Review: Drupal 6 Themes

Drupal 6 Themes

There’s an ever-growing number of decent books appearing about Drupal, covering in detail various aspects of this complex CMS and catering to different experience levels and levels of coding ability. ‘Drupal 6 Themes’ by Ric Shreves fills a niche for detailed coverage of Drupal’s theming functionality for users with decent HTML and CSS skills, and maybe a little bit of PHP. It’s a book that I think designers and web managers wanting to add Drupal to their skill-set can get a lot out of reading and it’ll certainly help a lot if you’re starting out on the labour of wrangling with the design of a site based on a theme someone else created.

The book’s well written with a sensible structure, moving from general discussions of how theming in Drupal works to specific demonstrations of how to modify existing themes and build new ones from scratch. There’s a very clear explanation of the best ways to employ intercepts and overrides to achieve style changes and useful coverage of theming Drupal’s forms.

One of the most difficult things about changing the look of Drupal sites is the sheer number of CSS and template files you usually have to wade through. This book includes a short introduction to tools which can help with this – like Devel’s Theme Developer module, and the Firebug and Web Developer extensions for Firefox. There’s also detailed listings of Drupal’s theming elements and core CSS files.

Overall, this is a good solid read which can really enhance a new or intermediate Drupal user’s appreciation of how to get the most of theming. However, theming isn’t the only thing you need to master to get a Drupal site looking exactly the way you want. For an all-round understanding of  Drupal’s front-end, I’d also recommend you look at O’Reilly’s recent Using Drupal as well, which has demonstrations of using CCK and Views – as well as a good chapter on theming (although it doesn’t go into as much detail as this book). There’s also a forthcoming book on Front End Drupal due out next month which I definitely want to pick up.

Drupal 6 Themes: Create New Themes for Your Drupal 6 Site with Clean Layout and Powerful CSS Styling by Ric Shreves is published by Packt Publishing.

Related posts

I looked at a number of other starter resources for getting to grips with Drupal this January in a post on Learning Drupal.

Review: Click – What We Do Online and Why It Matters

In Click – What We Do Online and Why It Matters, Bill Tancer uses data on internet use to demonstrate that people reveal plenty of things via their everyday web browsing which they’d never admit to in a formal survey.

The first part of the book discusses what can we learn about the human condition from internet usage data via a series of snapshots of online behaviour. These look at subjects as diverse as porn, politics, prom dresses, diets, celebrity worship and people’s worst fears. There are lots of interesting snippets to be found in all this – from the problems caused to political pollsters by the increasing tendency to drop landline phones in favour of mobiles to data indicating that Sunday is the least popular day for people to browse porn sites. The chapter on fears focuses on search queries and has a nice potted description of the authoritative status search engines have assumed in a lot of people’s lives - “Search engines, despite their limitations, have for some of us become a teacher, a confidant, a willing listener to our confessions.”

There follows a good chapter on the concepts of Web 2.0, focusing particularly on their potential downsides. The closing part of the book explores what can be done with web data analysis, the continuing power of television programming on what people search for online and  arbitrage opportunities from internet data. The final chapters look particularly at the role of early adopters and “super-connectors” in boosting online trends and how their behaviour can be used to predict the future mainstream.

I don’t think Click delivers any huge revelations but, as you’d expect from a Time magazine columnist, it’s all pleasantly readable. From chapter to chapter the book sometimes feels a bit disconnected – more like a meandering series of articles than a single tightly argued narrative. However the chatty informal style is also part of the book’s charm and helps to make it an enjoyable, if undemanding, read.

The author is particularly successful at conveying his sheer enthusiasm for the work of data analysis. He infuses his discussions of the process of formulating and testing theories with a sense of fun.  The book is at its most interesting where he happily discusses cases where his predictions have been wrong-footed by events, and then goes through the process he went through to find out what went wrong and how similar analyses could be refined in the future.

The book was published in the US last year, but I’ve been reading the recently released UK edition.  A nice feature of this is that the author has gone to the effort of  updating and anglicising the book at bit.

Click: What We Do Online and Why it Matters by Bill Tancer is published by Harper Collins

Review: Forms that Work – Designing Web Forms for Usability

My first thought on seeing that there was a whole book on web form usability was – “How could anyone write a whole 200 pages just about how to design forms?”  My scepticism wasn’t entirely dispelled by Steve Krug’s introduction, where he describes one of the authors as “someone who can talk for an hour about whether to use colons at the end of labels and make it interesting”.  I really found this quite difficult to believe.

Thankfully, there’s only one page in Forms that Work about whether to use colons at the end of labels. However, there’s actually an awful lot else that you can explore about form design which is potentially useful and this book certainly covers most of the areas I can think of.

The first couple of  chapters look at persuading people to answer forms and how to ask for the right information. There’s a focus on understanding who is going to answer your form and on ensuring that you’re trying to get information which is really needed. The advice about asking the specific people who are going to work with the information what they need and checking if the organisation already holds the information you’re asking for are things that seem obvious, but which often seem to be overlooked in practice.

The following sections cover how to make questions easy to answer and how to write useful instructions. This includes guidance on using plain language and avoiding negative questions. Chapters follow on choosing form controls and making the form flow easily, with common-sense advice on meeting users’ expectations about how controls work, breaking up long forms by topic and avoiding surprising users with sudden changes.

The visual design of forms is discussed next. The authors advise not to stress too much over minute details. The principal guidance here is to put labels where users will see them, indicate required fields and choose legible text. To make a form look easy, there is advice on applying logos and branding to forms and on making forms look tidy and organised with grids and grouping.  Finally there’s a concluding chapter on usability testing which the authors are very keen on. I found the most interesting advice here to be that the authors find testing forms with more than five users usually leads to diminishing returns.

Overall, it’s a nicely designed book which also includes cartoons, case studies and a useful list of further reading with helpful comments.

“Forms that Work” is about usability rather than coding, so there’s nothing here about how to achieve some of the recommendations with CSS.  If you’re interested in this, then there’s a good free collection of links you could usefully explore in the Smashing Magazine article: CSS-Based Forms: Modern Solutions.

Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability is by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney. It’s published by Morgan Kaufmann.

Oh, and apparently it doesn’t matter much either way if you use colons at the end of labels (p.132), but if you want a rule to follow, then use them (p. 140).

Related posts

See also my review of Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. This is from the same publisher, shares the same overall book design and covers web writing apart from forms – making it a nice companion volume to “Forms that Work”.

Review: Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

Neuro Web Design reviews some of what neuroscientists now know about the brain and looks at how we can use this knowledge to develop more effective websites.  The main argument of the book is that people are not in conscious control of a lot of their behaviour and that web designers can benefit from  engaging directly with website visitors on an unconscious level.

Many of the suggestions made by the author are things which you will probably already regard as common- sense good practice. However it’s still interesting to follow through the scientific reasoning produced for why certain methods  of design and content production are more effective.

Among the things you learn about:

  • Reviews and ratings can influence people very strongly because of their need for social validation.
  • You can take advantage of people’s desire for reciprocity to influence website visitors to do what you want, even if it’s just by giving them free (useful) information.
  • Invoking a fear of scarcity can make people feel that your products are more desirable.
  • Providing too many choices can be bad and lead to people making no choice at all.
  • You should list the product which you want people to buy first in product listings, because the “order effect” leads people to believe “first is best”.
  • Using the words “you” and “yours” involves readers by speaking to their self-centred unconscious mind.
  • The concept of personas and people’s need to be consistent can be used to influence website users’ behaviour.
  • The principles of similarity, attractiveness and association can catch people’s attention and link them emotionally to your site.
  • Pictures and stories make powerful website content because they talk directly to the unconscious.

The book’s engagingly written and very short, so you can easily read it all in one sitting. Despite being initially sceptical about whether it could teach me anything useful, I did end up finding it quite interesting and a worthwhile read.

Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? (Voices That Matter) by Susan M. Weinschenk Ph.D. is published by New Riders.

Review: Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics

advanced web metricsAdvanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton is a good introduction and excellent long-term reference for anyone who needs to implement Google Analytics on their website.

Google Analytics has become a very popular web metrics tool – not least because it’s free (although there is  a limit of  five million page-views per month if you don’t have an AdWords account).  It has a great feature set – including site and map overlay reports, customizable dashboards, easy cross-segmentation of data and two-click integration with AdWords. It’s also quite easy to set up and use – in terms of basic functionality at least. However, when you need to go beyond the basics you’ll need some guidance and this book certainly provides plenty of help for many of the issues you are likely to face.

Part one provides an introduction to web analytics, including discussions of the pros and cons of using page tags vs log files, the use of cookies and privacy issues.  It concludes with a high level overview of Google Analytics, describing its key features and how it works.

Part two continues this overview with an introduction to using the Google Analytics interface and a discussion of ten important first-level reports to ease the reader into the more detailed coverage of implementation issues in part three. This is the most technical section and includes advice on best practices for configuring Google Analytics for your site and a whole chapter of hacks for dealing with areas not covered by the default reports.

Part four is possibly the most useful part of the book, since it looks at how to use the data you’ve gained via Google Analytics to drive real-world website improvements. This includes helpful advice on how to engage non-technical colleagues in your improvement efforts. I particularly liked the section on monetizing a non e-commerce website, which tells you how to get the most out of Google Analytic’s e-commerce features even if you don’t have an e-commerce site. There’s also a discussion of Google’s Website Optimizer – a tool for undertaking multivariate tests on your site which looks really useful.

The book ends with an appendix of recommended further reading including books, web resources and a long listing of web analytics blogs.

The author certainly gets very technical at some points – particularly when delving into the use of regular expressions and discussing complex modifications to the GATC. However most of the book  should still be comprehensible and useful to a non-techie marketing or management audience.  Indeed, if they persevere they can then use the book to beat their technical staff over the head by quoting the bits where particular implementation details are described as being easy for good webmasters to accomplish.

Admittedly, most of the information you’ll get here is also available online somewhere for free. However, it’s scattered around web analytics blogs and forum posts and many people who could benefit from it are not going to have the time and/or the perseverance to seek it all out. Even if you know all the hacks cited already, the convenience of having them collected in one reference book is still a great benefit. Over and above having a lot of neat tricks, the book presents a coherent approach to the whole business of analytics which makes it worth reading for anyone who needs to undertake web metrics on a professional basis.

Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton is published by Sybex.

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Review: Everything you know about CSS is wrong!

It must be said to start with that the title of this book is a bit overstated. Rather than ‘Everything you know about CSS is wrong!’, it would be more appropriately called ‘Some of the things you know about CSS layout techniques will be out of date in the near future (arguably)’. However I can see that this wouldn’t sell as many copies. It would also fail to capture the polemical flavour of the authors’ central argument: that web designers should seize the opportunity offered by the imminent release of Internet Explorer 8 to embrace CSS display tables for layout and abandon rubbishy old floats and faux columns for good.

In making a case for this,  the authors put across some nice points about how CSS layout techniques we have come to take for granted make simple layout tasks a heck of a lot more complicated than they really should be. This is a valid topic which a lot of books about CSS tend to skirt around. The book also contains  a short introduction to the CSS table display properties, a simple set of examples, discussion of the pros and cons of using them (mostly the pros though) and a chapter on considering older browsers. To conclude there is a look forward to the layout options that will be available (eventually) in CSS3.

The major criticism the book tends to provoke (one the authors foresee, but don’t entirely manage to assuage) is that it is  too soon to start using layout techniques which are unsupported by IE6 and, especially, by IE7. If we haven’t got rid of IE6 yet, which has been around since 2001, then how long will it take before we can really ignore IE7? The authors’ suggestion of providing simplified versions of designs for the most popular browser is unlikely to go down well with a lot of clients.

There also seem to be potential accessibility problems with CSS display tables unless the designer is careful. The authors downplay the importance of source order for accessibility, quoting research stating that “the source order of a web page is likely to be of little relevance to the majority of screen reader users”. I guess I might accept that for simple layout tables like the ones demonstrated in this book. However the major accessibility problems in traditional HTML table layouts were caused by endlessly nested tables messing up source order utterly and making pages impenetrable to  a screen reader user. If this kind of situation isn’t going to be repeated, then CSS display tables presumably need to be nested in moderation and care needs to be taken that content spread across cells reads in an acceptable order when linearised.

On the plus side,  it is always nice to know about another way of doing things and CSS display tables are a solid addition to anyone’s skill set for when you eventually find yourself in the lucky position of not having to bother about IE6 or 7.

In general, I found the book  a refreshing read. It provides a coherent argument,  is well written in a concise way and provokes you to question fundamental aspects of how you work. Not many web design or IT books manage this and it would be nice if more of them did.

Everything You Know About CSS is Wrong! by Rachel Andrew and Kevin Yank is published by Sitepoint.

Review: Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?

Googling Security is an interesting examination of the privacy issues surrounding the mass use of web services. It’s not just about Google, but “covers many facets of the problem of web-based information disclosure as seen through the lens of Google’s tools and services.” The tone isn’t generally that of bashing a particular company – the author for example goes out of his way to praise Google’s “awesome suite of tools”. However, Google as the biggest supplier of online services is clearly an obvious focus for this sort of analysis.

Early sections include a high-level overview of information flows and leakage, data retention and profiling. The book then moves on to chapters on individual types of web service – search, communications, mapping and advertising. The conclusion is a section on countermeasures and a look at the future.

It should come as no big surprise to any averagely-informed web user that online email, mapping and office applications or cross-site web analytics tracking can compromise their privacy. (However, many people may not realise that Google and other web-mail providers explicitly do not guarantee to delete your emails from “offline” backup systems when you delete them via the web interface.) The privacy case against Google Maps and especially their Street View application has been particularly well covered in the media.

The more scary part of the book for many will be the section on search which reveals the extent to which people can potentially compromise their privacy by day-to-day use of search engines. The examples which the author provides from the data-set of search activity released by AOL are very effective at showing there’s a serious potential issue here. The details on finger-printing techniques and the degree to which you can be personally identified over time by your search queries alone are also eye-opening. There is an emphasis on the need to think about your online activity in aggregate rather than as a series of single transactions. Each transaction may give little away on its own but could reveal a lot when examined alongside thousands of others.

Suggested countermeasures include becoming a more informed user of web services, educating others and campaigning for regulatory changes or for companies themselves to take privacy more seriously. The technical suggestions include deleting cookies, employing proxies and encryption, avoiding registered accounts, etc. – but the downsides to all of these are also clearly stated.

In the end, the book is quite a depressing read since the online privacy situation looks like it will get worse in the immediate future and there’s no easy solution for improving things. Avoiding using web services cripples your ability to use the potential of the web effectively, as does obsessively employing privacy technologies. As the author points out: “A bulletproof, anonymous web-browsing experience doesn’t exist.”

Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You? by Greg Conti is published by Addison-Wesley.

Review: Universal Design for Web Applications

Universal Design for Web Applications summarises a unified approach for designing web content so that it works better for people with disabilities and users of mobile devices. The authors identify an “overlap in needs and constraints between mobile and accessibility design”. They propose “universal design” as an approach which deals with both to provide “the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people possible”.

The pairing of mobile design with accessible design is a neat way of improving the marketability of design techniques which help people with disabilities. There’s some nice points made about the similarities between the difficulties of web-browsing on an iPhone and the problems which people with fine-motor disabilities or less-than perfect-vision can have when browsing on a PC or Mac. The authors go so far as to say that: “It could be that the current crop of mobile devices is the best thing to happen to people with disabilities for a long time. When else have millions of people stood in line with $199 or €129 or £99 in hand to purchase a functional disability?”

With an admirable brevity, the book neatly summarises the basic techniques required to meet level A compliance with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. There are chapters advising on metadata, separating design from structure with CSS, proper use of tables, video and audio, scripting accessible menus, accessible Ajax and Rich Internet Applications. The Ajax section includes an introduction to the basics of the W3C/WAI Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA) specification. The final parts of the book include plenty of links to useful resources and a 20-point checklist of questions to ask about your site which could be of real practical benefit.

The authors avoid being too doctrinaire – for example, the use of layout tables in email design is pragmatically accepted, as email clients currently make it impossible to get predictable results out of CSS.

The book is a good little introduction to accessible design and newcomers to the field should get a lot out of it. Even readers who already know a lot about accessibility may find the odd tip which is useful to them, especially if they want to sell accessible design to clients via examples of its benefits to users of mobile devices.

Universal Design for Web Applications: Web Applications That Reach Everyone is by Wendy Chisholm and Matt May. It’s published by O’Reilly.

Review: Letting Go of the Words – Writing Web Content that Works

Letting Go of the WordsThere are plenty of resources available nowadays about writing for the web and how it differs from writing for print. However, no other work I’ve seen comes closer to being a ‘one-stop shop’ for advice on web writing than Janice Redish’s Letting Go of the Words. It’s a nicely-produced book with well-chosen screen-shots and an easy-to-read style. The focus is on practical advice with a sensible emphasis on simplicity and focusing on website users’ expectations. It reads like a companion volume to Steve Krug’s excellent usability volume Don’t Make Me Think!, and Krug provides a fun foreword to this book.

The first two chapters focus on web content and web audiences in a broad sense. They review what good web writing consists of and how to focus on the specific needs of your site’s users. This includes a useful introduction to the use of personas and scenarios for user-centred design.

The book then looks in detail at writing good home pages, pathway pages and information pages. The coverage of pathway pages is particularly interesting, as this is a part of websites which doesn’t tend to get a lot of attention.

Some of the best stuff in the book is in the middle chapters which are primarily about the writing process itself. This includes sections about focusing on essential messages and tuning up your sentences. This is the part of the book where the title “Letting Go of the Words” comes to make most sense. There’s an emphasis on cutting away unnecessary verbiage and addressing users directly with short simple sentences, using words they would use themselves. There’s also a section on designing your web pages for easy use, which has some sensible advice about how design can impact upon the readability of web text.

Later chapters look at using lists and tables, headings, effective use of illustrations and writing meaningful links. The section on links is particularly useful, providing guidelines and examples you can usefully hand on to any content authors who are addicted to using “Click here”.

Finally the concluding section has good advice on drafting, working with reviewers and creating a style guide. There are additional special sections on writing online press releases and legal information which will be useful for a lot of corporate sites where these ubiquitous sections are often badly realised.

In general, I’d recommend this as a guide to web writing to anyone involved with creating websites, but its non-technical nature could make it especially useful as a resource for authors contributing to an organisation’s website via a content management system. If you can’t afford to send your web authors on courses about writing for the web or haven’t got time to write extensive guidance for them yourselves, then buying a copy of this book and sharing it around would be a great way to help them start thinking appropriately about how to approach online content creation.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works is by Janice (Ginny) Redish and is published by Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Review: Refactoring HTML

Refactoring HTMLThere’s nothing more dispiriting than being stuck with maintaining an old website with hundreds of pages of rubbishy “Netscape 4″-era code. There can be an overwhelming number of things which need fixing or updating. You may well be tempted to think it not worth trying to improve things incrementally and instead plan for a major redesign at some indeterminate point in the future – which maybe you’ll never get the time or the money to undertake.

If you find yourself in this situation, then Elliotte Rusty Harold’s book Refactoring HTML: Improving the design of existing web applications will be a good antidote to “wait for the redesign” paralysis. The book encourages taking a gradual approach to converting your website to a modern standards-compliant state, rather than trying to do everything at once. I think this is a great area to write a book about, since it fulfils a need a lot of website managers will have. Designing and building new sites is fun and there are an awful lot of books available about this creation process. Maintenance and incremental improvement of old sites is distinctly unsexy in comparison and gets much less shelf-space.

The book is a compendium of stuff, most of which you’ll probably already know you should be doing. It’s arranged with subjects listed in a cookbook fashion – covering why you want to make each change, potential trade-offs and the mechanics of how to carry out each improvement. The first chapter is an introduction to the subject of refactoring, which is a programming concept that may be new to a lot of web designers.

“Refactoring is the gradual improvement of a code base by making small changes that don’t modify a program’s behaviour, usually with the help of some kind of automated tool. The goal of refactoring is to remove the accumulated cruft of years of legacy code and produce cleaner code that is easier to maintain, easier to debug, and easier to add new features to.” From “Refactoring HTML”

In the second chapter, there is a thorough overview of automated tools you can use for refactoring. A lot of the information here is going to be of more use if you’re a programmer. However, the discussion of regular expressions should be of use to anyone who has to deal with outdated HTML code. It’s backed up by an appendix which provides a beginner’s guide to regular expressions. Throughout the book there are specific regular expressions supplied for fixing particular problems which will be hugely useful to non-programmers like me who find writing their own regular expressions a pain.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover all the aspects of well-formedness and validity in HTML documents. The author is sensibly not insistent upon validation for its own sake and on several occasions gives examples of times when it may be pragmatically better to go for an invalid option. He also points out where the standards don’t actually make much sense – the rule that block quotes can’t be within paragraphs is one example discussed which has always really annoyed me.

Chapter 5 covers layout, with some discussion of replacing table layouts and frames-based layouts with CSS. However this is definitely not a design-oriented book and its CSS advice is limited to providing some basic layouts and advising that CSS is ‘very much a technique for full-time professionals”.

The book continues with a nice-to-see chapter on accessibility and a section on web applications. The latter includes an interesting section on Web Forms 2.0 types as well as solid advice on older topics, like when to use POST or GET and the need to escape all user input. Finally, there’s a chapter on content which – like the section on layout – is pretty basic. Still, it’s nice to see an emphasis on the need for correct spelling in a book that seems to be aimed primarily at coders.

Refactoring HTML as a whole is certainly useful for anyone managing a badly-coded site, especially if they haven’t thought much about ways to semi-automate testing and improvements.

Refactoring HTML: Improving the design of existing web applications by Elliotte Rusty Harold is published by Addison-Wesley.