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Web design

Brinck, T., Gergle, D. and Wood, S.D. Usability for the Web: designing Web sites that work. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2002. xiii, 481 pp. ISBN 1-55860-658-0 $49.95

Lynch, Patrick J. & Horton, Sarah Web style guide. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2001. xiv, 223 pp. ISBN 0-300-08898-1 12.50 Pb.

Sachs, T. and McClain, G. Back to the user: creating user-focused Web sites. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders, 2002. xix, 360 pp. ISBN 0-73571118-6 $34.99 £27.50.

The Web design CD bookshelf. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly. [CD rom with the text of six books on Web design, plus print copy of Web design in a nutshell, by J. Niederst. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2001. 0-596-00271-8 $79.95]

Web design is clearly a tough market for books: a search on Amazon.com produced a list of 2,483 titles - most of them currently available - on this topic. And here we have a total of nine for review, although one of them, Web design in a nutshell is provided in two editions, and at least one of those on the CD, Information architecture for the World Wide Web has been reviewed previously, and the new edition of the same book has also been reviewed.

Sometimes, designers try too hard - the intended sub-title of the book by Brinck, Gergle and Wood appears as the first line of print on the cover and on the title page. True, the main title is in a different type style and a different size, but forsaking the standard layout, simply for design effect is hardly helpful. I wonder how many cataloguers have bothered to check the series list on the page facing the title page to discover what was actually intended. It is ironic that a book on Web usability should get off to such a poor start in print usability!

Of course, this is a field in which design matters: not only to explore the problems an pitfalls of Web design, but also to sell the books. The rest of the book is of excellent design, with coloured photographs of screens - although most of these are rather too small for comfort - and with good use of text boxes to pull out important points.

Brinck et al. present their ideas in seven sections, the main ones dealing with Requirements analysis, Conceptual design, Mockups and prototypes, Launch, and Evaluation. The first section, Pervasive usability, consists of one chapter which sets out the authors' essential philosophy, which might be summarised as, 'users matter' and 'this is a project - manage it'. In other words, this is a very practical text, arguing that the prospective users of a site need to be considered at all times throughout the design process and that, if the project as a whole is to succeed, the principles of sound project management, to control time and costs, must be applied. Usefully, the authors provide an outline budget for a small project, with appropriate cost heads, summing to a total of $57,100. This must be for a relatively small Web site, but anyone thinking of commissioning a Web design consultancy could use this sample budget as a check on what is being offered for the money.

The user focus is evident throughout the book, not simply in the two chapters on Requirements analysis. However, these two chapters set the tone, dealing with the idea of audience and with needs analysis. The latter is a fairly perfunctory description of survey methods for needs analysis, but the fact that it appears at all is a bonus. The point is made that Web surveys rarely yield more than one or two percent return and that e-mail surveys yield only about ten percent. One hopes that student readers of this text will not wish to extend its ideas on suitable returns to their research work, since such low response rates would result in very dubious data for research purposes. This chapter also gives some basic information on personal interviews and focus groups. The attention to matters of hardware and browsers in the first of the two chapters sits a little oddly with the rest - perhaps a separate chapter would have been preferable, even if it had to be brief.

As with all of these books, the focus of attention is on the development of commercial Web sites, with attendant problems of effective navigation, appropriate use of images and overall 'architecture' of the site. The chapter on 'information architecture' is by no means as comprehensive on the recently reviewed book on the subject, but it does offer a useful outline of the steps that can be taken to ensure that users have ready access to a site.

Testing and evaluation of the site immediately before and soon after it goes public are recommended and given a good deal of attention in the text. Sample data collection forms and evaluation guidelines are given, which, if followed, would improve many sites.

An appendix provides a usability analysis of the White House site, which draws attention to a number of problems. However, the site appears to have been completely re-designed since the book went to press, illustrating the difficulty of synchronising print and Web.

Overall, this is a well-designed book and one that offers a great deal of good advice for a reasonable price.

The theme of the user as a basis for creating Web sites is continued in the text by Sachs and McClain, but the style of the book as a whole is rather different. First, the illustrations are all in black and white, which reduces their impact, and, secondly, the focus on the user is carried through in a more direct fashion. Again, the book addresses mainly the concerns of those designing commercial Web sites and it offers a more 'popular' approach to the presentation of ideas. For example, it uses cartoons to emphasise design points, bullet-point lists of key points, and lists of the key issues in chapters.

Throughout the book, the authors use the idea of the 'view from 30,000 feet', to emphasise the fact that site users are likely to have an holistic view of a site, taking into account aims, objectives, navigation, legibility, downloading speed for images, etc., etc. They note that it is important for a designer to replicate this view, rather than becoming immersed in one or other of the components. There is always a danger that design will dominate over functionality and, especially in e-commerce, form should follow function.

To distinquish between these first two books, I would say that the first is clearly designed for designers, while I could imagine the second being read by clients who are thinking of having their site re-designed, or designed for the first time.

Attempting to review six books on one CD would be foolhardy, and I will not try to do so. This O'Reilly compilation is rather curious. One of the books (Web design in a nutshell) is provided both in print and on the CD, and two of those on the CD are superseded editions (Information architecture, reviewed earlier; and HTML & XHTML, a more recent edition of which is reviewed elsewhere). However, I shall concentrate on the usability of the CD, since that seems appropriate.

The top page of the CD launches automatically when the CD is inserted in the drive, presenting a list of the books (Web design in a nutshell, 2nd Ed., by Jennifer Niederst; HTML & XHTML: the definitive guide, 4th Ed., by Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy; Designing Web audio, by Josh Beggs and Dylan Thede; Cascading style sheets: the definitive guide, by Eric A. Meyer; ActionScript: the definitive guide, by Colin Moock and Information architecture for the World Wide Web, by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville). There is also a link to the built-in search engine to search either each of the books separately, or all of them togther. Using Opera 6.05, the java applet crashed. I tried again with Mozilla (1.2b) and this time succeeded.

The search across all of the books is fast, but but following a link loads the new page into the same window as the search form, resulting in the form's contents being lost. Unless you click on the little box labelled 'Show in a new window'. Remember to do this since, otherwise, the form details must be re-entered after you have followed up one of the links.

Inevitably, for simple searches, the most obvious book turns out to have most of the search entries: for example, search for 'architecture' and most of the entries are for the book by Rosenfeld and Morville and search for 'style sheets' and most of the entries are for the book by Meyer. However, in this latter case, there are also entries for the 'nutshell' guide and for the definitive guide to HTML and XHTML.

The system uses the QuestAgent Pro search engine which allows for Boolean searching using AND, OR, NOT and parenthetical statements. If no operator is used, AND is assumed. There is also a 'Master Index' to the collection, the layout of which is not particularly user-friendly (ironically, for a collection on Web design) because of the appearance of the clickable links and the inclusion of the full name of the book. (See Figure 1).


Figure 1: Master Index layout in Opera

However, the figure illustrates a browser problem - I was using Opera 6.05, which does not reveal any indentation. Figure 2, on the other hand, shows the appearance of the index in Internet Explorer 6.0, with indentations, revealing the structure of the index.


Figure 2: Layout in Internet Explorer

In Mozilla 1.2b, it differs yet again - Figure 3.


Figure 3: Layout in Mozilla

I may appear to be labouring this point, but it illustrates nicely one of the abiding problems for Web designers - you never really know what the page is going to look like when the user finds it - all three browsers in this example are calling the same page on the CD, with exactly the same html code.

The books themselves are an excellent choice for the CD, since they cover the generalities of design (in Information architecture...), the basics of writing code for Web sites (Nutshell, Cascading style sheets and HTML & XHTML) and the more esoteric areas of presenting audio (Designing Web audio) and programming for Flash (ActionScript). No doubt, like many texts in this area, these will rapidly become outdated, but they do constitute a valuable resource for a design team.

The first edition of Lynch and Horton's Web style guide was reviewed here almost two years ago, and I'm not sure how the second edition has escaped my net until now. As I noted in the review of the first edition, the Web site on which the book is based was one of the first sites I used when developing the design for Information Research. I still haven't managed to meet all of the authors' requirements for good design, but I keep going back to the book to discover what else I can implement to improve things.

This edition is considerably expanded, from 165 to 223 pages and that expansion gives room for more illustrations and for more extended treatment of information architecture (although not usually expressed as such!), cascading style sheets, and flexible page design. The original edition had chapters on Process, Interface design, Site design, Page design, Typography, Editorial style, Web graphics and Multimedia, and these remain, but all have been updated, expanded and re-illustrated. The principles applied in the first edition are still valid and so that edition has dated to only a small extent, but the improvements in this edition are significant and worth the modest increase in price.

The Web site is still available at Yale University, but the text is more extensive than the information on the site and the professional (or even the amateur) Web site designer will want this text on the desk at all times.

Professor Tom Wilson
December 2002

How to cite this review

Wilson, T.D. (2003) "Web design" Reviews of: Brinck, T. et al. Usability for the Web: designing Web sites that work. San Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2002.;    Information Research, 8(2), review no. 074;  Lynch, Patrick J. & Horton, Sarah. Web style guide. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT; London: Yale University Press, 2001.; Sachs, T. and McClain, G. Back to the user: creating user-focused Web sites. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders, 2002; and The Web design CD bookshelf. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2001.    [Available at: http://informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs074.html]