Interview with a Rocket Surgeon: a conversation with Steve Krug

By Marli Mesibov

“I’m like this quiet little homebody, so the idea of people knowing who I am, even in a very specific context, is not something I ever would’ve imagined.”

Quiet or not, Steve Krug has made a loud noise in the field of usability testing. ATF’s Marli Mesibov sat down to talk about Steve’s books, his opinions on this rapidly growing field, and how to get a job through nepotism.


Marli: Let’s start with a broad question. What are some of the biggest benefits for a company doing discount usability testing?

Steve: Well, discount testing can quickly and economically (compared to any other method that I know of) find the worst problems that your users are going to experience, plus it has a good effect on the whole team. If you get people to come and watch in person, which is one of my main tenets, two things happen: one, people have this actual experience of seeing people use the stuff they’ve been working on. Two, it allows stakeholders and other team members to see how their piece fits in with the whole, which they probably haven’t fully realized before.

Discount, or in-house usability testing is a great way to learn about your users and improve your product while keeping costs low.

Marli: Do you think it’s easier to include other team members with discount usability testing than with traditional?

Steve: Part of my definition of discount usability testing is that you structure it in such a way that it’s as easy as possible for people to observe.  Schedule it on a fixed day every month so that people have it on their calendars. Don’t do it in a lab, do it down the hall from where everybody works, and only do a little bit at a time. How many people are actually going to drag themselves away from their work for a full day to come and observe testing off site?  It’s more encouraging to say “It’s down the hall, come to one or two of the sessions, and if you want to come for all of it it’ll still just be the morning.” Do everything you can to make it as easy as possible for people to show up.

Marli: That makes a lot of sense.


Steve: Yeah, actually, I didn’t set out to do it, but I ended up with a comprehensive plan. I have 6 maxims in Rocket Surgery, and every time I teach the workshop I think, “All these pieces really are important and they all do work together toward the most important objectives.” I even referred to it as a “process” recently! I created something that’s a process! The different pieces are all important, and the overall objective is basic: if you ask me what usability testing is, it’s getting the people who are building the thing to watch people using it, so they can get valuable design insights that they can use to make it better.

The 6 Maxims:

  1. A morning a month, that’s all we ask.
  2. Start earlier than you think makes sense.
  3. Recruit loosely and grade on a curve.
  4. Make it a spectator sport.
  5. Focus ruthlessly on the most important problems.
  6. When fixing problems, do as little as possible.


Marli: Is there anything you would add to those 6 steps now?

Steve: No. I haven’t thought of anything else that comes up to the level of these. Though there are a bunch of things I would add more emphasis to. And I get the horrible feeling you’re going to ask me what some of those are…

Marli: Just an example would be great! [laugh]

Steve: I can think of one example, because it’s an important one. This wonderful woman, Nicole Burton, who works at the GSA in Washington, started doing this program she calls First Fridays. The first Friday of each month she runs usability tests, and anyone who works in a government program is encouraged to come to her and say “come test my site.”  She’s following the maxims that are in Rocket Surgery. One thing that’s clear from her process is that people will fill up their plate with more problems than they have the resources to fix, so at the end of a month they probably haven’t fixed some of the more serious problems.

One thing I would emphasize more is that people need to get in the habit of fixing the most serious problems first.  That’s an important thing you have to really pound on: we’re going to commit to fixing the most serious problems, no matter what they are and no matter how hard they are to fix. You don’t commit to finding a perfect solution for each problem: you commit to coming up with some modification (usually thought of as a tweak) such that at the end of the month it’s not going to be the serious problem it was before the test. I can’t tell you how much I believe in that at this point. The best outcome from usability testing is to find the really bad things and not get distracted from fixing them by all the minor problems.

Marli: With that in mind, what are some of the biggest, most important pieces that you think a consultant like you can bring into a situation or that people will find in their own in-house usability testing?

Steve: As a consultant you bring this sense of relief when you walk in the door, because people think “Oh good, here’s somebody who’s going to settle these arguments.” But I try to settle them in a way that’s educational, so that by the time I’m finished, I would hope that I’ve convinced everybody on both sides of the argument that there are pretty good reasons for the final decision. I never like to come in as a consultant and lay down the law and preach from some bully pulpit. I view my job as consultant as largely educational.

Marli: Is there anything that surprises you in what you’ve learned about the tenets of usability?

Steve: I haven’t been surprised by much because after all these years I can usually predict where the design process goes wrong in terms of usability and why usability problems exist. On the other hand, one of the nice things about doing this work is that you’re always surprised by something in every usability test. You’re in it for the surprises, for the things you never would’ve figured out on your own. It’s a great job. I have people writing to me saying “How do I get your cushy job?” and it is a cushy job!

Marli: Well, how do you get such a cushy job?

Steve: I don’t think I could get into the field at this point. I don’t have a degree in any related field; I got an English Lit degree 110 years ago! After graduating, I worked a bunch of different jobs and learned about computers along the way.  Then I wrote user manuals for hardware and software for ten years. I got into usability because I got lucky on the last tech writing job I had; I was writing a manual for a startup that was actually doing one of the first Windows products – for Windows 2, I think. They were very nice, very savvy, and they had me to sit in on a lot of the interface design meetings.  They knew that I was spending as much time thinking about the interface as they were and that I was a decent judge of when the interface was going to be clear to people and when it wasn’t, so that was my segue. I read what Jacob Nielsen had to say about how to do a usability test, and I went ahead and started doing it.

Marli: How did you get your first job in the exciting, high paying field of user experience?

Steve: I started with a friend who hired me to do some user interviews, and that worked out so well that the company he worked for hired me to do some usability tests. And you?

Marli: Also nepotism. Which worked out well for my skill set, actually.

Steve: See? See? There you go. Maybe we’re underrating nepotism. Maybe that’s what I should recommend to people.

Marli: Well, user experience is all about learning how people tick and how people interact. Maybe knowing people and having that kind of ability to work with people who you like – maybe there’s something to that.

Steve: There you go! I certainly think if I had to list qualities to make someone good at usability testing, it would include things like good listener, empathetic, and somebody who just finds this stuff interesting; people like that qualify. So maybe we should start an agency for UX people, based on whether we like them or not.

Marli: Looking for a job? Come grab lunch with us. If we like you, you’re hired.

Steve: Right! Sounds like fun.

Marli: You mentioned a few personal qualifications. So if a company came to you and said “We want to do some discount usability testing, who among us would be the best tester?” how would you answer?  Is there anything in terms of experience or knowledgebase you would recommend?

Steve: No, not really. The only experience that makes somebody better is having done some usability testing already. Then you understand more about the kinds of problems people are going to run into, so you’re more prepared for it. And you can do a better job debriefing and guiding the team toward figuring out which problems are most serious and what’s going to work to fix them.

Otherwise the more personal qualities—like empathy–are valuable. Also, the ability to keep your own feelings, reactions, and prejudices out of it is important. Some people want to go “Ooh ooh! Try that link! Yeah, that’s good.” And if you can’t control that you’re kind of disqualified. That’s actually the main thing that people find hard about facilitating. But the best qualification is that you’re interested in doing it.

Marli: Well then, I only have one question left for you, and it’s a fun one. What’s your personal usability pet peeve?

Steve: Oh, you know it’s funny: I don’t really have one. I mean, I’m attuned to usability problems, I always spot them, but I think if I was someone who was really bothered by them then I would be unhappy. So I mostly find them kind of amusing. I hope they’re not occurring in nuclear control panels or anything, but when they occur to me personally I think “Oh, that’s interesting” and I try to understand what the person who designed it was trying to do. There’s usually some good intention that went awry; how did that happen? What was the thought process that made them design it that way when it ended up not being clear?

Usability expert Steve Krug has been helping clients like Apple,,, and NPR develop products and Web sites that people could actually use and enjoy since 1987. He has written two books: “Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability,” and “Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems.” Steve spends most of his time teaching usability workshops, consulting, and watching Law and Order reruns. His consulting firm, Advanced Common Sense (“just me and a few well-placed mirrors”) is based in Chestnut Hill, MA.

For more information on Steve Krug, check out his website ( and follow him on Twitter (@skrug). And visit Steve’s new discussion board ( or leave a comment here to ask questions and tell us about your experiences with discount usability testing!

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