More books for website makers
Jakob Nielsen is the number one guru of ' Web usability' - mainly because he invented the term. What this expression means in a general sense is the degree to which web sites have been designed with the needs of users in mind - as distinct from those of the designer or the site owner. Nielsen is former distinguished engineer at Sun Microsystems, and he has been writing on hypertext, navigation, and Internet engineering for the last decade. This is part one of a two-volume major statement of his theories on web design. Nielsen's wisdom doesn't come cheap at the not-very-usable price of £35 for this large paperback.
He expresses his views in a blunt and uncompromising manner. This is a bracing, indeed challenging book to read - but it is packed with reflections, principles, tips, and design theory on just about every possible aspect of web site design. He backs up his theory with the results of 'usability testing' and plenty of well illustrated, closely analysed real life examples, in many of which major companies have their sites held up for rigorous criticism.
His main priority is the creation of fast downloading pages ( 'speed must be the overriding design criterion') on the basis that people simply will not wait. Ten seconds is the average maximum, it would seem. To this end page size should be kept below 35K, and he's severely critical of big graphics. ('Remove graphic; increase traffic. It's that simple'.) Similarly, he's quite firm on the question of using frames: 'Just say No'.
There are good arguments to back up all these assertions - but also occasional puzzles. He seems to take a radical and scientific line when he argues that a page is inefficient because only sixty percent of the screen is devoted to product and navigation. But then in the next breath he admits that good design might include 'white space' - that is, unused screen real estate. There is no explanation of where one consideration ends and the other begins. He also makes the radical claim that HTML Standard 1.0 should be the web author's common denominator, but he is quite happy to discuss Cascading Style Sheets [supported only by version 4.0 browsers and above]. But these are minor problems: most of the time I was swept along by his infectious sense of intellectual exhilaration.
He argues for well-annotated outbound links, on the basis that each pointer towards useful information adds quality to your site. There are also interesting tips on links, such as not trying to link everybody to your home page. There's a strong temptation to do this - because you would naturally prefer every visitor to explore your site in full. But there is no reason why they should tolerate searching your site when they have been referred on the promise of something specific.
On writing for the web he favours brevity, content chunking [short paragraphs] and accuracy - on the basis that Content is King. As he puts it in his idiosyncratic prose style, we should 'write for scannability'. For someone whose message is to design for maximum usability, his language is occasionally a little opaque. He uses terms such as 'instantiated', 'best-fit regression line', 'optimal user experience' and 'hedonic wage model'. But once again, this quirkiness is vastly outweighed by the density of good advice packed into every page.
Advanced web site designers will be interested in what he has to say about the use of audio, video, animation, and even 3D effects - yet he also has insightful things to say about some of the smallest and apparently mundane elements of a web page. It's amazing what subtle nuances he wrings from his meditation on the choice of words for a page title for instance - something I imagine most people hardly give a second thought.
Beginners will appreciate his advice on matters such as creating good domain names for new businesses, whilst advanced users are catered for in sections which discuss the integration of your site with a search engine and the techniques for creating dynamic pages which change their content in response to customer demand.
He is unremittingly on the side of the user rather than the site owner or designer. In this sense he's the very opposite of design and graphics guru David Siegel - arguing extreme functionality over aesthetic form.
'We still need more sites to base their information architecture on the customer's needs instead of the company's own internal thinking.'
On large scale sites, he has some interesting points to make regarding the distinctions between intranets and extranets, and he deals comprehensively with issues of designing for international audiences, for users with disabilities, and for Web TV. He ends with some predictions on likely trends over the next few years, reminding us that despite any increases in audience and bandwidth, the vast majority will be low-end users for whom the prime concern is download time.
There have recently been criticisms in some design circles that Jakob Nielsen is too dogmatic and that his theories are based on the commercial demands of the Internet. Some of this may well be true, but anybody who has the slightest interest in web pages, site design, and information architecture should read this book. I feel quite confident that it is destined to become a classic, and personally, I look forward to the next volume, which is going to tell us 'How To Do It'. He's even got a provisional title - Ensuring Web Usability - and lists it for us in his section of recommended reading.
If you can't afford the book, though, you can get lots of the author's advice for free from his very helpful website, Useit.com.
How can the Internet help authors today? Isn't writing still just a matter of putting pen to paper? There are so many new developments in electronic publishing, free web space, media mergers, and online bookshops: won't these take our attention away from being creative? Well yes, they might. But they also open up exciting new possibilities. That's why Jane Dorner has written this book - as a guide through the maze.
She starts from the most logical point - how to get connected, what equipment you need, and how to operate the essentials. In the discussion of email she begins to consider the special needs of writers - how to send attachments; how to submit work to publishers; even how to conduct email interviews. On the Web, she explains the techniques of efficient searching, how sites are used for publishing, and what to do when it all goes wrong. She touches on writing groups which exist in the form of mailing lists, websites, newsletters, chat groups, and conferences. The strength of this approach is that given a little trial and error, most writers will be able to locate the sort of forum which suits them best.
There's an interesting chapter on electronic publishing and what are now becoming known as e-book readers. This is very timely, as the market potential for this type of distribution has just opened up again with the success of products such as the 3'' X 5'' PalmPilot - the latest version of which can download Web pages and e-books off the Net, but still fit in your shirt pocket.
She then explores both the new opportunities for writers created by the Internet and the practicalities of publishing on your own web site. I was glad to see that she didn't waste too much time with coding and page layout, all of which can be picked up easily elsewhere. She concentrates instead on issues of copyright, payments, encryption, plagiarism, and censorship. These topics will be far more live issues for the majority of writers tempted by the possibilities of online publication.
But by far the best part of the book - the 'killer app' so far as most writers will be concerned - is the final chapter listing online resources. She gives annotated lists of all the sources a writer could possibly wish for - from libraries to bookshops, dictionaries to writing circles, newspapers to writing style guides, electronic publishers to free Internet service providers. Just working your way through the list with your browser open would be an education in itself.
What I like about this book is that it successfully combines a lightness of touch with a thoroughness of approach. It gets straight to the point, uses a minimum of technical jargon, and covers a wide range of topics pertinent to aspiring authors. If you are a writer, and you're ready to explore a rich source of suggestions for what to do next with the Net, then get this book. (£9.99).
"Clarity and excellence in thinking is very much like clarity and excellence in the display of data. When principles of design replicate principles of thought, the act of arranging information becomes an act of insight."
This is Edward Tufte's passionate manifesto for intelligent information design. He is concerned with the need for scale, accuracy, and truthful proportion in the visualisation of data. The book derives much of its charm from the beautiful reproduction of its illustrative materials. He includes engravings, photographs, maps, computer-generated images, and even built-in flaps showing motion and before-after effects. The diversity of his examples is just as impressive, drawn as they are from scientific papers, conjurors' manuals, and even books designed to be read under water. In one stunning example, he uses video snapshots of his own two-dimensional yet dynamic visualisation of a thunderstorm. [You pay for all this, though, as the book costs £32].
Tufte [pronounced "TUFF-tee"] makes his central argument in a chapter which has now become famous. This discusses the mis-representation of data related to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle which resulted in a disastrous explosion and the death of all the cosmonauts on board. His dense technical analysis of data-presentation and bad practice is used to argue that the fatal accident could have been averted if charts and diagrams had been presented more intelligently, more accurately.
A chapter on conjuring tricks focuses on the clever representation of temporal progression in single illustrations from how-to-do-it books. However, it has to be said that sometimes it's not quite clear what point he's making, and he seems to be struggling with what is obvious: that it's difficult to represent fluid motion in static, two-dimensional images. Eventually it emerges that he wishes to compare magic with it's opposite - teaching. One amazes by concealment, the other should inform by revelation. "Your audience should know beforehand what you're going to do." That's a useful insight for some of us.
His attitude is enormously confident and persuasive. Yet if you can brace yourself as a reader, it sometimes seems that he doesn't always follow his own theories in the presentation of materials - and this in a book which he wrote, designed, and published himself. On some pages, it's difficult to link illustration to argument; some reproductions are disproportionately large for the point they are making; and he pursues the odd habit of crowding the generous page margins with bibliographic minutiae which would normally be reserved for chapter endnotes.
He writes in a cryptic, elliptical manner, and is much given to compressed generalisations and gnomic claims such as "to make verbs visible, is at the heart of information design" - though this approach can also be quite witty, as when he dismisses one of the bad examples as "better than nothing ([but] that's all it's better than".
Despite these occasional oddities, there are thought-provoking ideas on almost every page. For instance, the idea that the public health warnings on US billboard cigarette advertisements are less effective because they are difficult to read, crammed as they are into boxed text, sans-serif fonts, in continuous capitals, and underlined - which makes four typographical solecisms in one.
Despite the graphic variety of his presentations, many of his arguments are amazingly orchestrated onto single or double-page spreads, and the book is an almost irresistibly beautiful production. What he's actually talking about is visual rhetoric: "by establishing a structure of rhythm and relationships, [graphic] parallelism becomes the poetry of visual information". We might wish to query some of his theoretical claims, but it's very hard to be critically detached from such a seductive presentation of evidence - which paradoxically is the very point he's warning us about.