Episode 35 – Don’t Make Me Think with Steve Krug

Steve KrugSteve Krug tells it like it is. ‘People don’t read nearly as much of [your book] as you think.’

Painful though it is, he says, much of writing is actually editing: reworking sentences, cutting out fluff, converting long paragraphs to bullet-points, so that you get your point across.

Steve used all these tricks and more when the wrote the bible of usability experts – Don’t Make Me Think. He wanted it to be readable in a two-hour plane journey, because that’s about how long his target reader would be able to give it. And to achieve that he did a lot of ‘throwing stuff overboard’.

Writing, says Steve, is like usability: ‘it’s all about ‘keeping the user in mind and trying to be as kind to them as possible and trying to make it as rewarding an experience for them as you can.’

Invaluable, practical and refreshingly sane advice whether you’re writing a book or a page of website copy.


Steve’s site: http://www.sensible.com/

Steve on Twitter: https://twitter.com/skrug

Alison Jones:  Hello, and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m here with Steve Krug, who’s a usability and user experience expert, and his book Don’t Make Me Think is the bible of the UX community. I can vouch for this. I happened to mention to a client who’s a UX guy that I was talking to Steve, and he just fell off his chair today. This is what got him started in his career, apparently. It’s been the bible since it was first published in 2000. It’s now in its third edition, which published in 2013. Fantastic to have you with us here today, Steve.

Steve Krug:    Thanks. I’ve been looking forward to it.

Alison Jones:  Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you come to write Don’t Make Me Think? What was the thinking behind it?

Steve Krug:    Yeah, I told this story a bunch, actually. I had been a usability consultant for maybe fifteen years at that point, and things were going fine. I was very happy. I had nice clientele, and never wanted for work, and sort of got passed from client to client, but I didn’t have- what is it in the Wizard of Oz- I didn’t have like a diploma. I didn’t have a certificate. My clients knew me, but I didn’t have very much of a public presence. Someone actually, a very famous designer named Roger Black, who’s a newspaper designer who I had worked with on some projects, wanted to do some books about the internet and the web to sort of put them together and produce them. He said, “You want to write a book about usability?” I thought, “You know, if I had a book, I could probably raise my consulting rates.” I didn’t have the nerve to raise my consulting rates, but I thought, “Okay, that’d probably be a good thing. If I had a book I could raise my rates.” That was actually the impetus for it.

Alison Jones:  That’s very pure…

Steve Krug:    He got me this fabulous deal, which nobody else has ever gotten, where I got this huge, unheard of advance so I could take the time away from work to write it. It was this wonderful thing. So I took the time. It took me a whole year to write it and I practically bankrupted us because it took longer than it should have.

I actually never expected to make a dime from it beyond the advance. I just wanted to raise my consulting rates. Then it turned out it started selling. That was very nice. I also found out after the fact that I could have raised my consulting rates before anyway, didn’t need a book.

Alison Jones:  It’s hilarious that it took you a year to write as well full-time because actually you designed the thing to be readable in a two hour flight, didn’t you?

Steve Krug:    Yeah, exactly. It can take me like a day and a half to write an email. I’m a really, really slow writer. In fact, I always used to- I’ve spent years saying that I didn’t like writing, really complaining about the fact that I really didn’t like writing, and that it was sort of unfortunate that I seem to have some kind of a knack for it because I really didn’t like it. But I realized- since we’re talking about writing- I realized a couple of years ago, that it actually wasn’t the writing I didn’t like. It was that, for me, most writing amounted to procrastinating, and I really didn’t like the procrastinating.

Alison Jones:  It is possible to uncouple the writing from the procrastinating?

Steve Krug:    Not for me, no. I’ve tried darn near everything. There is some things that helps some, but basically I- In fact it’s amazing that it helps for me, is sort of talking it out to somebody else.

Alison Jones:  Yeah.

Steve Krug:    That’s the main thing that eases it up for me, is just having somebody who will listen to me try and explain what it is I’m trying to explain.

Alison Jones:  Let’s just quantify this a bit. Of the year of writing, how much was actually writing and how much was procrastination?

Steve Krug:    Probably three-quarters of it was procrastination. Yeah, in one form or another. Some of it consisted of my writing process, which is to sort of dash off- you know, as you’re supposed to- just dash off a draft. Just keep writing and dash off a draft of the chapter. I would do that and then I would come back and I would try to edit it into shape. I would work at that and work at that and work at that. Then I’d just despair and then I’d say, “Well, I’ll start over.” I would dash off another draft of the chapter. I might do that three or four times. In retrospect, it turned out that the things that I dashed off were always exactly the same. They were almost word for word the same, and I thought I was just starting over from scratch.

Eventually, the deadline would be long past and I’d face enormous panic and I’d get some help from friends. Then I’d go in and whip the thing into shape.

Alison Jones:  Well, no, it obviously works for you.

Steve Krug:    It does, you know. I’m so grateful for that, that it actually works. When people come to me and say, “Well, I’m thinking of writing a book,” I’m always kind of like, “I think you should think a little more. You really enjoy it? Do you really enjoy writing long form stuff, you know? Have you done it before?” Because most of the people I know, whose books I like, basically say, “Yeah, it took me a year, and it wasn’t a very pleasant year.”

I don’t want to discourage everybody. Some people find writing much easier then I do.

Alison Jones:  This is music to my ears. I find it really hard, which is kind of ironic you know, because I’m obviously into helping other people do it as well. Yeah, I found it really hard.

Steve Krug:    They need your help. We all need your help. I think getting help is very important. We think of it as solitary, and we really don’t want to show our stuff to other people, but part of what saved me the first time around- and I’d written some long form stuff before and I had been a tech writer for like ten years, so I was used to writing manuals and getting stuff done- but what saved me was one of my best friends, who’s an abstract artist. I would take one of these like completely manic disorganized drafts of a chapter and we’d sit and have coffee and he would read it. Then we’d talk about it. He would basically say things like, “Yeah, this whole part, I think this just goes on way too long. I don’t think it’s that important a point.” And I could hear that. The trust in the first reader, I think is really incredibly valuable. Somebody who you can trust to read stuff when it’s still as we say “crap”.

Alison Jones:  Yeah. That’s a real trust thing, isn’t it? What I’m finding fascinating though, because here’s the thing, when you read your book, it reads like you just said it a minute ago. It doesn’t feel overworked. It’s very, very direct and fresh. It’s really interesting. I guess I should know better, but it feels as though you just sat down and wrote it and it was effortless and pure.

Steve Krug:    I know. The reality is, as you can imagine, it was pounded to death. I read each of the sentences in my head an average of thirty times probably, while trying to get them to work together.

Alison Jones:  Fascinating.

Steve Krug:    It’s all editing. The editing’s the hard part. I think it’s really the hard part.

Alison Jones:  That’s so interesting and I think been really helpful as well, because I know that everybody does this but it’s very hard to remember. You look at your own first shitty draft and you compare it with something like your book and you just say, “Well, what is the point?” You forget the gap and the work.

Steve Krug:    I should post one of my first drafts some time.

Alison Jones:  You should. We’d appreciate that. Thank you. That is funny. Now, you know that thing about putting on just a two hour flight, what was your thinking behind that and what did it mean that you did that was different?

Steve Krug:    Yeah. A lot of people have actually written me and said, “Yeah, I actually did that. I read it on a flight.” I’m always kind of gratified by that. Part of that was because I can’t make it through long books myself. One of my favourite books of all time in college was “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Kuhn. It’s like seventy-five pages. He just made this point. He just made a point and made it really-

Anyways, what I did was probably a couple of things. One, I made the decision clearly that I had no interest or need in being comprehensive. It’s like often times books feel like they need to be comprehensive in various fashions, whether it’s just comprehensive on one small particular topic or whatever. It’s kind of like the whole fear and balanced idea of news, which has gotten us in so much trouble here in the States, where you kind of have to give equal weight to both sides of an argument. I had no compunction at all about being encyclopedic or comprehensive about the topic. I just wanted to talk about the things that I felt like I knew something about that would be of some use. I had no problem at all not talking about something. Or not giving a thorough answer about something. That’s pretty liberating, and I think useful too.

I also focused a lot on kind of only giving things as much space as I felt like they deserved. So very often I would have some point that I was trying to make and I would discover that it had grown to three paragraphs and then it wasn’t really that important a point. It didn’t really deserve to be. So I’d try and find the simplest way that I could to convey the point again without really fully covering it. I think that helped a lot.

Alison Jones:  So you’re quite ruthless with where you’ve focused your attention?

Steve Krug:    Ruthless, exactly. Ruthless, yes. Ruthlessness as a good quality.

Alison Jones:  Fantastic.

Steve Krug:    It’s hard because the hardest part is- I think a lot when I’m writing it, and editing in particular, I think a lot about throwing stuff overboard. A lot of editing is just sort of me wanting to throw stuff overboard. Whether it’s cherished or not, this book’s going to go down if you don’t throw enough stuff overboard. You know, you’re burning the deck chairs, so why not? A lot of it’s like that.

The hard part is when you’ve got stuff that you’ve fallen in love with and you can’t bring yourself to throw it overboard. That’s where you need a trusted reader, just so to say, “I think this part’s a little long, you know? It’s like… I’m not sure this point is quite as important as you think it is.”

Alison Jones:  “Do you know how long that point took me to write?”

Steve Krug:    Exactly. “How I think I finally nailed it and now-“

Alison Jones:  “And now you’re telling me it’s not important.”

Steve Krug:    “Just telling me to let it go. Yeah, I’ll think about it. I’ll think about it.” That’s kind of where that goes.

But then eventually you do. Part of it is that feeds into then when I’m in the final editing panic, I’m willing to look at that section and say, “You know what, the book will be okay without it.”

Alison Jones:  Once you’ve had a bit of distance.

Steve Krug:    Yeah.

Alison Jones:  Fascinating. Now there’s an obvious, there’s a point that’s begging to be made here about usability and user experience on the web and writing for the reader. Tell me how those two related? Are you a better writer because you’re a usability expert? How do those two fit together?

Steve Krug:    I don’t know. I was a pretty good tech writer actually, because I really did I think focus on the experience of the reader. I think I really did want to write something that I as the reader would be able to understand and wouldn’t get bogged down in. I think I cared about that became a UX usability person. One of the things that I always thought I did best when writing manuals, and I guess it carried through, was to always kind of back up pretty far with the explanations. You like to not assume a whole lot, that everybody knew the preliminary parts that everybody would feel like you could assume they would understand. I felt like it was nice to kind of explain as much as possible from a starting point in as clear and condensed a way as you could.

I felt like one of the problems is a lot of times you’ll start reading a chapter and it’ll throw you in over your head. I was always aware of that when I was just doing the tech writing. I think maybe the tech writing, maybe what I learned from the writing fed my interest in usability as much as anything. I’ve never sorted that out.

Yeah, I do think there’s a real connection between the usability and writing well for the user. I mean both of it’s keeping the user in mind and trying to be as kind to them as possible and trying to make it as rewarding an experience for them as you can.

Alison Jones:  One thing that really struck me looking at the book- and it’s beautifully designed, it’s full colour inside which is benefit that a lot of writers don’t have- but there’s not a single page, or if there is I haven’t found it, where there’s just text, just like a whole page of text.

Steve Krug:    Yes.

Alison Jones:  There’s not a single page-

Steve Krug:    Yes, I’ve always referred to it as “profusely illustrated”. Which again Roger Black deserves all the credit for this. He hooked me up with one of his designers. She was wonderful because this was her first chance to actually design a book. She’d been designing magazines. One of the things I had to fight for was to have the illustrations be in line, so that the illustrations always occurred right next to or right below the text that related to them, as opposed to having caption numbers and putting the captions where it was convenient for pagination, rather the illustrations where as convenient for pagination and that stuff. I always thought that was critically important, but I was lucky enough to have the people in charge be really on my side so I could do things like that.

Alison Jones:  It’s not just the illustrations, although you’re right these illustrations do add a huge amount. It’s also just things like headings, coloured large font headings, and bullet points. Just things that give you places to rest your eyes and focus on what’s important.

Steve Krug:    Exactly. They break up the experience. There’s something about a series of- and those paragraphs are pretty short too, I think by the standard. I do tend to feel like long blocks of long paragraphs are daunting. They’re daunting to me. You don’t get those pauses. Pauses are really nice when you’re reading.

Alison Jones:  That’s something that came out when I talking to Giles as well. I know you know Giles Colborne really well. He’s the one that recommended you. He was saying that the space on the page is just as important as the text because the space is where you process and digest and absorb and kind of make the idea your own and come up with your own ideas and response to it.

Steve Krug:    Yup. For a good reason there are a lot of books with no space between paragraphs. That’s why paragraph indents came into play, because there was no space. The space is really nice if you can avoid the lecturing, and if you write short enough you can afford the space.

Alison Jones:  Well that’s it, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t look like a really short book. I’m trying to figure how many pages is it. It’s 200 pages-ish, in largish format. You’d think that was a kind of I don’t know 50,000 word book, but I’m guessing it’s more like 30-35,000 words.

Steve Krug:    Oh, I have no idea. It could be. It’s probably more than 10,000 and less than 50,000. I have no idea.

Alison Jones:  Not a precise science.

Steve Krug:    I actually wrote it to format. I actually had Microsoft Word formats that matched the final design of the book. I had my pages in Word were sized the same as the final book. I was writing in format and that was important to me.

Alison Jones:  You had WYSIWYG Word?

Steve Krug:    Yeah, exactly.

Alison Jones:  Fantastic. I love that.

Steve Krug:    Yeah.

Alison Jones:  So you were almost typesetting it as you went.

Steve Krug:    Almost.

Alison Jones:  Were the pictures in place as well?

Steve Krug:    Yeah. My first job was actually in typesetting, so I was able to use a whole bunch of things that I picked up along the way from not having a career ambition.

Alison Jones:  That makes all kinds of sense now. It has a real design flair, which I assumed was from the designer but it’s obviously embedded in there right from the start as well, in terms of how you structured it.

Steve Krug:    Yeah, it’s true. I had some things in mind that were kind of crucial and then the designer did some wonderful things. It really was a collaboration on that. I’d been sort of designing my own tech manuals for years, so I knew some things that worked.

Alison Jones:  When you think about usability principals, obviously we’re getting into the actual content of the book now, what do you think writers, specifically, can learn from the broad principals of good user design?

Steve Krug:    That’s a good question. In the book I talk about presenting text on a page. The same point again, where I think it’s really useful for text to be scannable. Part of that is not having long, unbroken blocks of text. Part of it is, if you have things that you can present in a bullet list, then don’t present them in a 200 word long paragraph with dozen of commas in it. Put them in a bullet list. Bullet lists are much more accessible and easy to grasp.

What else, usability…

Alison Jones:  Just picking up on that, because it was something that had made me actually laugh out loud, you had to do kind of two things side-by-side. How we design our site to be used, and you showed the user religiously reading every bit and tracking it in the right order. How users actually use our site, and they’re kind of dotting around everywhere. They’re reading like 5% of the text that you have loving crafted.

Steve Krug:    Yeah, certainly in business books. I think it’s nice to assume that everything you’re generating matters, but people they’re just trying to absorb lessons and information from it. That doesn’t necessarily mean reading all of it. Personally, when I read novels, which sadly is not that often, I never read descriptions of landscape. I hit landscape and I just skip down to the next piece of dialogue.

Alison Jones:  “Wake me up when something happens.”

Steve Krug:    Exactly. But I think people are like that in different ways. Everybody has their own cognitive style and their reading style. I think people approach all these books differently and you kind of have to kind of accommodate a book. One of the things you really have to accommodate is that people don’t read nearly as much of it as you think.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, and there’s a sort of humility in that as well. Just accept that.

Steve Krug:    Yeah.

Alison Jones:  Keep it short and keep it friendly.

Steve Krug:    Yeah.

Alison Jones:  There’s visual cues that you can give people. I know that when you say there’s a sort of continuum of things that make it obvious that this is important, this is clickable, this well not so much is it. I have to think about that one. There’s things you can do in a book like that, isn’t there? There’s things like pulling out a tip into a box at the side. There’s putting summaries at the end. There’s really easy things that you can do to say, “People, this is the important bit. Look here.”

Steve Krug:    Exactly. One of the things that ended up for me was, eventually- and when I did the second book I did a smaller book called Rocket Surgery Made Easy- by that point and by the time I went back and did revisions on the first book, I had a format. I had a format for a chapter title and a potentially lengthy chapter subtitle. Then an opening quote; each chapter had an opening quote. Then sort of a style for the section heads within chapters.

For me, the section heads didn’t have to be- they weren’t literal at all. The section heads were places where I could sort of play around. They really were connected to the content, but you couldn’t have put them into a master table of contents and scanned through it and sort of understood what the book was about. They enhanced the reading in another way. You got to a point where I orally did work so that those subheads conveyed what was going to happen in the next section, but they didn’t do it very literally.

Then I had the quirky footnotes, which are not used the way footnotes really are. They were a convenient escape hatch, so that if I wanted to say something- if I actually did want to delve into a little bit of detail about something, I didn’t build it into the text. I would throw it out as a footnote. Made some people crazy actually. Some people were like, “Why did they even look down?”

Alison Jones:  It’s almost like a little journalistic trick, isn’t it? I’m looking at one at random here, you know, “If life gives you lemons…” and you’re pulled in by that. What do you mean? What are you talking about?

Steve Krug:    Yeah, yeah. Exactly. They’re headlines and they make me curious about what the stuff is, but in the flow of the chapter, as you’re reading the chapter, actually they tend to make sense in context. Even when you get to them, you kind of having a feeling what’s going on. But in the abstract, if you were just looking at them in a TSE, they would be like- (laughs).

Alison Jones:  They do get to build the character as well. That’s one of the things that makes it so readable, is that it has got a lot of personality in it.

Steve Krug:    It does, yes.

Alison Jones:  It’s very you.

Steve Krug:    Yes, it does.

Alison Jones:  What has the book done for Steve Krug, personally and professionally? What changed with this book?

Steve Krug:    I got to start teaching workshops, which I’ve really always loved. There was one thing I thought I might want to be, way back in the beginning, was a teacher. The workshops experience is always great. In no small part because compared to regular consulting, when you reach the end of a day at a workshop, you’re done. I think it was like the third or fourth time that I taught one of the workshops, it was like at the end of the day I was finished, I was by myself. I was sitting and I was going to go get dinner and I got this strange feeling and it was like, “Wait, I have nothing to do.” For the first time in years, it was like, “I don’t actually have nothing that I have to do tonight.” You show up at the right time in the morning. You finish at night.

So I loved doing the workshops. That was a nice experience. Then I started making money eventually, which I never expected, so that was certainly a nice experience. Then I get lots of lovely email from people and what not. It was all unexpected gravy.

Alison Jones:  You have got that kind of rock star status now, isn’t it?

Steve Krug:    Well, yeah. I refer to it as a pretty big fish in a very small pond. It’s certainly fun to have people come up to you and ask you to sign their book. I highly recommend the experience.

Alison Jones:  If somebody’s listening to this and going, “Yes, I want that. I want someone to come up and say, ‘Can you sign my book?'”

Steve Krug:    I know. I wish more people could have that experience, because it’s-

Alison Jones:  Well, here’s your chance. What’s the one bit of advice that you’d give them to get them there?

Steve Krug:    Such hard work. (pause). I don’t know. It’s sort of like trust your instincts a fair amount, although maybe that’s bad advice. Maybe a lot of people have bad instincts, but I mean I felt like I knew what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to write about it. I was so lucky that I just got to do it. It was kind of like Orson Welles doing Citizen Kane, where it was his first time out and he got director’s cut. He got to do basically whatever he wanted, which was unheard of. I had sort of the same deal, which I know nobody has. I feel bad about that because there’s a lot of tension between publishers and writers and everybody thinks they know best.

I guess I would say, do kind of trust your gut and maybe even try and find ways to have fun with some of it. For me, actually having those subheads where I knew I could make the subheads kind of humorous and kind of off-beat, there’s a chance to be off beat a little, that was a huge reward for me while writing. When I got a subhead right, it was as good as getting a whole chapter right. It was really exciting. You need that kind of reward along the way if you can get it.

I don’t know. Unfortunately, I’m usually like an outlier. I’m a bad data point. I wish I could think of more ways to tell people how to get through it. I would say, when you reach that point where you’re like desperate and you’re stuck and you’re behind and whatever, just know that that’s the norm. Don’t feel bad about it. That’s the norm. And your publisher knows that’s the norm. They may tell you otherwise, but your publisher knows that and they should be trying to help you through that.

Alison Jones:  This publisher sure know that. Yeah. Well, I don’t know if we’ve just depressed all our listeners or encouraged them. I don’t even know.

Steve Krug:    We can append something to this that’s more uplifting though.

Alison Jones:  Well, let’s not leave them there. I always ask people to recommend someone that they think would make a really, really good guest on the show. Someone who’s got something interesting to say about writing, about the business of business books. Who do you think would be a really good guest for the Extraordinary Business Book Club?

Steve Krug:    Yeah, you told me you were going to ask this and I thought about it. I know a bunch of people, but the one I would probably recommend most would be Lou Rosenfeld, who basically started- he will deny it- bu the started the field of information architecture, could have nurtured it. He was a library science person and when the web arrived he happened to be working on the web. He and a couple other people put together the idea of applying library science techniques to information displayed online. He wrote the polar bear book for O’Reilly, “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web”, which I read a couple years before I wrote my book. I still have my copy. I always refer to it as sort of soaked through with yellow highlighter.

Alison Jones:  You know, I actually have that book too.

Steve Krug:    Everything was really interesting and really revelation. He’s an author and done a bunch of additions of that book. He also for years now has been a publisher of Rosenfeld Media, which is basically, originally was purely UX books, books for people working in UX, and is now expanding out some to some other things. I think he would be fabulous to talk to because he’s A a writer and publisher and B just a really interesting, smart, swell guy.

Alison Jones:  He’d be so cool to talk to. I actually have that book as well. When I started off in publishing, I was an editor on reference books and my big thing was, well it was kind of information architecture, but not in a sexy online way, very much in a kind of a structuring that the book and finding the path through the book for the reader. I remember grandly thinking, actually what I am is an information architecture, and reading this book and realizing there was so much more to it then I’d realized. There’s a good bit of highlighting in my copy as well.

Steve Krug:    Yeah, I’m never going to be able to do a controlled vocabulary or…

Alison Jones:  Right. It’s a bit more seat of the pants then that. But I love the book. The design was so iconic and that kind of spawned the whole O’Reilly series, didn’t it?

Steve Krug:    Yeah. It was certainly one of the biggies, big hits.

Alison Jones:  Useful book. Great, great recommendation. Thank you. And that’s again one of the sort of seminal books from way back when I was getting into the whole publishing and editorial field. I’ll be really kind of awed to speak to him. That’s be great.

Steve Krug:    He spends his time doing the same things you’ve been, trying to talk authors down from trees.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, there’ll be a real resonance there. Brilliant. Thank you. Now Steve, if people want to find out more about you, if they want to find a bit more about “Don’t Make Me Think”, where should they go?

Steve Krug:    They could go to my website, which is sensible.com.

Alison Jones:  Such a great URL.

Steve Krug:    I managed to get it, a long time ago I bought it and one of the few remaining English language words. There’s information there. I can’t say that I update it very often. It’s writing. No, it’s just, I’ve always done it myself and so I sometimes don’t get around to it. But they can go there. There’s information there and I’m also on the Twitter, as David Letterman used to say. I’m skrug, S-K-R-U-G.

Alison Jones:  Fantastic, and I’ll put those links up on the show notes. Brilliant.

Steve Krug:    Yeah.

Alison Jones:  Such a pleasure to talk to you Steve.

Steve Krug:    Oh and I will mention, because I should mention it all the time, I’m not on Linkedin. I get all these Linkedin invitations. The painful thing is when you get a Linkedin invitation and you’re not on Linkedin, there’s no way to write back to the people and say, “No, I’m not not adding you because I don’t like you. I’m not adding you because I’m not on Linkedin.”

Alison Jones:  So if you send Steve an invitation he’s not being rude, okay?

Steve Krug:    I have all these people out there who I’m sure think I’m rude because I never added them, but I can’t.

Alison Jones:  I bet they’re all thinking, “Oh, he thinks he’s such a rock star now. You know, he’s got this successful-”

Steve Krug:    Yeah, exactly.

Alison Jones:  That’s funny. Fantastic. Well thank you so much Steve. Thoroughly enjoyed talking to you.

Steve Krug:    Yeah great to talk to you. Thanks.



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