December 21, 2005

Make Me Think

Mark Bernstein rightly complicates the common dictum "Easier is better" in design. Pairing Steve Krug's highly influential Don't Make Me Think [amazon link] (a bible for many web designers and technical communicators) with the Bauhaus maxim, "The ultimate aim of all creative activity is the building!", Mark makes an important point: In much design, the goal is precisely to make people think.

Whenever I've been flogging the "make people think" horse (as I have been for the last fifteen or so years), someone always says, "So you think web pages should be hard to use?" That's not my point, though. Design should structure and support thinking and doing. In most contexts, that requires a combination of thinking and not-thinking.

Take an activity like writing a letter of recommendation (something I was doing on just a few moments ago). Although I've written scores of such letters, they each require careful thought about a whole array of factors: the specific person I'm recommending (including their strengths, weaknesses, and goals), the position I'm recommending them for (and all the rhetorical/contextual issues that go along with that), the awkward genre of recommendation letters (including their important variations by discipline), the layout of the letter on the page, the font selection, and much, much more. In this instance, I'm not looking for an interface that helps me not think; I'm looking for one that helps me think. So while Microsoft Office does a fairly good job at helping me not think about some aspects of these processes (wrapping lines automatically, allowing me to drag and drop chunks of text around on the page, etc.), it's general "Don't Make Me Think" approach fails to support me well in some areas that I'd like help thinking with. For example, I would appreciate the ability to be able to brainstorm on the page and to drag a network representation of the developing text around in different graphical relationships as I'm developing my ideas. And it'd be nice if I could convert that graphical network into an outline as my ideas began to gel.

Oddly, although I hadn't intended to head in this direction, I ended up describing some key features of Tinderbox, one of Mark's applications. I suppose this is not a coincidence, since Mark's "make us think" orientation is why things like Tinderbox exist. And, conversely, the "Don't Make Me Think" approach unfortunately relegates applications like Tinderbox to niche markets: People are increasingly unwilling to put time into mastering the more useful features of a complex application, because in many cases they have come to believe the notion that simple is always better.

So this isn't about intentionally bad design, or about ignoring the user—but about challenging the assumption that utter simplicity automatically constitutes good design.

[via Mark Bernstein]

Posted by johndanseven at December 21, 2005 02:17 PM