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What we're reading: Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers

I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books on usability: Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers.

Though most of the book focuses on software design in general rather than web usability per se, nearly all of it’s applicable to creating easy to use web sites.

The book is full of simple rules that can easily serve as test for your own pages. Here’s one of our favorites:

Every time you provide an option, you ask the user to make a decision.

Everyone likes choice; the problem is that irrelevant choices distract. (And as Barry Schwartz points out, too many choices paralyze.) The most important decision a user can make on any marketer’s site is whether or not to accept the offer. On an e-commerce site the offer is typically: buy something. Or give me some information. Productive content supports the offer, unproductive content distracts from the task at hand.

As Joel points out, during the development process, “advanced features” have a way of creeping onto the screen. The argument to include these features run something like “Sure, this option only applies to a few people, but so what? It’s there for people who want it, and everyone else can just ignore it.” But usability studies show that this argument is wrong. The reality is that a user will stop and ponder each option presented to him wondering “What is this? Do I need this?” And in that split-second, your offer can lose its grip on that user’s attention.

Look at a typical offer page on your own site. How many choices does it ask the user to make? Will most users find these options relevant to their conversion decision? The answer is important, because each choice you present can make your user stop and think.

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