Boston Broadside
May/June 2003
Vol. 60,  No. 5
 Newsletter of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication


Copyright © STC Boston 2003

Program Report

"Design a Billboard"

Idea Watch and Online SIGs Discuss Web Usability

By Carol Macbain

"Design a Billboard," advises Steve Krug, local author and Web site usability expert in his popular book Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability. At the February joint meeting of the Idea Watch and Online Information Special Interest Groups, members responded to the principles outlined in this must-read book.

Make It Easy

Don't Make Me Think is useful for both untrained recruits to Web design and for technical writing professionals. Although some of Krug's guidelines, such as using a clear visual hierarchy, are already part of every technical writer's repertoire, he emphasizes the need to make it obvious to users where they are and what they should do next to find what they want.

One way to do this is to take advantage of conventions to create a familiar environment. Then, users can make decisions quickly. Breaking up the pages into clearly defined areas and indicating what is clickable is another helpful tactic.

Krug recommends reducing visual noise by limiting colors, graying lines in tables, limiting ads and invitations to buy, and reducing the number of words to make the useful content more prominent.

Effective Home Pages

Krug says that every effective home page must convey "the big picture" by answering the following questions:

  • What is this?
  • What do they have here?
  • What can I do here?
  • Why should I be here?
  • Where do I start?

"Street Signs" and "Bread Crumbs"

Clear, consistent, navigational tools ensure that visitors do not abandon a site out of frustration. For example, a tab system, which Krug calls "street signs," points the way. A line of previously visited pages near the top, "bread crumbs," reminds users how they got where they are. Krug also recommends placing a search box on every page for users who want to jump quickly to any area.

Test Early and Often

Another key to a successful site, according to Krug, is usability testing. He recommends testing early and often as a way to find out if the user "gets it." Even atypical testers can provide insights and solutions to problems, and a big budget is not required.

Members Respond

Members thought that most companies do not utilize usability testing, despite its clear benefits. Either there is no budget, or testing is scheduled too late in the process to incorporate changes. Krug's final chapters provide useful tips on conducting testing on a shoestring budget, which could help designers overcome these obstacles.

Steve Krug was unable to participate in the meeting as planned due to illness. Barbara Casaly led the discussion, and SIG coordinators Steven Greffinius and Colleen Strahs hope to reschedule Steve's presentation for June or July. We hope to hear more from Steve Krug on effective usability testing at a future meeting.

Design Tip

Design consultant P. J. Gardner's practical tip for Web development problems: Use WebMX or WebQA (formerly Linkbot/Metabot) from to build a site map or repair broken links.

Carol Macbain is a technical writer who is working on her first Web site. You can reach her at .

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