Review: Where Search Meets Web Usability

Where Search Meets Web Usability is a practical guide to building  sites which are both search-engine friendly and easy to navigate around. Its selling point over other search engine optimisation books is its combination of SEO advice with tips and testing methods drawn from the discipline of web usability.

The book uses the concept of the ‘scent of information’ to put forward a unified theory of web-searching behaviour, which also draws heavily on a categorisation of query types into navigational, informational and transactional – categories which search engines use to anticipate the intent of a user’s search. These different query types are fully explored and there is also detailed coverage of how to estimate the benefits of search usability and how different types of web professional can work together to improve it. The final chapter contains a set of easy-to-employ usability tests for search usability which should be of real practical benefit when developing sites.

The authors are at their most interesting when looking at the limitations of the SEO and usability mindsets and advising how the two can learn from each other. Usability professionals are told to look more at how people get to web sites rather than just what they do when they get there. Stereotypical SEOers, on the other hand,  should spend more time considering whether users are satisfied when they get to a site rather than just concentrating on getting as many eyes on the page as possible. Usability types could take advantage of SEO keyword tools as a way of getting to understand the language employed by users, while SEO practitioners can benefit from speaking to actual users and employing usability testing to understand why their interaction with search engines and sites works out like it does.

Out of this clash of viewpoints, there’s some nice common-sense points made which you may not have seen argued before. For example, it’s explained why a high bounce rate could be a good thing in some circumstances – if people are getting what they want on the first page they visit. Equally, we see why a number one SERP rating can be a bad thing if it results in brand devaluation due to visitors not getting what they want out of the site when they find it.

So overall, its an interesting read and a refreshingly holistic view on a topic which feels like it’s been done to death recently.

When Search Meets Web Usability by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica is published by New Riders.

Related posts

Building Findable Websites by Aarron Walter is another very good book on SEO which also takes a wide view of the subject.

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.

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: 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.