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Steve Krug sets the Record Straight

Source: UN, 12 June 2002

Having recently come in for some criticism over the title of his book "Don't Make me Think!", Krug explains his reasoning and fights the usability corner at the AIGA Experience Design Forum.

Steve Krug flew in briefly this week for a couple of workshops and took the opportunity of addressing the AIGA Experience Design Forum Meeting on 'Usability vs Innovation'. He found himself defending both usability and his own work, summed up in the book "Don't Make Me Think!", against the criticisms of his fellow speaker.  This was Martyn Perks, who recently had the floor to himself at the May UPA meeting on the same topic (see Prodding at the Limits of User-centred Design), having given a similar talk at the BIMA event on usability (see The Future for Usability) earlier last month and written a pair of articles on the theme that sparked great indignation in the usability community.

Perks took the podium first, giving an updated and convincing talk on how short-termism, an emphasis on branding and poor targeting of RnD funds was leading industry to a lack of product differentiation and a difficulty in attracting new customers. While his thesis was the same as in earlier outings - that companies are hiding behind talk of 'the user' to defend risk-averse research strategies and investment in development - his target had firmly become the practice of the offending companies, not the people doing the user research and testing. He made clear that in calling for more attention to be paid to forecasting, analysis of trends and market research, this was not to be at the expense of usability work, but in addition. He omitted the controversial sections that had riled his last audience, during which he criticised a number of usability methodologies in a way regarded as a cavalier. 

The new audience, which included a number of the same usability professionals as well as others and many designers, responded very differently to the newly presented message, supporting his arguments and asking questions that showed a lively interest in how innovation might be fostered.

Krug followed Perks with a few general observations about usability before plunging into a right-of-reply session in which he tackled some of Perks’ less considered assertions from the article published in Cre@te Online. He pointed out that usability is not about asking users what they want - an activity that Perks claimed there is too much of - instead it is about observing what they do.

He explained that he had been expecting some negative reaction to his book "Don't Make Me Think!" for its anti-intellectual style. He was not expecting to be accused of disdain, as Perks and, elsewhere, James Woudhuysen have done (see James Woudhuysen champions the Human, rejects the User). Rechristening his book "Don’t Make Me Think Needlessly!", he said 'It's about them (users) being too smart to want to waste their time. I have enough respect for them not to.

He joined with Perks in attacking the idea of simplification for its own sake, stressing that his goal with the book was to advocate clarity and the extra effort that that might entail.

Then Krug, who had already described himself as conflict-averse, and Perks, who has shown himself to enjoy a good spat, took questions and comments together. Krug suggested that Perks had equated design with innovation and gave his opinion that a vast majority of design 'may be creative, but it's not innovative... real innovation is relatively rare'. Perks pointed out that innovation can occur in a process as well as a product, but stressed the need for the right commercial climate. It was already evident to the audience at this point that, though coming from different perspectives, the two speakers mostly agreed with each other.

Much comment from the audience concerned how usability people could work more closely with designers, not to police them but to be part of the development team. Obstacles to this were often imposed by an ignorant or unsympathetic management, resulting in usability delivered as a list of failures 'destroying the product'. One speaker told the meeting that she felt 99% of the time she used 1% of her skills, as managements did not understand the range of methods on offer.  Krug agreed that there was still much to be done: 'They like the sound of it, but no one wants to pay for it. Why are there so many usability professionals out of work?'

In this forum, as it has in others, the invoking of universal guidelines came under attack and the audience advocated a reactive role for usability practitioners: responding to innovation by helping to make a workable artefact. Krug quoted Jakob Nielsen several times to endorse points he made, while others reflected the increasingly common view that the authority of Nielsen's opinions is potentially cramping appropriate situation-specific responses.

The evening finished with Krug saying 'Keep it clear. It's awful if the message is simplicity... People are trying to get through just now and to get to a more reasonable set of higher expectations.

Perks said that he agreed with that, but told Krug he 'should change the title of the book'. Then the two men shook hands and everybody clapped.