There is a rule for designing and building websites. It’s a simple rule, but one that informs every decision that you make in the process of creating or optimizing your website.
The Rule: Don’t Make Me Think
Don’t make me think isn’t a new rule. It’s a rule outlined in a book that you will likely find on the bookshelf of anyone who makes a living designing websites. It’s a book that has come to be somewhat of a web design bible for many. The craziest part is that its secret formula for building a website that converts is boldly given away in its title. The book is “Don’t Make Me Think!” by Steve Krug.
As its title might suggest, this isn’t a book about creating a beautiful graphic design for your website or a technical book, instructing you how to code a better site. It’s a book written to help you better understand how users will interact with your site and how you can make that interaction more enjoyable, yes enjoyable, for them. It’s a book about human behavior and the, often inaccurate, assumptions we make about how people will approach and interact with a website.
It’s a fairly short book and written in a way that is accessible for web designers and business owners or marketing professionals alike. We highly recommend that you pick up a copy and read through it, you’ll be glad you did.
Naturally, creating an environment for your website visitors that eliminates the need for thought is harder than it sounds. With that in mind, we’re going to walk you through some tips based on the principles in Steve’s book that will help you ensure that your website is performing the way it can and should. This article is no substitute for Steve’s book, though, so seriously, buy it.
Here are our top five tips to help you follow the golden rule of web design, “don’t make me think”:
1. Stop making assumptions based on your preferences
One of the hardest concepts for people to put into practice, but it’s one of the most important, stop making assumptions based on yourself. For example, don’t decide that because you tend to scroll down pages versus immediately using a top-level navigation menu that the menu should be placed further down on the page, or in a sidebar section. Other users may be inclined to go straight for the navigation menu. Both should be viable ways to interact with your website.
There’s really only one way to be sure that you’ve considered how people will want to use your site, test it. Test your entire site, then test it again. Simple color changes can have major impacts on the effectiveness of elements, but you won’t know until you test the different options.
Usability tests are an excellent way to do this, but may not be reasonable for your needs. A/B testing is a worthwhile and cost effective approach that may be more appropriate for your website.
2. Use clear, concise language
The language you use to communicate has a drastic impact on the effectiveness of your site, but perhaps not in the way that you think. When people sit down to write website copy, they often approach it as if they are beginning a creative writing assignment. Don’t do this.
Sure, your website copy shouldn’t be boring, but leave the creative writing for your novel. Instead, focus on communicating your message using the most accessible language possible. Avoid flowery language that can be ambiguous. After all, if I’m trying to figure out what exactly you mean, then I’m thinking, and that’s a bad sign.
This concept also applies to the call-to-action and navigation elements on your website. Let’s examine a quick example from Steve’s book:
The button on the left is clear and concise. Jobs is easily understood. A user can reasonably be expected to know that this button leads to jobs.
The middle button is much less concise and slightly less clear. This button can reasonably be projected to cause the user to give pause before clicking. The issue here lies not in a single pause but in the fact that with every pause the user will become more frustrated and less sure of their ability to successfully navigate your website. People do not like to fail and will abandon your website given the opportunity to fail enough times.
The last button is clearly an ineffective button. Again, don’t get too creative. It’s more important to clearly communicate what you are trying to communicate than to dazzle users with your creativity.
3. Make sure users can skim
Make sure that users can skim the content on your website. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, people don’t read as much as we think. They generally skip to content that they think is important. Section headings, bullet points, and graphics draw people’s attention because they deliver valuable information in a short form, so take advantage of these page elements in your content.
Secondly, we are visual creatures and are often intimidated by large blocks of content. Furthermore, we’re lazy towards reading and likely to abandon a large block of content versus reading through it in search of what we are seeking.
4. Make it clear where users are on your site
A commonly overlooked aspect of your website are the elements that indicate to a user where they are on your site. In his book, Krug uses the analogy of being in a brick and mortar store to explain its importance. In the real world, when you are physically in a store you have a general idea of where you are and how to get to where you need.
Because your website is not a brick and mortar store, it is important that you use elements like breadcrumbs and page headers to clearly identify for a user where they are on your website. These elements need to include branding as well because, unlike in the real world, you can be transported from one store to another in an instant.
If you feel like we are making more of this point that we should, just look at this partial screenshot from Amazon. Notice how many times they use elements to help you understand where on their website you are… do you really wanna question Amazon about this?
5. Use clearly defined page elements
Our last tip for you on your journey to ensuring your website visitors never have to think to use your site is to keep page elements separated visually. Understanding how elements are related to each other should require no brain power whatsoever.
Don’t forget whitespace, though it’s probably more appropriately called empty space. It is your friend, not your enemy. It’s the space between elements on your site that allow users to understand how it all fits together, and which elements are the most important.
Make sure that elements are aligned correctly and that you format similar elements in similar ways. As humans, we are designed to recognize patterns. Even if you aren’t effectively styling your website, users will still try and find patterns in how you have styled different elements. If they continue to identify patterns incorrectly, they will get frustrated and abandon your website.
When you pair these principles with an eye-catching graphic design and a well-coded website you’ll see your bounce rates go down, your page visits go up, and your conversion rates increase. So get out there and make your website thought-proof.