10 favourite web design books

As a break from reviewing new books, this is a quick list of older web design books which I’ve enjoyed a lot.

Web Design

Designing with Web Standards – I read the first edition of Jeffrey Zeldman’s book in 2003 when I was  pretty fed up with the unsatisfying business of learning endless display hacks for different browsers, which web design then seemed mainly to consist of.  I  liked the whole idea that web standards offered a more coherent future for web development and the author’s coherently-argued narrative and gradualist approach made it all seem more realisable.

The Zen of CSS Design – Really opened my eyes to what could be done with CSS. Lots of really pretty stuff.

Bulletproof Web Design and CSS Mastery: Advanced Web Standards Solutions – 2 very well-thumbed books on web design which I keep coming back to.

From a personal perspective, I’d like to include  The Art and Science of Web Design by Jeffrey Veen published back in 2000.  I borrowed this from the library at college in 2001 while doing an MSc in Information Systems. I read it through in an afternoon, totally caught up in it.  A lot of its advice is definitely outdated now, but it was well written and a great read at the time.

Usability

Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability – Fun to read and re-read. A real-life feel to the examples and some great graphics and cartoons which you can use with clients or project team members to explain points.

Designing Web Usability– Another book which I read at college as part of a module on user interface design which focused mainly on web usability. I felt like I got more out of this book than from everything else in the module combined. It’s powerfully (if somewhat prescriptively) argued and made a great cover-to-cover read at the time.

Accessibility

Building Accessible Websites – Well written with a friendly authorial voice and a pragmatic approach to accessible design. Also had a nice selection of resources on the accompanying CD.

Search and navigation

Ambient findability – I always enjoy well-written stuff about search and this is one of the most satisfying reads on the subject.

Information Architecture for the Word Wide Web – I read the original (shorter) version at college and enjoyed it a lot – then read the second, much larger, edition a couple of years ago. A really comprehensive look at navigation and search which gives you a lot to think about.

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.

Free hosted search solutions

If you want a free search engine for your website and don’t want too much technical hassle, then a remotely hosted search solution may be just the thing for you. Hosted search has a much easier set-up process than a search engine which requires installation on your server. All you generally need to do is a bit of simple configuration followed by cutting-and-pasting some supplied code into your pages.

However, there are definitely some potential downsides to consider with the free offerings from hosted search providers:

  • Free hosted search engines generally come with adverts on results pages. If you want to remove them, you will need to upgrade to the paid-for version of the service.
  • Free services may not give you any control over how often or how thoroughly your site is indexed
  • Search results pages may have little or no scope for customisation
  • Some solutions may have page limits on how many pages the free search will index
  • The supplied cut-and-paste code may include formatting you want to amend or code which won’t validate without a bit of work

If you want to explore free hosted search further, below are eight services currently offering a free solution:

Google Custom Search Engine
http://www.google.com/coop/cse/
As you’d expect from Google, CSE is a polished product with an extremely easy set-up procedure. It can also give you extra benefits if you combine its use with Google AdSense and Google Analytics. A major downside to CSE though is that it does not provide you with any control over the indexing of your site. Even with the paid-for version there is no guarantee that all your pages will ever get indexed and no way to schedule indexing. You essentially just get the results which Google serves up for your site on google.com. However, if you have a large site which is already well indexed by Google, the results produced can be better than those from other free search engines, since you benefit from Google’s ability to pull the most relevant results to the front of results sets. Also, a great benefit for not-for-profit organisations is that they don’t need to have ads on their results pages, even with the free version.

JRank

http://www.jrank.org/

Enables direct control over crawling schedule, customisation of results and the ability to divide your website search into “contexts”, groups which you can specify.

Freefind
http://www.freefind.com/
Offers almost all the features in its paid-for version in its free edition, including no fixed page limit (although the size of site supported is limited to 64MB of HTML).

SiteLevel Basic

http://sitelevel.whatuseek.com

Includes reporting features, the ability to configure how relevancy is determined and customisable results screens. You get weekly automated re-indexing with the free siteLevel Basic service. The (paid-for) Pro version has daily automated re-indexing. You can also specify categories within your site for more targeted searching.

Atomz
http://www.atomz.com
Includes customizable search results pages, control over indexing and search statistics. Indexes up to 10,000 pages and supports multiple languages.

Rollyo

http://rollyo.com

As with Google CSE, you can set this up to search across several sites. Unlike with CSE, or most other free solutions listed here, the results have to appear on Rollyo’s site rather than your own and you can’t customise the way they look. Includes neat social networking features which differentiate it from other solutions.

picosearch

http://www.picosearch.com

The free version offers some customisation of search results as against complete templating in the paid-for versions. The free version also has some control over indexing and indexes up to 250 pages – but only HTML and text, not PDF or Word.

FusionBot

http://www.fusionbot.com

FusionBot offers 5 different packages at different price points. The free package includes sitemap generation, search context control, the ability to create search regions/partitions and basic customisation of results pages. The free version does not index PDF or Word files or highlight key words.