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).

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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.

Learning Drupal

drupal logoDrupal is an open source content management system which you can use for free to build all kinds of sites. For an  introduction, see the About Drupal page on the drupal.org website. It scores highly among open source CMSs in terms of its flexibility and the large number of available modules offering bolt-on functionality. However,  this flexibility and vast choice of add-ons comes with a cost in terms of a steeper learning curve than some other systems. You will therefore probably need to do some reading before getting started.

I’ve recently been looking through some of the entry-level Drupal books to plan a project and this is what I thought about them:

Building Online Communities with Drupal, phpBB, and WordPress (Expert’s Voice in Open Source) by Robert T. Douglass, Mike Little and Jared W. Smith. (Apress, December 2005)

The oldest of the three books I looked at, this covers three web applications for the price of one – including a decent basic guide to the features of Drupal by Robert T. Douglass. If you’re using the latest version of Drupal (version 6) then you’ll need to hunt around the interface a bit for some functions which have been moved since this guide was written. However, I still found it usable and it’s an ok buy if you have a starter-level interest in all the three applications covered. An updated edition would be great though.

Building Powerful and Robust Websites with Drupal 6 by David Mercer (Packt Publishing, April 2008)

This is an ok choice if you want a straightforward manual-type run-through of Drupal’s functionality. It covers Drupal version 6, so is more up-to-date than the previous book. The declared audience is “people with little to now experience in website design, people who are not familiar with PHP, MySQL or HTML, and above all people with little to no experience in using Drupal.”  For such non-experts there’s a nice introduction to concepts like building a site in a development environment before deploying it and good advice on maintaining back-ups. However, if you’re not new to Drupal or content management systems, then you will probably not get as much out of this.

Using Drupal by Angela Byron, Addison Berry, Nathan Haug, Jeff Eaton, James Walker and Jeff Robbins (O’Reilly, December 2008)

This is a big book (464 pages) and I haven’t worked my way through the whole thing yet, but its already my definite favourite and the Drupal book I’d recommend you get if you only buy one. It goes beyond being a simple manual that explains Drupal’s functionality and looks at case studies of the types of site you may want to build and how you would go about using Drupal to construct them, including choosing and configuring modules. The case studies include a job posting board, product reviews, a wiki, a photo gallery, a multilingual site and an online store.

The fact that its examples involve the latest versions of dozens of modules means that this book will no doubt date quickly. However the authors have foreseen this and do provide a more generalized discussion of  principles for selecting modules which will stand readers in good stead in the long term. For the moment though, this book is an excellent snapshot of Drupal’s potential as well as having  immense practical usefulness if you need to develop the types of site covered.

These are the three books I’ve looked at, but there’s a full list of currently available books on the Drupal site at http://drupal.org/books, including more advanced texts on developing Drupal modules and themes if you want more than just guidance on using Drupal effectively to run sites.

If you don’t want to spend money on a book, there are plenty of free resources for learning about Drupal on the drupal.org site. These include the Drupal documentation (http://drupal.org/handbooks),  including case studies at http://drupal.org/cases. You can also browse the Drupal forums at: http://drupal.org/forum, especially the “Before you start” forum at http://drupal.org/forum/20. There’s also a listing of Drupal learning resources at http://groups.drupal.org/node/5674 (although it’s getting a bit long in the tooth and some of the links are dead).

Finally, Lullabot has a great selection of articles, videos and podcasts about Drupal at http://www.lullabot.com.

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Review of Drupal 6 Themes by Ric Shreves