The art of great billboards
People often ask Steve Krug: ”what’s the most important thing I should so if I want to make sure my Web site is easy to use?” The answer is simple, he says. It’s not “nothing important should ever be more than two clicks away,” or “speak the user’s language,” or even “be consistent.” He says, it is: “don’t make me think!” This means that as far as is humanly possible, the user should “get it” – what it is and how to use it – without expending any effort thinking about it. It should be so self-evident, that your neighbor, who has no interest in the subject of your site, could look at it and know what is happening. When you’re creating a site, your job is to get rid of the question marks.
There are all kinds of things that could make us stop and think unnecessarily on a Web page. One example of things that make us think, that a lot of people would like to try, are cute or clever names. If you hear that a company is hiring, and want to look for the open positions, you go to their Web site and see these banners: a) Jobs, b) Employment opportunities, or c) Job-o-rama. All of these are options, but some require far less thinking, because they are very obvious to the user.
When it comes to Web pages, it’s better to do things like most people do things. The user always looks for certain things in certain places, and if it’s not there, they will be confused. When they think something should be somewhere, and it’s not, they think the site doesn’t work properly, or is troublesome to use. They have to think, and that is not a good thing.
There is a huge difference in how we think people use Web sites, and how they actually use them. We often think, that people care to browse through different pages and read our finely crafted text, or go through different options before deciding which link to click. What they actually do is, glance at each new page, scan some of the text, and click on the first link that catches their interest or vaguely resembles the thing they’re looking for. There are usually large parts of the page that they don’t even look at. It’s almost like we’ve created the perfect piece of literature for the user to read, but the reality to the user is, that your piece of art is a billboard going by 120 kilometers per hour.
Because there is a difference in what designers build and what users see, you can think of these three points, as you’re building your site. This is just the beginning, but one nonetheless.
- We don’t read pages. We scan them.
People don’t like to read what’s on the web page, they look for words or phrases that catch the eye, instead. People are in a hurry, all the time. And much of our web use is to save time. So, people want to be efficient. We only read what is necessary, all the rest is for naught. Also, we know we don’t need to read everything, because we’re only interested in some small parts, or facts, or fractions. We’re just looking for the bits that match our specific interest, all the rest is irrelevant. Scanning is how we find the interesting parts. We’ve been doing it for a long time now, so we’re good at scanning, and we know it works.
- We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.
Most of the time we don’t choose the best option. We tend to go for the first option, and not think too much about it. In fact, the first reasonable option, some link that seems like it might lead where we want to go, is enough. Again, we’re always in a hurry, we don’t have time to weigh in different options. And what is the penalty for guessing wrong? So why wouldn’t we? If the web site is poorly designed, putting in effort might not even help. So, we just guess and hit the back button if we took the wrong path.
- We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.
When we use most technology, we tend to skip the instructions part, and just go with it. People generally don’t really have the understanding of how household appliances work, and still they ignore the instructions. Same with web sites, most of the time people just go through it, and not think about it. They use it the same way they’ve always used it. We tend to do this because these things are not so important to us. It doesn’t matter if the user understands how it works or not, as long as they can use the features. It’s not that they’re stupid, but that they don’t care. If we find something that works, we stick to it, because there is no reason to change it.
The user experience on a web site can determine the success or fall of a business these days. As a beginner, it is very hard to see all the things that create the user experience, because we live and breathe it every day. But when there is something that seems off, we notice it immediately. Maybe the best simple advice that I want to remember from Steve Krug is this: “If your audience is going to act like you’re designing billboards, then design great billboards.”