Sunday, January 20, 2013

Krug – don’t make online learners think (about structure & navigation)

Steve Krug has had a huge influence on web design through his best-selling book Don’t Make Me Think. He asks a simple question, ‘How do we really use the web?’ We glance, scan and muddle through. We don’t read pages, we scan them, choose the first reasonable option, and because we’re lazy, we meander through content. This is important and, if excesses in design are to be avoided, it has to be understood when designing web sites and online learning.
It was a welcome brake on the excesses of text-heavy, over designed, poorly navigable websites. His theory is based on real practice and positive results on real web sites. Krug’s first law of usability is to strive to make things self-evident or self-explanatory, hence the title ‘Don’t Make Me Think’.
Design Options
Sensitive to the needs of the internet as a medium in itself, he emphasises the importance of the Home page. This leads to reflection on the importance of the ‘Big Picture’, namely the essential purpose of the site or online learning programme. He loves tag lines that capture the essence of a site or web experience. Mission statements he hates, as they rarely tell you the real story and usually miss the Big Picture. He also hates badly designed rollovers, poorly designed pull down menus, unnecessary banner ads and the over promotion of other sites. Krug hates unnecessary noise. In online learning this can be translated into overlong animations at the start, boring learning objectives, merely illustrative graphics and animation, along with wallpaper video.
Structure and navigation
Taking his lead from newspapers, always an interesting source for screen design, he recommends carefully designed hierarchies. He hates navigation that breaks down when you get past the second level. The solution, he thinks, is persistent global navigation at the same position on every page with a home button and tracking. He loves fixed menus. He also makes the useful distinction between navigation, utilities (print, search and so on) and content. It is always a payoff between ‘wide and deep’ hierarchies.
Be conventional
Following on from Norman and Nielsen, he stresses conventions. Don’t play fast and loose, make things easy and consistent. Use conventions, such as shopping carts, standard video controls and icons. This is sound advice. Conventions are more than just objects of convenience, they are part of the grammar of interface design. Designers often refuse to use conventions as they crave creativity and innovation – this, in his view, is rarely useful. Pages should also be broken up into carefully defined areas, clickable areas should be obvious and every attempt made to minimise ‘noise’, again a Mayer and Clark principle in online learning.
Half the number of words and half again
True to his belief that screen readers are different from readers of print, he has strong view on writing for the screen. Less is more and so he exhorts designers and writers to omit needless words. In his own words, “Half the number of words and half again”. Mayer and Clark showed that this is especially applicable to online learning as it leads to significant gains in retention.
Usability testing
Krug, like Norman and Nielsen is a strong believer in usability testing. Following Nielsen and Landauer he takes the view that a few good, experienced testers and a few iterations are all you need. Forget the large-scale focus groups and massive testing, which suffer from the law of diminishing returns. His practical experience shows that just one, or a few testers early on are more effective than a large number at the end.
He recommends evidence gathering with a camcorder and facilitator who asks questions and gives tasks, especially ‘Get it’ tasks where you probe the user for their understanding of the point of the experience, how it works and how it is organised. The point of the facilitator is to probe and ask them not only what they’re looking at but what they’re thinking. Listen, keep an open mind and take lots of notes.
An underlying point, made many years before by Dewey and Heidegger is that technologies work best when they hide themselves in things and tasks. Technology is at its best when it is invisible. This is the consistent theme in all good usability theorists and practitioners. The task of the designer, to make the delivery mechanism as invisible as possible.
Krug understands the different roles of specialists in design teams and the tensions that arise between them. His solution is to objectify the debate through testing, not with the mythical average user, but with real users. His is a useful, practical and prescriptive approach to good usability through good design.
Rocket surgery made easy
His second book Rocket Surgery made easy, shows how to do modest, low budget testin. His starting point is that designers can’t see the bloomers as they get too close to the design and as the navigation has come from their own heads, they lack objectivity. You need other fingers and eyeballs but guided by experts, using voiced testimonies.
I started and ran a successful online learning test company for many years and couldn’t agree more. For technical testing, content testing, proof reading and functionality testing, you may need professional services. Krug recognises this but still recommends giving your work a good going over by some real users, under the eagle eye of people who know what to take from their voiced evidence.
Conclusion
Krug’s prescriptions are even more important in online learning than in web design, as learning’s great enemy is cognitive overload and dissonance. If learners have to work hard to understand, navigate and read online learning, they have less sustained attention for retentive learning. Most online learning, like most offline learning, is too long winded and needs to be seriously edited to avoid cognitive overload. Keep navigation simple and consistent, use de facto conventions, avoid deep hierarchies and write for the screen not the page. And don’t forget to test – a few iterations with experts.
Bibliography
Krug S. (2001) Don’t Make me Think

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