Posted by: bbannan | March 3, 2009

How people really use the web – Emily

How can we best use the web for instruction? I’m sure we are all familiar with e-learning or web-based instruction because it is such a popular solution for course delivery. Further, everyone in this class has probably used the Internet to search for something – whether that’s information or products or services, we’ve all surfed the web. But what about instructional websites? Whether these constitute informal learning or not, it can be challenging to put instruction in a website based on how people actually use the web.

Read this article, which is a chapter from a book written by Steve Krug about usability called “Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.” This chapter provides an overview of the difference between how people use the web and how developers think people use the web. One particularly interesting quote: It’s always interesting to watch Web designers and developers observe their first usability test. The first time they see a user click on something completely inappropriate, they’re surprised. (For instance, when the user ignores a nice big fat “Software” button in the navigation bar, saying something like, “Well, I’m looking for software, so I guess I’d click here on ‘Cheap Stuff’ because cheap is always good.”) The user may even find what he’s looking for eventually, but by then the people watching don’t know whether to be happy or not.

Although the chapter isn’t specifically referring to instructional websites, what can you take from this chapter that may help you develop websites that are meant for informal instruction? From a usability standpoint, what must you be concerned with so that learners traverse your website in a way that makes sense instructionally and find it useful?



  1. Interesting article! To answer your questions, I think the key is to keep it simple. If people just scan and ‘muddle’ through the site it needs to be as simple as possible so people will have a positive reaction to it.
    I also think it points out the need for usability testing so you can really see how the users will look at the site. I know that our group was surprised by the comments from our audience. Understanding how the users will move through the site, what they see, what they don’t see, what they like or don’t like will ultimately make the site better for the people it is intended for. This goes for any type of site.
    I just went to the Library of Congress site today and found it very difficult to navigate. I wondered if they had done usability testing. An office on campus recently redid their website. It’s awful! It’s difficult to navigate, it’s dark and hard to read, etc. The whole office doesn’t like it. I believe if there had been some usability testing done beforehand that it could have been a great site. The important part is to make it for the users, not the designers.

  2. I like your post and questions…This week while doing a usability analysis I was challenged with a task using MS Word and saw how much technology on user manuals sometimes really “don’t help the user”. My task was to protect my document using a password. I knew how to do it in previous version of MSWord but not in 2007. After some trial and error, I finally decided to click on the Help button. The first result was a video on how to do that…I really didn’t want to watch a video, then I saw a link that said “Text based instruction”… So, I selected it, half of the page was pure text… I just wanted to have the step by step description…Finally at the very bottom there were what I was looking for!

    This made me think about how including different technology at different places sometimes makes the user think instead of providing him the help at their first hands… Does this look familiar? Are we designing learning environments with good technology (flash, animations, etc.) to make them visually attractive but actually we are not meeting users needs? How much extra information we are providing on instruction that is not needed?

    As end user, I say sometimes “Don’t make me read, just let me know!” Is this also familiar to you?

  3. Thank you for sharing this article! As Debbie mentioned, I was able to draw a lot of what the author wrote about to our own experiences with our group’s usability testing.

    What it brings up in my mind, along with the usability of a site itself, is the impact of usability on a site’s scope. A primary issue our group faced was that we had a such a huge scope, and yet, if people can’t see how to get to the content from the very first page, they assume it isn’t there and isn’t worth digging for.

    This intrigues me because what we were precisely trying to avoid is the idea that a parent had to go to 20 different sites to learn something. We wanted to be the one-stop shopping destination for all needs related to teaching kids about finance. But, with finance being as huge a topic as it is, I have to wonder if such a site can be organized in a way that every person looks for exactly what they want within a few seconds of skimming the site.

    So maybe the answer is to trim down the scope of a site to increase its “skimmability”. I’d like to think there’s a way to have a complex foundation of content and yet an easy interface in which to find it. If anyone ever comes up with this, let me know.

  4. Emily, I agree with the other respondents. One of the hardest things we do is think like the user. Of course, we make our first mistake by assuming the user is ‘thinking’ when they look at our creation. In fact most users are driven by the original thought in their head when they went hunting for a site in the first place. Whatever they see on the front page that corresponds with that thought is where they focus.

    Debbie and Terri Ann mentioned our site as an example of this. I have to admit, it is easy to become so interested in what you want the user to see when they scan your site that you forget the user’s objective, “Find what I was thinking about, and if I don’t see it immediately, go somewhere else.” It comes down to being very aware of what you are trying to provide for the potential site user, then figuring out the best way to show it so they have their attention drawn to it immediately.

    As we have found out in our usability tests, sometimes the best advice in the world is “Keep it simple, keep it up front, and keep it tinteresting.”

  5. I agree as well. Sometimes we get so involved in the design that we forget the principles of adult learning as well as what people generally expect from an educational website. It’s always really interesting to me when we’re working with a client how much the talk about their own personal learning style (i.e. I like to be able to float around the course or website and take in the information I want) versus what they require their users to do (i.e. lock step them through each screen).

    The difference between what people ask for and what works or is most favorable to the students learning style can vary greatly. I think that’s one of the responsibilities of an instructional designer is to remind the client that ultimately what they are looking for is for learning to occur. It doesn’t matter how great the content or design is if people are turned off by the way it’s being delivered.

    I think the same is true for websites or any other instructional medium. We have to keep ourselves close to the learner/user. I’m not sure that always means keeping it simple- since some complex information is still important, but I do think it means keeping the focus on the learner and providing them with incentive to keep on learning.

  6. We may be over-thinking the problem we’re trying to solve.

    Occam’s razor is a principle attributed to William of Ockham in the 14th-century. It states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory.

    And this in essence is what the article is saying. The user is more concerned with getting to an acceptable outcome (satisficing) due to time constraints. Likewise time drives the user to scan because it works, and if the site requires work or is overly complicated the user will likely go elsewhere where solutions are simpler. We have had our personal experiences with EDRS 590 Education Research and have seen many comments characterizing research as boring and dull. Why then might we assume that a user is going to generate a hypothesis and try to solve it with what we present to them?

    I like the notion that Occam got it right and simplicity is justly rewarded.

    Another perspective though is that I tend to read differently for pleasure than for education. For pleasure I just scan, take in the key points in a leisurely pace. But for study it is different. I make margin notes, discuss with myself out loud, try to connect key concepts in one area with those in another.

    And for education in the online environment it was just the simplest thing to realize that what drove my level of effort was the quality and explicit nature of the syllabus that prepared me to negotiate the educational experience.

  7. From that article it tells me that informal instructional sites need to me created with the intent of scanning with optional areas for actual reading. I take this site for instance, Six Revisions ( This site has a way of users scanning the main page for topics that might be interesting to someone, but if they want to read something intently, you click to see the entire article. Also, it shows an image and has large enough font for users to scan the items at a quick pace, rather than focusing intently on one thing.

    I think as designers and developers begin to understand this idea, the way sites on the web are built will begin to evolve into an informal-formal learning environment.

  8. Compare and contrast these two points of view:

    Steve Krug:
    “We don’t make optimal choices.
    We satisfice.”

    Muddy Waters:
    “Well honey ain’t no way in the world could we be satisfied/
    And I just can’t keep from crying.”

    Web designers and web users want two different things. Web users want what they want, then to move on. Web designers want to be admired, appreciated and thanked for offering so many valuable paths to important information.

    Web designers need to understand they just can’t be satisfied, and need to quit their crying.

    Give the users what they want — simply and now. Jakob Nielsen, another usability guru, said find the three things the user wants most and give it to them. he didn’t say it explicitly but should have: and then get out of the way.

    When I’m designing landing pages for e-mail campaigns, I remove the things I don’t want the user to do — use the main navigation and footer links. If I can’t get them to fill out the form, I don’t want them to do anything else.

    If you’re working on an eight-step instructional tutorial, determine your tolerance. Do you want users to go “back?” Do you want them to start over? If you’re giving them reference material, are you giving them that information in the same window, a new window, a new sized window w/ only one nav point — close window?

    If you give the user the opportunity to do anything they please, they will.

    To speak to Krug’s point, design the experience as best you can, conduct usability testing and be open to the results. If users are going to pursue “cheap stuff” when looking for what you want them to look for — remove cheap stuff.

    If the user is going to the first reasonable option on your page, and your option is the best defined but not first, organize your page better!

    Get to the best experience you can — maybe 80% or 90% success — publish the results and move on.

    Web designers will always be satisfied if/when they deliver what the users are asking for. And then no one needs to be crying.

    Tom Sakell /

  9. I have more to say:

    I read tonight about a visual designer who’s leaving Google because … they’re not paying enough attention to design. Or perhaps, overthinking it.

    “I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.”


    Tom Sakell /

  10. I loved that book. I read it over this past summer. I think in some ways it’s a bit more accessible than Kuniavsky, even though it is much less thorough and a bit harder for total newbies. Most of us simply don’t have the budge at work to accomplish much more than a common sense approach to usability (and we have to fight for that even)!

    One of my favorite elements of that chapter is how it provides insight into how not-so-different we all are. As Krug puts it even experts perform what is simply just a higher functioning version of ‘muddling through’. When you have to think about how to do something, the user experience has already begun to fail. If only users ALL THOUGHT LIKE US, we wouldn’t need user-centered research. However, as Krug and Kuniavsky both expertly explain, that simply isn’t the case. When we enter the land of assumptions, we must tred very carefully.

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