First Monday, Volume 9, Number 8 - 2 August 2004
Web Bloopers: 60 Common Web Design Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.
San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.
paper, 329 p., ISBN 1558608400, US$49.95.
Morgan Kaufmann: http://www.mkp.com
No site is safe from Jeff Johnson’s critical eye for usability. His latest book, Web Bloopers, critiques portions of over 50 Web sites of wellknown organizations, such as United Airlines, Amazon.com, and Yale University.
The book contains 60 numbered Web bloopers that Johnson deems "embarrassingly bad [and] also common." Bloopers are flaws and design inadequacies that can irritate and confuse Web site visitors. To prove that no site is immune from bloopers, Johnson even takes a few jabs at the Web site of Morgan Kaufmann Publishers — the book’s publisher.
Johnson provides a threepart explanation of each blooper: background, explanation and solution. Illustrations accompany each blooper. The illustrations are often real Web sites. A thumbsup/thumbsdown graphic allows the reader to know immediately whether the depiction is an example of good or bad design.
Some chapters have sections entitled "Tech Talk" that discuss the blooper and appropriate remedies with more technical detail. One Tech Talk section covers how to discover which Internet browser a site visitor uses. Another section discusses how to save a visitor’s information so that he will not need to enter it twice.
I especially enjoyed the "Text and Writing Bloopers" chapter. This is a particularly relevant chapter for Web designers who may also be responsible for writing content. Some designers with a technical background may commit blooper #42, "Speaking Geek. " Johnson points out that words such as "domain" and "dialog" may not be familiar for some Web site visitors. Phrases such as "method not allowed" and "no records found" pose a similar problem. Blooper #44 describes how nontechnical terms can also baffle a site visitor. Johnson cites terms such as "movers and shakers" and "knowledgebase" as potentially confusing. To remedy this problem, Johnson suggests creating a list of terms appropriate for a Web site. This "site lexicon" would help Web content writers decide exactly which terms should and should not be allowed on a site. By making such decisions ahead of time, consistency can be assured.
The content of Web Bloopers would have been enough to warrant a fine review, however, Johnson adds an extra zing: Throughout the book are popular comics relating to Web design and the Internet. Comics are pulled from the New Yorker magazine and the popular newspaper strips "Fox Trot" and "Zits. " Each chapter contains an average of three or four comics. The comics’ occasional appearance assures that they do not overly distract the reader, while Johnson himself offers a few witticisms. For example, when he addresses the blooper of referring to site visitors as "users" (blooper #43), he notes: "Well, maybe heroin and cocaine users refer to themselves as ‘users,’ but nobody else calls themselves that."
As I discovered, Johnson is just as witty in conversation as he is in the book, as I recently discovered when I had the opportunity to interview him via telephone. Since earning his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1979, he has been working in the field of humancomputer interaction, while during the 1980s and 1990s, he worked at such places as HewlettPackard Labs and Sun Microsystems before starting his own usability consulting firm, UI Wizards Inc., in 1996. Web Bloopers is Johnson’s second blooper book; the first, GUI Bloopers: Don’ts and Do’s for Software Developers and Web Designers, was released in 2000.
Morgan Kaufman Publishing has created a companion Web site for Web Bloopers (at www.web-bloopers.com) which accepts submissions of Web site bloopers, and allows users to vote for the most blooperrich Web site currently online. Ironically, the site itself has been voted #1. While tongueincheek visitors may be to blame: Johnson asserts that nearly every site has bloopers and notes that even the Web site for his productusability consulting firm suffers from bloopers.
Overall I greatly enjoyed reading the book; the content and presentation make it a superb read. Additions to the book would be difficult while still preserving its concise length. While it is already comprehensive, there were a few additions I would have liked to see.
Throughout Web Bloopers, Johnson discusses conducting usability tests to help resolve or prevent potential bloopers and by page 66, he has already made three mentions of usability testing. However, there is no chapter in the book that discusses the components of a usability test and how one may conduct such a test.
Another omission is the lack of a section discussing how to convince a manager of the necessity of usability testing. Two pages in the appendix touch upon this, but this is insufficient. A staunch supporter of a blooperladen Web site may not easily understand the importance of usability testing.
On page 88, Johnson discusses specific questions that Web designers ought to consider: they are encouraged to examine a set of nine questions in Web site design. Unfortunately, many of these questions are too subjective. One of them asks, "Have pages or sections inherited from legacy sites been updated to fit seamlessly into the Web site?" Since the notion of a "seamless fit" can vary from person to person, more explanation is needed. The question is too vague to solicit a confident response.
At times, I found small inconsistencies in the book. For example, Johnson draws a parallel between human travel agents and virtual travel agents and remarks that virtual travel agents should be comparable to their human counterparts. To illustrate this, he discusses the United Airlines Web site. When a customer indicates "Ann Arbor" as his destination, the system assumes he wants the nearest airport to that location. Thus, the Detroit airport is automatically selected for him. I found this to be a poor decision on behalf of the site designer, however. There is no error message to tell the customer than an airport in Ann Arbor does not exist. A customer may believe there is an airport in Ann Arbor and may become increasingly frustrated at the system’s failure to display flights to that location. Since a human travel agent would explicitly indicate the nonexistence of an Ann Arbor airport, the virtual travel agent ought to do the same.
While reading Web Bloopers, I wondered if any of the Web sites depicted still have the bloopers for which they were cited. I found that WisconSUN (www.wisconsun.org) continues to have duplicate links on the same page (blooper #17). The site's front page has three links to each of the following pages: "About, " "Learn, " "News, " "Fund, " "Connect, " and "Contact."
Greyhound Lines (www.greyhound.com) is still guilty of looking for the best alphabetical match when it does not recognize a departure or arrival location (blooper #12, "Clueless Back End"). For example, type "Irvine" (a California city of 170,000) as your destination and the system defaults to "Irving, Texas."
Jeff Johnson’s sharp eye for usability, coupled with plenty of examples and recommendations, can transform even the dullest and most complicated site into a sleek example of Web usability. Sadly for Johnson’s fans, Web Bloopers marks the end of Johnson’s blooper book series. Still, he is open to updating the books in the future. Johnson hopes to write books on other aspects of usability which, undoubtedly, will be gems. — Nina Malakooty
The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
cloth, 232 p., ISBN 026213439x, US$27.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/
For those who wonder how the dotcom frenzy came about and why the cycle of boom and bust was inevitable, this is essential reading. Indeed, this short analysis details how the power of the ability of the dotcom technological developments to transform society was just another myth. In fact it demonstrates how the dotcom era was but the latest in the lengthening line of such developments hailed as full of mouldbreaking promises. The combination of the computer and the Internet was to have allowed the creation of virtual communities which would transcend time, space and even politics.
We know that it has made some changes but not of the revolutionary character which formed the abiding myth of that period. The background to this is well set out by Vincent Mosco who, by drawing on the parallels of the advent of television, radio, telephone, railroads and electricity, shows how the then widely held beliefs that each would end history, geography and politics were also nothing but myths. For, as he indicates, "One generation after another has renewed the belief that, whatever else was said about earlier technologies, the latest one will fulfill a radical and revolutionary promise."
The broad analysis made in Digital Sublime provides an interesting backdrop not only to the political and economic climates at the time, since one feeds on the other, but also the way in which the myths were built on the continuing reality of the wish to turn a profit. Just before the crash I was in the middle of finalising a public offering and remember very well at one of the meetings with the investment banker a discussion on whether to put dotcom after the company name as "this would ensure success." Thankfully wiser counsel prevailed but instances such as this are quoted by Mosco to exemplify how far the belief in the new order had come to pervade every aspect of the world of finance. There is the inherent belief that in each new order there will be opportunities to profit whilst in the old, as it represents the past, there are fewer.
As the author points out, this myth would not persist if there were not a strong link to the political rhetoric, both of the time and subsequently. The chapter on the World Trade Center is used to provide valuable insights into the political climate which led to WorldCom and the other telecommunication scandals of the early 2000s. It is this linking between history and the current political economy activity which provides the sharpest images. For in laying apart the myths about the global communication systems, Mosco outlines how they are important both for what they reveal as well as conceal. Therein of course lies one of the inherent conflicts over the application of cyberspace, the "contradiction between the idea of liberal democracy and the growing control of the world’s political economy by the concentrated power of its largest businesses."
By bringing out the historical similarities such as the U.S. being "the supreme intellectual property pirate of the nineteenth century" when Charles Dickens complained long and hard over theft of his work in the United States, Mosco questions the current attitude toward development by the G8 countries. As a liberal democrat he questions whether cyberspace is part of the control of society by a few or whether it is one of the signs of an end to Big Brother as portrayed in George Orwell. As an optimist, Mosco would like to believe that liberal democracy will reassert itself with the individual controlling his or her own destiny through the use of cyberspace.
The book covers a particular time in the development of the Internet. Even so, it has many lessons describing the relationships between cyberspace and political economy, with particular reference to the myths which behind the dotcom bubble. It makes an interesting broad read for those looking to understand the myth of the next "transforming technology" as well as providing lessons for those wishing to create the myths around it — when it comes. — Gregory ReeceSmith
Solaris 9 Network Administrator Exam Cram 2 (Exam CX-310-044).
London: Pearson, 2003.
paper, 432 p., ISBN: 0789728702, £21.99.
Look at any recruitment Web site or at any job advertisement for a systems administrator and you’ll be guaranteed that the potential employer is looking for someone with vendor certification. This has spawned a completely new genre of technical textbook — the exam cram book. One only has to look at Amazon.com to see how many of these books have hit the market in recent months. But are these books useful?
Solaris 9 Network Administrator Exam Cram 2 is not the thickest book I’ve come across, but I must say the content is excellent. The chapters are sensibly organised and contain extremely useful information which can be used on a daytoday basis in the office rather than in the examination room. Difficult concepts such as IP Multipathing are explained clearly, and examples which can be used in the workplace are included. Each chapter of the book has a collection of example questions, and a clear description of why the correct answer is correct, and more importantly why the incorrect answers are incorrect. No individual subject in the book is covered in any great detail, the content suggesting an assumption that the reader has had some training or knowledge of network administration before starting with the book. This is not a textbook for learning network administration, instead it provides assistance in passing the examination.
As is common with every book of this type, a compact disc is included. The disc includes an example exam to give the reader a taste of the real thing. The format of the exam follows exactly the format of the Sun Microsystems certification exams; that is, multiple choice questions of the pickoneandpickmany varieties. There are a number of examples given in the book that can be worked through, although to do so it will be necessary to have more than one system running the Solaris operating system, and with more than one network interface card in each machine. Required is also a hub or switch with which to create a small network. This could be seen as one area where the material falls down but if serious readers are pursuing Sun certification, they should expect to have hardware available for testing. Going down this route is easy enough, either to load Solaris x86 onto a PC, or alternatively having a look at the number of Sun workstations available on eBay at lowcost (although this is likely to elicit the question "what do you need another computer for?" from your spouse, as I can testify personally.)
Having said so much about certification (after all that is what the book is for), this is a very usable book for UNIX administrators who have some experience in network administration. The reader should not expect to be spoon fed through the basics, but what’s needed is to configure a DNS server or DHCP server, then the information is easily found. The crib sheet at the front of the book is invaluable to have in the desk drawer.
As the anecdote says, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the ultimate review for a book about certification has to be successful completion of the certification examination. At this point I have told my hands up, I haven’t done it yet. However, to complete the network administrator examination, you first have to complete the system administrator certification and this involves two examinations. I intended to complete network administrator certification as part of the review of this book, but did not fully comprehend the amount of work involved in doing so. I finally completed the system administrator certification in the last few weeks, and will be doing the network administrator certification in due course. I am however confident that this book will give me the best foundation of any of the similar books for the examination, and would not hesitate to recommend it to other systems administrators wishing to follow the certification route for professional development. — Peter Scott, Sun Certified Systems Administrator.
Patti Shank and Amy Sitze.
Making Sense of Online Learning: A Guide for Beginners and the Truly Skeptical.
San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2004.
paper, 208 p., ISBN 0787969826, US$35.00.
The introduction makes clear the groups who should or shouldn’t read this book. I fall into the latter category; I already know about using technology for learning, but I still found the book interesting and useful. The authors are Patti Shank, managing partner of an instructional technology consulting group and Amy Sitze, a journalist and editor who edited Online Learning Magazine for three years. They are certainly credible.
The book is written in a pragmatic and practical style which can, in parts, appear oversimplistic but it clarifies many of the issues facing any organization considering online learning as a recipient or deliverer. One point which may clash with some readers is that the terms "education" and "training" seem to be used as synonyms. The writing style is "chatty" and I found it kept me engaged even though I was already familiar with some of the topics.
In terms of content there is a good balance between the pedagogical aspects of online learning/instruction and the practical aspects of creating online content — what should be included and also what tools and technologies are used. The companion Web site does, on the one hand, contain a wealth of links to other online resources, on the other, however, highlights also a potential weakness of the book. It is based entirely on an American model and thus discusses U.S.based standards throughout. Readers outside North America will have to determine and apply local standards for usability.
The breadth of content is impressive; discussion of learning objects, a clear definition of XML, learning content management systems and learner management systems, open source software and streaming content are just a few examples of the topics covered in sufficient depth that someone new to the subject will have enough grounding to determine whether it is something they need to understand more or whether they can disregard it at present. One thing that I found surprising was that some of the leading lights of online learning were not mentioned at all — most notably Gilly Salmon.
In summary I agree with the first line of the conclusion — "Reading this book is a critical first step towards making good decisions about implementing online learning." Whether it completely lives up to the title I’m not sure, I came to the book with a good deal of experience already, but I think it offers an excellent starting point for anyone who is considering developing online instructional material. — Nigel Gibson.
Copyright ©2004, First Monday