Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug

cover of Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug, 2014 editionI first heard about Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug in grad school, but as William Goldman wrote in The Princess Bride, “What with one thing and another, three years passed.” (Actually, it may even have been four years; long enough, anyway, for a new edition to be published, so you see, every now and then procrastination pays off.)

That said, I highly recommend you make this book the next one you read. Don’t Make Me Think! is about usability, and specifically about usability as it pertains to websites (and now mobile sites and apps as well). While usability has many attributes – a website may be useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable, delightful – Krug’s definition of usability is as follows:

“A person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can figure out how to use the thing to accomplish something without it being more trouble than it’s worth.”

Krug’s writing is accessible, clear, funny, and peppered with relevant examples and illustrations; he cites many sources, including Jakob Nielsen, Don Norman (author of the excellent The Design of Everyday Things), and Ginny Redish (author of Letting Go of the Words). He explodes the myth of “the average user” (“All web users are unique and all web use is basically idiosyncratic”) and shows the value of usability testing as a way forward when designers and developers don’t agree. Krug writes, “Usability testing tends to defuse most arguments and break impasses by moving the discussion away from the realm of what’s right or wrong and what people like or dislike and into the realm of what works or doesn’t work. And by opening our eyes to just how varied users’ motivations, perceptions, and responses are, testing makes it hard to keep thinking that all users are like us.”

In addition to explaining why usability is important, Krug suggests some specific guidelines. For example, format text on your site to support scanning by:

  • using plenty of headings
  • keeping paragraphs short
  • using bulleted lists
  • highlighting key terms

Krug highlights the importance of site navigation, which, as he sees it, has three important functions:

  • It tells us what’s here (“Navigation reveals content!”)
  • It tells us how to use the site
  • It gives us (the user) confidence in the people who built [the site]

Krug also advises using clear language – no specialized jargon or cutesy labels – and making the information you know people will be looking for, like contact information, available in a logical place. Ultimately, “Usability is about serving people better by building better products.”

The elusive element of delight

Once a year or so, my husband and I order several one-ounce packets of various kinds of tea from a site called Culinary Teas. This year, when our supplies dwindled and we went to place a new order, we were completely blown away at the site’s new design. We could not stop marveling at it.

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it’s still possible to see what the Culinary Teas site looked like before. Here’s a screenshot from February 10, 2011:

The Culinary Teas site, as captured by the Wayback Machine in 2011.

The Culinary Teas site, as captured by the Wayback Machine in 2011.

Again, thanks to the Wayback Machine, I could see that the site design really hadn’t changed much from its beginnings in the early 2000s. Here’s what it looked like in 2003:

The Culinary Teas site in 2003, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

The Culinary Teas site in 2003, courtesy of the Wayback Machine.

They changed some colors around – the orange disappeared between 2003 and 2008 – but the site ID is still the same, and you can see they’ve got a seasonal theme going on behind it (snowflakes, leaves). There is a lot of text, and left and right sidebars, and the overall effect is busy, if functional; the login option and shopping cart are roughly where you’d expect them to be, near the top right, and the left sidebar provides an easy way to browse different kinds of tea. The search box is buried on the lower part of the right sidebar, which is not where most users are accustomed to looking for it, but if you’re just here to buy different teas, the left sidebar organization is pretty clear. Overall, the design of the site is functional; it works, it’s just not necessarily a pleasure to use.

But then, in 2014…WHAM.

The new Culinary Teas site, December 2014.

The new Culinary Teas site, December 2014.

 

HOLY SHIT IT’S BEAUTIFUL. Partly our reaction was due to the difference between our expectation (we remembered the old site) and the reality (of the new site). First of all, there’s a ton of white space, and much less text, so the first impression is much cleaner. The teapot logo is transformed and the site ID font is updated; they’re arranged together in the top left, according to standard web conventions, instead of top center. And there in the top right is the search bar, again in line with conventions; My Account is there too.

As for navigation, the left sidebar menu has remained more or less unchanged in terms of content and organization, and the organization makes sense to me (both as a tea-drinker and as an organization-minded librarian). The horizontal nav across the top, under the search box and My Account link, offers a reasonable six choices. (There are additional footer links, but we never needed to use them; even the About and Contact links, which are often buried in the footer of commercial sites, are header links here.)

When you click on one of the left nav options – Organic Teas, say – the resulting display is jaw-droppingly gorgeous:

Visual image of tea, name of tea, starting price for smallest amount. Beautiful.

Visual image of tea, name of tea, starting price for smallest amount. Beautiful.

Talk about “what you see is what you get.”

Culinary Teas has had a good product for a long time, and now they have a great website to showcase it as well. As Steve Krug writes in Don’t Make Me Think! (more on this soon), “Delight is a bit hard to pin down; it’s more one of those ‘I’ll know it when I feel it’ kind of things.” Other attributes of usability are more important: is it useful, learnable, memorable, effective, efficient, desirable? The previous version of this site had most of these usability attributes – I don’t ever remember being frustrated while using it – but it wasn’t delightful. The new version is. Three cheers for good design!

Usability and Visibility

Last fall I wrote about Google’s redesign (which actually increased the number of clicks it took to get something done). Sure, it’s a “cleaner, simpler” look, but how did it get cleaner and simpler? To put it plainly: they hid stuff.

For those who are continually riding the breaking wave of technology, these little redesigns cause a few moments of confusion or annoyance at worst, but for those who are rather more at sea to begin with, they’re a tremendous stumbling block.

Today in the library, I helped an 80-year-old woman access her brand-new Gmail account. She signed on to one of the library computers with her library card – no problem there. Then she stared at the desktop for a while, so I explained that she could use one of three browsers – Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer – to access the Internet. “Don’t confuse me with choices, just tell me what to do. Which one do you like?” she asked.

I suggested Firefox, and she opened the browser. The home screen is set to the familiar Google logo and search bar, surrounded by white space. I pointed up to the corner and told her to click on Gmail:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.44.07 PMThen came the sign-in screen, asking for email and password; at least the “sign in” button is obvious.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.48.45 PMNext, we encountered a step that asked her if she wanted to confirm her account by getting a mobile alert. I explained that she could skip this step, but she clicked on it anyway, then got frustrated when her inbox didn’t appear.

Now, here’s something that anyone who has ever put up any kind of signage probably knows: People don’t read signs. They don’t read instructions. Good design takes this into account; as Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) says, “Design is really an act of communication.” Good design communicates with a minimum of words and instructions.

In this case, I canceled the prompt for her and we got to her inbox. I showed her that she had three e-mails – informational, “welcome” e-mails from Gmail itself – and upon seeing she had no mail, she wanted to sign out. “Do I just click the X?” she asked, moving the mouse up to the upper right hand corner of the program. I explained that clicking the red X would close the browser, but that she should sign out of Gmail first (even though the library computers wipe out any saved information between patrons).

But is there a nice big button that says “Sign out”? No, there is not. Instead, there’s this:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.01.12 PMHow on earth would a new user know to click on that to sign out? She wouldn’t. And the thing about new users (very young ones excepted, usually) is that they don’t want to go around clicking on random things, because they’re afraid they will break something, or make a mistake they can’t correct or backtrack from.

I think the above scenario will be familiar to anyone who works in a public library, not to mention anyone who has tried to help a parent or a grandparent with a computer question. It’s easy to get frustrated with the user, but more often than not the blame really rests with the designer – and yet it’s not the designers who are made to feel stupid for “not getting it” or making mistakes.

And it isn’t just beginning users who run into these problems. Sometimes it seems as though designers are changing things around just for the sake of change, without making any real improvements. Examples spring to mind:

Think the latest “upgrade” to Google Maps. If there are checkboxes for all the things you already know are problems, why push the new version?

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.25.28 PM

Even Twitter, which is usually pretty good about these things (and which got stars across the board in the EFF’s most recent privacy report, “Who Has Your Back?: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests”), is not immune to the making-changes-for-no-reason trend:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.18.00 PM

But perhaps the most notorious offender of all is iTunes:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.21.11 PM

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.17.07 PM

To quote Don Norman (again), “Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful. You have to know when to stop.

To this end, I would suggest to all designers and front-end developers: please, run some user testing before you make changes, or as you’re creating a new design. Get just five people to do a few tasks. See where they get confused and frustrated, see where they make mistakes. Remember (Norman again), “Designers are not typical users. Designers often think of themselves as typical users…[but] the individual is in no position to discover all the relevant factors. There is no substitute for interaction with and study of actual users of a proposed design.

Edited to add: WordPress isn’t immune, either.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.41.47 PM

Is it “easier”? Is it “improved”? How so? I’m OK with the way it is now, thanks…but soon I’m sure I won’t have a choice about switching over to the new, “easier,” “improved” way.

“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.

random-house-penguin11

Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

MLA Conference 2014, Day Two (Thursday)

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 8.53.24 PMHarvard Library Innovation Lab: Pop-Ups, Prototypes, and Awesome Boxes

Annie Cain, Matt Phillips, and Jeff Goldenson from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab  presented some of their recent projects. Cain started off by introducing Awesome Box: the Awesome Box gives library users the opportunity to declare a library item (book, audiobook, movie, TV show, magazine, etc.) “awesome” by returning it to an Awesome Box instead of putting it into the book drop. Library staff can then scan the “awesome” items and send them to a custom website (e.g. arlington.awesomebox.io), where anyone can see the “recently awesome” and “most awesome” items. Instead of librarian-to-patron readers’ advisory, it’s patron-to-patron/librarian. Cool, fun, and easy to use! “Awesome” books can also be put on display in the library.

Phillips talked about the idea of “hovermarks,” bringing favicon-style images to the stacks by placing special bookmarks in books. Patrons or librarians could place a hovermark in a book to draw attention to local authors, Dewey Decimal areas, beach reads, favorites, Awesome Box picks, or anything else. It’s a “no-tech” way to “annotate the stacks.”

Goldenson floated the idea of a Library Community Catalog, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. The Library Community Catalog could contain real things, ideas, speculations, interviews, or other articles. It could be “hyper-local,” in print and/or online.

Of the three ideas presented, Awesome Box is definitely the most developed, and Harvard, which “isn’t necessarily known for sharing,” is eager to get it into public libraries. Contact them if you’re interested in setting it up at your library!

Libraries are Keeping Readers First: An Update on the National Initiative and How You Can Participate

Readers First is “a movement to improve e-book access and services for public library users.” Kelvin Watson from Queens Library and Michael Santangelo from BookOps presented an update on this initiative, explaining the work that’s been done thus far and how far we have to go. The more people (and libraries) sign on, the stronger the team, the better ability to effect change. Already, said Santangelo, Readers First represents over 20 million readers.

Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 3.57.31 PM

It’s worth going to the Readers First site (link in the previous paragraph) to read their principles. The two main challenges regarding e-books in libraries are availability and discoverability/access. Availability is an issue with the publishers; the issues of discoverability and access can be taken up with the vendors. Because libraries are only indirectly connected to publishers, but directly connected to vendors, Readers First decided to focus its efforts on the discoverability/access challenge.

Santangelo said that Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science applied to e-books also (save the time of the reader, (e)books are for use, etc.) and that libraries have a responsibility to ensure open, easy, and free access to e-books the same as we do for print books. However, the e-book experience now is fragmented, disjointed, and cumbersome, creating a poor user experience. This is where the four Readers First principles come in: readers should be able to discover content in one comprehensive catalog; access a variety of content from multiple sources; interact with the library in the library’s own context; and read e-books compatible with all e-reading devices.

A Readers First Working Group sent a survey to vendors in order to create a guide to library e-book vendors. This guide will help librarians who are choosing an e-book vendor for the first time, or moving from one to another; it will also help vendors design their systems and decide what to prioritize.

Watson said that libraries should see vendors as partners, and challenge them to “do the right thing.” Librarians should hold all vendors accountable to the Readers First principles, with the end goal of a seamless experience for the user. The long-term objective, said Michael Colford of the Boston Public Library, is to “have the discovery layer be the platform.” Until then, we’re relying on APIs. “We can make things less complicated, but we can’t make it easier,” said Santangelo.

Readers First is working with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to develop standards for e-books, but according to Watson, the perfect format hasn’t been invented yet. (Other than PDFs, most e-book files are proprietary formats, wrapped in DRM and not usable across devices.)

MA E-Book Project

Deb Hoadley presented an update on the Massachusetts E-Book Project on behalf of the Massachusetts Library System. I was already familiar with the project because Robbins is one of the pilot libraries, but it was good to review the history, see where the project had hit snags, and hear from other librarians at pilot libraries (Jason Homer from Wellesley and Jackie Mushinsky from WPI) about how they had introduced the project to patrons.

150x71-MA-EbooksYou can read about the project’s history, the RFP, and see updates on the website, so I want to use this space to draw a parallel between the MA E-Book Project and Readers First. Although the pilot consists of three different vendors (BiblioBoard, Baker & Taylor (Axis 360), and EBL) with three different models, the end goal is a single e-book platform that offers integrated and seamless discovery. Any Massachusetts resident would have access through this user-friendly platform to e-content that is owned – not licensed – by Massachusetts libraries; local content would also be hosted and discoverable.

Although we are far from this goal right now, “Our vendors are listening to us,” said Homer. He said that participating in the pilot project has enabled him to start conversations with patrons about how much we spend on e-books now and why we need a new model. Mushinsky, who added local content through BiblioBoard, said that we need to ask, “Will this resource be of value to us? Can we add value to it?”

I came away from these two sessions (Readers First and the MA E-Book Project) convinced that we have the right goals, and dedicated people working toward them, but a little depressed at how far we have to go. Slowly but surely…


Teaching the Tools: Technology Education in Public Libraries

Clayton Cheever live-blogged this session; his notes are posted on the Teaching the Tools site.

Anna Litten from Wellesley did an excellent job moderating this informative panel. Litten and the other panelists (Michael Wick, Theresa Maturevitch, Jason Homer, and Sharani Robins) built a website called Teaching the Tools: Libraries and Technology Education, which they hope will serve as a resource going forward. To borrow from the site: “All reference librarians are technology trainers, educators and instructors these days.  But what does it really mean to teach technology topics in public libraries?  What can and should we teach?  How does technology instruction fit into our broader mission and core responsibilities?  What resources are available to use and to our clients?  How do we become better presenters and instructors?”

The panelists addressed these questions during the session. They all teach in their libraries, but the teaching takes different forms. “I teach to whatever question comes to the door, in whatever way the learner can understand it,” said Wick. Maturevich talked about printed brochures, online resources, and videos; Robins talked about beginner classes, one-on-one sessions, and “Wired Wednesday,” when patrons can drop in for tech help. Robins has also had reps from Barnes & Noble and Best Buy come in to help people with e-reading devices, and she often uses the resources at GCF LearnFree.org. Homer teaches intermediate classes in the Wellesley computer lab, and other Wellesley staff teach beginner classes. Clearly, there are many approaches, and flexibility is key.

Litten suggested taking the time to read instructional design blogs; most librarians don’t have a background in instructional design, but the field does exist and there’s a lot we can learn. “We have to focus on what’s going to work,” she said. “If it’s not working, abandon! Abandon!”

What to do when you offer a class and no one shows up? Wick and Litten talked about forming partnerships in the community. “We can be really useful to you in ways you didn’t even realize,” said Litten. “Listen,” Wick encouraged. Ask people, “What do you want? We’ll give it to you.” As for whether teaching technology is part of the library’s mission, Wick said, why wouldn’t it be? “We help everybody with everything else. Why aren’t we helping them as much as we can, more than they’re asking?” Find your audience first, said Wick, then design your classes.

Some library staff are reluctant to teach classes, but that isn’t the only kind of teaching. Nor do tech teachers have to be experts; in fact, said Wick, good teachers can be just one step ahead of their students. Knowing the librarian/teacher is not an expert but a fellow learner can put patrons/students at ease. Confronted with a question she doesn’t know the answer to, Maturevich often uses the line, “I don’t know either, but this is how we find out.”

“Good instruction depends on having good goals,” said Litten. “We’re already doing these things, we just need to do them a little bit better.”

carlitos_Simple_Pencil_ho

That’s all, folks! If you missed it, you can read about Wednesday’s sessions here (part 1) and here (part 2).

See the whole MLA conference program here [PDF]

 

We interrupt this broadcast…

Another post or three about MLA still to come, but first: May 6 was International Day Against DRM. Please go read what Sarah (a.k.a. the Librarian In Black) has to say about this, and follow all her links (especially check out Defective By Design).

librariansagainstDRM“Consumers, and libraries by extension, should have the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software we choose.” -Sarah Houghton

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

LibraryThing vs Goodreads, redux

Back in April I wrote about transitioning from Goodreads to LibraryThing after Amazon bought Goodreads. The transition was a bit halting, but I have now more or less stopped updating my Goodreads account (though I still contribute to my library’s account for readers’ advisory purposes) and shifted all my activity over to LibraryThing.

Though both Goodreads and LT are social reading sites, they are different in a number of ways. For example, let’s look at the messages on their home pages, before sign-in. Here’s Goodreads:

goodreads_home_logo

And here’s LibraryThing:

LT_home_logo

Goodreads (“Meet your next favorite book”) is encouraging readers to find new books to read, through lists (“shelves”), ads, and other users’ reviews. LibraryThing, on the other hand (“A home for your books…A community of book lovers”) emphasizes its cataloging quality and its user community.

There are a variety of uses for social reading sites (and by no means are Goodreads and LibraryThing the only choices), but my primary uses are (in descending order of importance):

  1. Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read.

  2. Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read.

  3. See what my friends are reading and read their reviews.

I also appreciate the chance to get the occasional early review copy (I’ve gotten one or two from Goodreads over the past six years, and at least four from LT over the past year), and the serendipity of connecting with authors (more than once, authors on Goodreads have contacted me after I’ve written a review of their book: one ended up attending a book club meeting, and another gave a presentation at the library).

So, how do the two sites compare? Let’s go point by point.

Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. I’m certainly able to do this on both sites. Goodreads has “read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read” shelves, whereas LibraryThing has “to-read” and “currently reading” collections (everything else is, by default, “read”). I like Goodreads’ “date added” sorting option, but I like that LibraryThing offers different display styles.

LY_styleoptions

Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read. One of LT’s aforementioned display styles includes reviews – so you can see all your reviews at a glance, rather than having to click into each book’s record. You can also click directly into the review to make any edits. There is no way to skim all your reviews in Goodreads.

See what my friends are reading and read their reviews. Goodreads has a clear advantage here, because most of the people I know who are on a social reading site are on Goodreads. I’m not that interested in reading strangers’ reviews, but I do like seeing what my friends are reading. Fortunately, I still get e-mails from Goodreads with updates that include friends’ reviews.

goodreads_greenbuttonIn terms of function, then, the sites aren’t all that different. Though I’m committed to LT now, I still don’t find it as intuitive or user-friendly as Goodreads (though, like most LT users, I’m not a fan of Goodreads’ dreaded green button).

LibraryThing organization

Even after a few months of using LibraryThing, I still don’t navigate it effortlessly. The font is absolutely tiny, which leads to a cluttered appearance. Searching within your library takes a second or two longer than I’d like to return results (yes, I’m impatient). The organization also takes some getting used to – the Home tab shows your most recent books, but if you click into a book’s record from there, it just shows metadata and other users’ reviews, not your review or when you started or finished the book; that information is under the Your Books tab (this is where you can choose your own display style).

There’s a separate tab to Add Books, and when you search, there’s usually only one edition of the book, whereas Goodreads lists all of them (hardcover, paperback, mass market, audiobook, various publishers, etc). However, if you put in the ISBN of the specific edition you’re looking for, it will show up.

The other tabs – Groups, Talk, Local, More, and the mysteriously named Zeitgeist (“more information than you require,” indeed, though it’s probably useful/interesting for some) – I don’t use often, though I probably should look at the Local tab more often to see what’s going on. It’s customizable too, so you can choose your favorite bookstores, libraries, or other literary venues to see what authors might be in town. The More tab includes the link to Early Reviewer books.

Stats are accessed from the Home tab; I don’t look at stats that often, just a few times a year, but LT presents them pretty creatively. For instance, my library (which, to be fair, includes books on my “to-read” shelf as well as those I’ve read and am currently reading), if stacked book upon book, would be slightly taller than the Great Pyramid, slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. The value of its weight in gold would be $22,173,471. Goodreads data, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward – number of books read in a calendar year, number of pages read, etc. I wish LT had these types of numbers as well.

Overall, I’m not thrilled with LibraryThing, but I’m going to stick with it because it isn’t owned by Amazon, which means my personal data isn’t being harvested (at least not so rapaciously and overtly). Perhaps some of the things that irk me about it will change, and more of my friends will join over time. Till then, it does what I need it to do.