Steve Krug on Simplicity

The last of three posts on the themes of clarity, simplicity and focus – here’s Steve Krug from his incredibly helpful and practical Don’t Make Me Think:

“Don’t make me think!”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been telling people that this is my first law of usability.

It’s the overriding principle – the ultimate tie breaker when deciding whether a design works or or it doesn’t. If you have room in your head for only one usability rule, make it this one.

For instance, it means that as far as is humanly possible, when I look at a Web page it should be self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory.

I should be able to “get it” – what it is and how to use it – without expending any effort thinking about it.

Think of it this way:

When I’m looking at a page that doesn’t make me think, all the thought balloons over my head say things like “OK, there’s the _____. And that’s a ____. And there’s the thing I want.”

But when I’m looking at a page that makes me think, all the thought balloons over my head have question marks in them.

When you’re creating a site, your job is to get rid of the question marks.

It comes back to clarity: to achieve what Krug describes you need to have absolute clarity about what your site is supposed to do, which is inseparable from who the user is and what they are looking for, as well as what you think they need .

Krug is particularly good at encouraging empathy with our users – we’re sunk without it. And without it, what would be the point?

It’s the same thing Zinsser says about writing, and the Heath Brothers about communication in general. And it’s true of any product or service.

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

Don’t make me think. Everything that could be easy, should be easy. So that I can spend my attention on the things that matter.

Made to Stick: Simplicity

Following Zinsser On Writing, here’s a snippet on simplicity from Made to Stick.

The first chapter is about reducing your message to it’s absolute core.

As with Zinsser, clarity of intent is key for the Heath brothers: it’s not enough that the message is simple, it must be profoundly important.

They use the military practice of sharing “commander’s intent” as an analogy to help us cut to the core of our messages.

In the military, commanders at each level of the chain of command summarise their intent or purpose in a couple of sentences at the top of a each of orders. This is done so that when (not if) circumstances change and the details of best-laid plans become irrelevant or wrong, troops can still make decisions and take action to achieve their commander’s overall purpose.

No plan survives contact with the enemy. No sales plan survives contact with the customer. No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.

They suggest finding the Commander’s Intent for your message by adapting these prompts:

“If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must …”


“The single most important thing that we must do tomorrow is …”

They continue:

Find the core of the idea. Weed out superflous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important, but just aren’t the most important idea. The army’s commander’s intent forces its officers to highlight the most important goal of an operation. The value of the intent comes from its singularity. You can’t have five north stars.

It’s about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine.

There’s plenty more in the chapter that I’ll share another time, but this is the main thing.

Easy question:
What superfluous and tangential activities are slowing you down?

What good, productive activities can you set aside in order to achieve your main goal?

William Zinsser on Simplicity

Here are some excerpts from Zinsser’s ‘On Writing Well’, which I mentioned in yesterday’s post:

… the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank.

He’s right, of course… or mostly right (Zinsser concedes that there’s a place for well ornamented writing, as long as it’s well constructed)…

He goes on to ask how we can free our writing from clutter:

The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for the muddy thinker to write good English. He may get away with it for a paragraph or two, but soon the reader will be lost, and there’s no sin so grave, for the reader will not easily be lured back.

Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say. Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is someone clearheaded enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard.

This is brilliant advice for writing, and as I read Zinssler I find myself applying what he says about words to my work as a whole. Where are the adulterants and the clutter? Where am I unclear about what I’m trying to do? How can I spot and remove the fuzz in the machinery?

Few pieces of important work come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that changing things for the better is hard, it’s because it is hard.

And like good writing, it’s worth it.


Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

I’ve been reminded about the importance of clarity and simplicity by three books in the last week:

  • Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug’s classic on web usability.
  • Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s great (so far) guide to how to make ideas memorable and impactful.
  • On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s brilliant and very funny book on… writing well. 

They all share a key message for communicators of any kind: be clear about your purpose, and keep things as simple as possible.

These ideas can help us improve any work that we do, and the rest of our lives too. Omit not just needless words, but needless activity, needless calories, needless consumption. Simplify. Focus. You’ll be amazed at how good you feel, and how much more you get done.

But simplicity and focus (like abstinence and diligence) are only virtues if applied to the right things in the right way, so clarity is key:

  • What do I want?
  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • Who is this for?
  • What makes this good?
  • What would make it better?
  • Why do people buy this from us?
  • What makes it worth it?
  • What will make people come back?
  • What is the contribution that only I can make?

A clear vision of what’s most important is the lens that makes it possible for us focus our energy, to decide what to do (what to think, even), and reduce clutter and friction enough that we have the time and the space to do it.

Clarity. Simplicity. Focus.

And now, it’s Friday night, and I have a clear vision of what it’s for: needless activity, needless calories, needless entertainment.

At the right times and in the right places, the needless is the one thing needful.

Small promises

It’s been five whole days since I quoted something from Seth Godin, so here’s something: we build trust by keeping our promises.

Well-placed trust makes everything better.

  • We feel safe with people we trust.
  • So we can relax. We feel better. We do better. We can be better.
  • We can be more honest, and we can share more of ourselves.
  • We’re far happier spending time and money on proven products from brands we trust.
  • And we’re prepared to pay more, because we trust it’s worth it.
  • We can spend far less time managing and supervising people we’ve come to trust – and more time directly contributing.
  • We can try things out and take risks – potentially wonderful risks – with people we trust.

So how do we get people to trust us? By making and keeping lots of small promises, many of them implicit: that we’ll send that email, show up on time, do the little things we say we’re going to do, be consistent, be engaged and committed when it’s easier not to.

I’m all for not sweating the small stuff… but the keeping of small promises helps all do better.

And as someone trusts you, you get to make (and keep) bigger promises.

Update 11/08/18: Another great post from Seth about promises here.

Setting the bar high

You’ve got to set the bar high too.

Set the bar high in the big, important things:

  • What am I working for?
  • Who am I working for?
  • How can I make things better… now?
  • What fruit will this produce in a day, a year, ten years from now?
  • How do I treat the people who have the least in each equation that I or my organisation are part of?
  • If someone joined all the dots of what we do, what picture would they get?

And of course, a great way to clear a high bar is to clear a whole lot of low ones on your way…

Setting the bar low

If a job is too big, if standards are too high, it will never get done. It might never even get started.

Setting the bar low, on the other hand, is a great way to get started. A drop in the bucket, a brick in the wall at a time – sooner or later you’re talking about something concrete.

A blog entirely made up of perfect posts? Impossible.

A single, excellent blog post? Time consuming and very rare.

100 posts of variable quality? That’s easy enough. It’s enough volume to cover over the posts you feel shy about, and enough opportunities that a few will clear that nice low bar with ease.

Being prolific

How many ideas have you lost out of pure inertia?

I don’t just mean all the ideas you’ve had that you never did anything about – you lost those too, but many of them probably weren’t that good anyway. 

Doing something with an idea is often the fastest way to check if it’s important. You might do a bit of research and write down what you do, or seek out the right person for a conversation, or see if you can make something happen. If it turns out not to be important, or if it isn’t for you, that’s fine – you’ve cleared the decks for a new idea which might be a keeper. A stagnant pool of vague ideas costs you new ideas.

But the ideas you really lose, the good ones, are the ones you find down the rabbit hole once you’ve taken action on an idea and confirmed that there’s something to it. Things get more specific on contact with reality (or the customer!), and vague ideas begin to take concrete form, and new vistas of questions and actions open up.

This is what I mean by being prolific: making fast, small, low-cost decisions; taking action; trying things out. I don’t mean mindlessly, throwing proverbial mud on the wall. And of course there’s an equal and opposite principle of focusing and going deep. But you only go deep by diving in.

So if you think you’ve got good idea – why not take it for a test drive?

Why not now?

A small thing that might be useful

Here’s a small thing that might be useful: a link (or better, if I can manage it, an embedded video) from Derek Sivers about getting on with making small things that might be useful to someone and that they’ll actually pay for for, as opposed to waiting for the chance (i.e. money) to build something huge and tremendous.

This blog post falls into this category – it’s small, but it’s what I can do. It’s very useful, and it isn’t free – you’re paying attention. Hope you like it.

Okay, I can’t embed the video (issues with new wordpress editor?) It’s here.

No wait! Maybe I can embed the video…