Krug’s Laws of (RIM Software) Usability

Mimi Dionne

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Keywords: hierarchy, taxonomy, usability, navigation

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Oh, Records colleagues: I have two very easy reads that will only help you create a folder hierarchy in your electronic records and information management software. Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense and Approach to Web Usability” and “Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems” are very good and immediately useful. If you don’t have two hours to read them yourself, however, let me summarize the first one for you here.

User Behavior
When filing a record, users glance at each folder, scan some of the titles, and click on the first one that somewhat matches the subject content of their document.

1. They scan because they’re in a hurry and they don’t need to read everything.
2. They’re good at scanning.

Users choose the first reasonable folder.

For users, there’s no penalty for guessing the wrong folder and there is no benefit for weighing options.

Superficially, “number of clicks” seems a useful comparison, but users don’t mind a lot of clicks as long as each click is painless and they’re confident they’re on the right track.

Users will muddle through the records software that houses their folders. They won’t ask you, because it’s not important to them. But they will find a way to circumvent filing.

If they feel smart and in control when they visit your software, they’ll return.

Advice for You, the Designer
Hierarchy designers are all beginners under the skin.

Your job is to get rid of the question marks.

A hierarchy has three traits:

1. The more important a folder is, the more prominent it is.
2. Folders that are related logically are related visually.
3. Nested folders visually show what is what.

A good visual hierarchy organizes and prioritizes content in a way that users can grasp instantly.

You must give lower-level navigation the same attention as the top.

Take advantage of conventional hierarchal structures.

Break up your sections into clearly defined areas.

Reduce noise level—omit needless folders.

Colleagues won’t use your hierarchy if they can’t find their way around it.

Build signs into your hierarchy to guide your users.

The Nature of Hierarchies
Hierarchies are strange. They’re weightless. In reality, they have:

1. No sense of scale.
2. No sense of direction.
3. No sense of location.

Navigation gives users something to hold on to, it tells users what’s there, tells them how to use the site, and most importantly, gives confidence in the people who built it.

Folder names:

1. Every folder needs a name.
2. The name needs to be in the right place.
3. The name needs to be prominent.
4. The name needs to match what the user clicks.

Folders get breadcrumbs.

Use tabs: they’re self-evident, hard to miss, slick, and suggest a physical space. Color-code them if you wish.

Think about what the primary level has to do:

1. Communicate a mission.
2. Overview of the hierarchy.
3. Tease.
4. Be timely.
5. Show the users what they’re looking for—and what they’re not looking for.
6. Give users a start.
7. Establish credibility and trust.

Everyone wants in on the hierarchy. Everyone will have an opinion. It must appeal to everyone. Users should be able to say with confidence, “I start here.”

Hierarchy designers are hierarchy users.

Usability Testing
If you want a great hierarchy, you’ve got to test it.

Testing with one user is better than testing with none.

Testing with a user early in the project is better than testing late.

The importance of recruiting Super Users is overrated.

The point of testing is to inform your judgment.

Testing is iterative.

Nothing beats a live audience reaction.

It’s usually not a good idea to design a hierarchy so that only your target audience can use it.

Test users with divergent needs from each group at least once.

Recruit people with domain knowledge.

Offer incentives.

Keep the invitation simple.

Avoid discussing the hierarchy beforehand.

Users have a reservoir of goodwill:

1. It’s idiosyncratic.
2. It’s situational.
3. You can refill it.
4. Sometimes a single mistake can empty it.

Things that diminish goodwill:

1. Hiding information from users.
2. Punishing users for not doing what you want.
3. Asking for information they don’t need.
4. Con jobs.
5. Unnecessary flash.
6. An amateur job.

Things that increase goodwill:

1. Know what users want in their hierarchy.
2. Tell them what they want to know.
3. Save them steps.
4. Put effort in.
5. Know the questions your users are likely to have.
6. Provide a comforting atmosphere.
7. Make it easy to recover from errors.
8. When in doubt, apologize.

The three things you can do right now:

1. Fix the usability problems that confuse everyone.
2. Research.
3. Go for the low-hanging fruit.

Krug, Steve. “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.” 

Berkeley: New Riders Publishing. 2006.


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Mike Alsup

Why Choose Folders at All?

The thing I like most about SharePoint RM is the combination of content types, the Content Organizer, and an information lifecycle. The use of content types and the Content Organizer enables records that have been sent (by user or process) to the Records Center to be accurately classified. An information lifecycle can be applied to every SharePoint site similarly, so that the user experience is utterly simple. This requires that users pick a content type (or that the content type is picked for them based on context). Why make users pick folders from a folder hierarchy at all?
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Mimi Dionne

Point Well Taken~

Hi Mike, it's lovely to catch up with you here. As a SharePoint 2010 architect and developer myself, I appreciate your point. In my experience, I have found that not all clients who use SharePoint today take advantage of content types. Folders must do--that is, until the company takes a hard look at what they did well and what they didn't do well as they prepare for their next SharePoint implementation. I look forward to hearing some version of "huh, we really DO need content types!" more often. Cheers and thanks for stopping by!
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Lindy Naj

Don't Make Me Think sets ...

... a very high bar, but is a worthy mantra. Getting even part of the way there in any project helps mitigate for success every time. Since my stint working in software startups this book has withstood the test of time regardless of organizational environment or the initiative at hand. Thanks for highlighting it!
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Mimi Dionne

You Know I'm A Fan...

...of your career path! Hi Lindy, it's great to see you here, thank you for stopping by. I took an information architecture class recently with SAA (they have a Digital Archives Specialist certificate with several courses). The instructors both recommended Mr. Krug's books as two very good sources. I picked them up for additional inspiration and thought, "maybe I can translate these guidelines to folder structures?" et voila! as the French say. :-) I'm glad they resonate with you, too.
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Gil Hidas

User Behavior yesterday and tomorrow

What is recommended above is the way that we're 'conditioned' to 'scan' and behave. Historically, the hierarchical structure comes from the computer operating system which is satisfactory up to a point.
Having say that it is not sufficient in most circumstances.
It is not easy for files to be in more than one folder, or folders to be reached through more than one path, to name few limitation. Krug book is from 2006.

What google 'told' the world many years ago is that information has to be retrieved by the way that users look (search) for it rather than by the way that we classify/categorise it. Of course, when dealing with records management it becomes more complex.
It looks like that the 'world' is moving to a more tagging/labeling approach. Finding information using tags + content search is very powerful.

It will take time for us to change our behavior. With the growth of information and complexity of classification of information it seems like that change is on it's way.
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Mimi Dionne


Hi Gil,

It's always a compliment to see a comment left on a post. Yes, it's an older source, absolutely and yes, our behaviors should (and are) changing. Not all companies are caught up to the idea of tagging, however. In fact, I observe that the fastest of organizations may not embrace anything beyond folder structures. Consequently people are overworked. Just think: what if we lived in a world where metrics are reduced, not headcount--all thanks to an adept information architecture. What a wonderful world that would be (sounds like a fine business opportunity, if I ever heard one!). Thank you for your comment.
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