Nowadays, most students are faced with the world of HTML and computer science at some point in their academic careers. For me, the first time was in CIS 101 in college. (Yes, there was a second time. It turns out grad school does not assume computer literacy). Although it isn’t always part of the formal curriculum, usability is always an underlying theme in technology classes even if it is just a question of whether the HTML textbook is actually written in gibberish or not. Usability is also one of the few fields where anyone, even the computer illiterate, can be an expert.
The idea behind usability is simple: Look at a given design and see how accessible it is for users. Anyone can have an opinion on usability and everyone can provide input. All it takes is a clear head and the patience to look at what works (or doesn’t) and why. If you use it, you have information about its usability. To get back to the subjects of Computer Science and technology, usability has lately been applied to the world of Web design.
Usability consultant Steve Krug lays out all of the basics about Web usability in his book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2005) currently in its second edition, published in 2006 after the first edition sold nearly 100,000 copies.
As far as titles go, there are few that offer as clear a picture of the book’s content as this one. Krug’s main point throughout his 185-page guide is that good Web sites don’t make users think. Unlike college, Krug posits that using a conventional website should not be an intellectual exercise. It should be simple, it should be neat, and it should be self-evident. In other words, if a user cannot identify the site’s purpose, and where to start on said site, just by viewing the homepage something has gone horribly wrong.
Krug details how to fix such problems and how to avoid them with usability tests. That may sound self-serving save for the fact that Krug also explains how to conduct usability tests on the cheap without the benefit of a usability consultant such as himself.
Written in short chapters packed with illustrations, this book is designed to be approachable and easy to read. Krug is serious about Web usability, but that in no way means his book is stodgy or dry. Examples of usability at work are littered with cartoons and the text maintains a sense of humor. My favorite chapter title (and subtitle) “Usability as common courtesy: Why your Web site should be a mensch” might offer some idea of what tone to expect from this book.
Of course, taking a computer class to meet a core requirement in college doesn’t always lead to work in the field of Web design in fact most of the time it leads to an entirely different career. But, in today’s technology-driven culture, doesn’t everything come back to the Internet eventually?
It might just be working as an intern at an online magazine, or a starting position where duties include entering data into online spreadsheets, or it might just be writing your own blog on a site like WordPress or Blogger. Wherever your path leads, knowing something about Web usability and how good Web sites get that way can only help. As more and more information moves to cyberspace, with websites being created and updated all the time, it’s important to be prepared by knowing how to analyze not only the information found online but also how it is presented. Don’t Make Me Think is one tool that can assist Web users in that preparation.
Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd Edition