Better Know a Speaker: Steve Krug

You may have heard that An Event Apart is expanding. 2007 will see big, two-day shows in fine, fancy towns like Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco—with more great speakers than before and at a lower ticket price per day.

Steve Krug

Take Boston, and consider but one of our nine featured speakers, Mr. Steve Krug (biography, business website), author of the game-changing usability tome Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, now in its second edition. I can’t believe we got him. I’m still awed that he said yes.

If not for Steve Krug, I wouldn’t so much as speak the word “usability” in the privacy of my home, let alone bandy it about in mixed company. Curt Cloninger memorably expressed what many of us felt when he wrote “Usability experts are from Mars, graphic designers are from Venus” in the July 28, 2000 issue of A List Apart.

Stop and smell the brimstone

Like many design professionals, I rejected usability when I first encountered it. That’s mainly because I first encountered it as a series of rules, put forward by business-oriented, lab-coat-wearing experts who were hostile to the aesthetic component of user experience. Later, the rules would soften. “Only use blue, underlined links” would give way to gentler and more flexible guidelines.

And even before this softening, there was much in the early, fire-and-brimstone approach to usability that was actually of value to web designers. I should have been open-minded enough to benefit from the helpful bits and wink at the rest. But I was too busy defending my creative turf (not to mention reliving old battles with badly run focus groups and cocky account execs) to look closer and see that usability mainly means designing for the people who use my site.

And then along came Mary

Don’t Make Me Think. Starting with his book’s very title, Steve Krug made me see. Advancing from one low-key, guilt-free, common-sense premise to the next, Don’t Make Me Think made me think. And think. Above all, it made me rethink.

Icon from archived Happy Cog projects page (non-hover state).

Consider an archived Happy Cog portfolio page. Ignore the problem of orange-on-orange, which falls more under accessibility than usability. Focus on the page’s unusual means of presenting written content. When you click an icon, relevant text emerges. Click again, and it disappears. For instance, when you gently tap Cate Blanchett, you get text about the Charlotte Gray website we designed for Warner Bros.

It’s nifty stuff—at least for a non-Flash, pre-Ajax site. Or is it? I had fun designing it; other designers had fun reverse-engineering it and adding the same show and hide effects to their pages. I even shared the code in the first edition of Designing With Web Standards, mainly to prove how easy it was to use CSS, JavaScript, and the DOM to create playful interfaces that roughly mimicked the behavior of applications and kiosk-based presentations.

But the page’s usability is awful. How could a visitor possibly know that she is supposed to click an icon to reveal pertinent hidden text? She couldn’t. Hence the explanatory text at the top of the page. If you have to explain how your interface works, maybe you need to rethink the whole thing.

Steve Krug didn’t drop by my house to tell me my design was overwrought and under-thought. And he wouldn’t have put it that way, anyway. He’s way too nice a guy, not to mention way too experienced a consultant, to base his tutelage on insults. But his book woke my conscience and reshaped how I approach my craft.

His book, which you can read during a business flight, makes a convincing case for studying your audience, learning their needs, creating pathways of experience that you hope will meet those needs, and then testing, testing, testing.

Krug convinces because he is witty, and charming, and humble, and mostly because his ideas make sense and ring true. Boiled down, the essence of usability is the same as the essence of all good design: Think more so your users don’t have to think at all.

Design, after all, is about solving problems. Start with your user’s.

Please come to Boston

An Event Apart Boston 2007

My Event Apart co-host Eric Meyer and I don’t know exactly what Steve Krug will talk about on March 26 or 27 on our stage at Marriott Copley Place. We only know we will be privileged to be among his listeners. Registration for An Event Apart Boston 2007 will open in January, 2007. (A lot) more information about the show will be available very soon.

In coming weeks, in these pages, I’ll share what each of our exciting speakers means to me. Meanwhile, enough about me and Steve Krug. What does Steve Krug mean to you?

[tags]aneventapart, Steve Krug, usability, design, webdesign, boston, conferences[/tags]