should be done" missives!

Krug sprinkles his book with examples of sites that work well (and a few that don't) to illustrate his ideas.  He often offers a few "How does (or does not) this page implement the principles we've been discussing?" tests, with his own answers on the following pages.  I found these examples to be enormously helpful.  And Krug offers a wonderful set of additional resources for those who want to pursue the subject further, both within the text and in a notated bibliography at the end.

Because I am a long-time web user and web developer, I thought I understood just about everything I needed to know about usability to design a good site.  Then I read this book, and learned a ton.  If you work on web sites in any way (whether as designer, developer, or tester), the few hours you spend on Steve Krug's little gem will pay rich dividends.

Posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2008 3:31 PM Coding Practices and Design Patterns , Software Architecture | Back to top

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