|Designing Web Useability (The Practice Of Simplicity)|
|publisher||New Riders 1999|
|reviewer||Danny Yee, Cliff Lampe|
|summary||Down-to-earth, practical advice on making Web sites work at all levels.|
Review One: Danny Yee
Designing Web Usability is the most important book on Web publishing yet to appear. While it contains little that is novel, at least to those who have read Nielsen's www.useit.com Web site and other such resources, the lessons it teaches have not reached widely enough: there are all too many Web sites that are a continual source of frustration and stress to users. (Nielsen begins by explaining why he chose to write a printed book on Web design: for comprehensive, sustained arguments online reading is not yet as effective as print. Another consideration is that, going by the utter un-usability of so many corporate Web sites, there must be many web site managers who don't actually use the Web: some of these might read a printed volume.)
At the core of Designing Web Usability, and two thirds of it by page-count, are chapters on page, content, and site design. The first covers cross-platform design, the importance of minimizing response times, how to use links effectively, and the advantages and disadvantages of style-sheets and frames. The second covers writing for the Web, micro-content (titles, headlines and so forth), and multimedia content (images, animation, audio, and video). The last covers navigation, home pages ("splash screens must die"), search support, and "URL design." Other chapters cover special usability issues with intranets, accessibility for users with disabilities, and internationalization and localization; in a final chapter Nielsen takes a stab at predicting the future of the Web.
Because Designing Web Usability addresses underlying ideas rather than specific technologies, it will date far less rapidly than most books on Web publishing. It doesn't contain as much as its 400 pages would suggest, since a lot of space is used for screen shots of example Web pages. (These are not, however, gratuitous, as is often the case with books on HTML.) Web publishing is very different from paper publishing, but Designing Web Usability is a high quality, usable book -- only a few minor things got past the proof-readers. Check Danny's Other 500 Reviews
Review Two: Cliff Lampe
In Designing Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen codifies his ideas and wisdom on user-centered design. This is the first book in a two-parter, to be followed by Ensuring Web Usability, which will be more analysis centered.When I first was reading through this book, the irony of reviewing a usability book for Slashdot absolutely thrilled me. A common complaint about Linux, whether deserved or not, is that it is completely unusable. Except for a few shots at both the Windows and Mac OS, Nielsen obviously stays away from this topic. On the other hand, his advice on Web design is well researched, sensible, and right on target. Since human/computer interaction is what may be referred to as my "bag," I found this book impressively concise and comprehensive.
For those who may have missed the usability boat, Nielsen advocates user-centered design. This is the radical idea that a computer is a tool for managing information, not an end in itself. As many of us know, this concept is remarkably easy to lose in the rush to make everything work in the first place. When it comes to usability, everyone has their ideas about what they like, and tend to include them in their own designs. The problem is, we creators of Web sites may be too far removed from our users by experience or some other perspective to be designing in their best interest.
Eminently practical, Nielsen gives step-by-step advice on how to design with your user in mind. His examples are backed by screenshot examples and extensive user studies. The first section deals with page-level design, with advice on colors, layout and use of special features. Further sections of the book deal with site and intranet design, usability issues surrounding various disabilities and the future of Web design. One especially welcome chapter deals with actual creation of content in a Web environment. Writing for the Web is vastly different from writing for other media, like newspapers or magazines, but this is rarely recognized.
Once Nielsen has dispensed with the advice that is applicable to the Web environment we all deal with today, he spends the last section discussing the future. As the author says, we tend to overestimate the short-term effects of technological change and underestimate the long term effects. Keeping this in mind, Nielsen makes some stabs at predictions of his own (like the gradual erosion of the Post Office) that seem accurate and eerie at the same time. He makes the good point that most of the user interfaces we deal with today are descendents of the 1984 Mac. That's like using your little aquarium net to snare salmon. With the eventual dissolution of Web browsers will come a need for user interfaces that more capably deal with a glut of information.
I have some advice for reading this book. Treat it like a computer manual, and don't necessarily read it from cover to cover. Read the section on content design for sure, but depending on your familiarity with human/computer interaction principles, you may want to poke around a little more. Fortunately, and in typical Nielsen fashion, the book is laid out perfectly to make this kind of browsing convenient. That being said, if you do read straight though it, you won't be disappointed.
There are a couple of concerns I had with the book. One is that the layout is wacky, though I understand this is more the fault of the publisher than Nielsen. There is a straight narrative, like in any other manual, but it is broken frequently by screenshots and pull-out comments that attract attention away from the main narrative. The integration is good enough that you can pick up where you left off easily enough, but a tighter bundling of content with the visuals would have been welcome.
Secondly, the last chapter should have had some content stolen for the preface. Many of the limitations mentioned by Nielsen immediately beg the question of higher bandwidth on the horizon or more powerful computers. The book is so practical I almost found myself playing devil's advocate in response. At the same time, the advice is so well backed up by research, that to rail against it feels a little bit like yelling at your mom for telling you vegetables are good for you.
This book is so efficiently packed with tons of great advice that I read some sections again and again to make sure I didn't miss anything. Nielsen does not waste time over-elaborating his points, which is a welcome change from most books of this sort. The data from actual user studies are important to prove to a skeptical web developer that these considerations are real, and the actual examples of the Web pages and sites give incredible insight to the point being made. One of the pages captured even has a Jon Katz article on it.
So What's In It For Me?
If you are responsible for developing Web sites, or just a duffer who makes his greeting card collection available on the Web, read this book. The advice is sound, researched and proven over and over. If you are a usability engineer, this book may be on the general side for you, but otherwise it is the best introduction to these concepts assembled in one place that I have even seen.
As I was reading through this book, I kept thinking of various pages and sites that I had designed. What would be said if one of those pages had been captured and displayed? Would it be an example of what to do, or what only an idiot would do? These are good questions for any of us.
Purchase this book at ThinkGeek.