I recently reviewed Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Louis Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. While the book certainly provides excellent theory and background information about Web site development, I feel that it lacks the nitty-gritty details that are eventually required for the creation of a great Web site.
This isn't a slam, but I think that Rosenfeld and Morville's book is, well, stuffy at times. They were educated and trained as librarians, and their writing is as crisp and clean as their background would imply. The book is great, but it is also conservative and occasionally aloof.
In contrast, Web Pages That Suck, by Vincent Flanders and Michael Willis, knocked my socks off because it is so zany and offbeat. The title alone evokes an image of witty, creative fun. The book is an adventuresome roller-coaster ride, based on their popular Web site www.WebPagesThatSuck.com. If you visit the site you'll notice that it visually hits you over the head, and its design is not entirely conventional. Furthermore, the site violates all kinds of design principles. For example, virtually everyone that I have asked about the site says the same thing -- Flanders and Willis use frames way too much, especially on the pages with examples.
In my opinion, Flanders and Willis were brave souls to trust that their offbeat style would successfully carry over to print. Yet, it is hard to deny that the approach works. I would even be roused to say that the book is superior and far more handy than the Web site. While they basically have the same content, the book is much more user-friendly. Accessing and understanding the information is easier because it is better organized. The bottom line is that the content of the book is excellent, and the authors' offbeat style makes the book enjoyable.
Judging from their cover art and photographs, you might think that the authors are morons. You would be quite wrong. They aren't morons, they're oxymorons -- they look and sound like nutty, capitalistic hippies. And that's fine. They wallow in the fact that they are Internet rebels and I greatly enjoy their bizarre style. The result of their bold approach is ridiculous but purposeful.
What Do You Really Get From These Guys?
Given the authors' personalities, it does not shock me that the book's writing is absolutely dreadful at times. I feel that the somewhat erratic writing and design of the Web site was allowed into the book, when it should have been edited out. The editing makes me dizzy, the authors often use choppy sentences, and they can be downright annoying. But, they have such helpful tips and they are so far over the top that I can't help but enjoy their book. They offer just enough theory about Web site development to get you by, and then they hit you over the head with a gazillion hints and tricks.
From the standpoint of usability and human factors, Flanders and Willis make a solid attempt to focus on the users of a site. They understand that users come first and I feel that they developed their book with this critical fact in mind. Even though they sometimes hop from unrelated idea to unrelated idea, they consistently make you think about how to keep the focus on your users. You won't get hand-fed too many step-by-step, logical design principles. However, if you are willing to mine the book for tips and tricks, you will certainly be able to make your site more usable and useful.
Here is a sampling of the topics that they effectively cover:
- Knowing the purpose of your site
- Understanding your audience (i.e., your users)
- Designing navigational systems
- Developing content
- Designing graphics and understanding typography and color schemes
- Understanding search engines and Web site promotion
When I say that they cover these topics, I'm not kidding. They give you URL after URL. Furthermore, virtually all of their recommended sites were good, for all the right reasons. They give you a problem, then they solve it. They give you just enough details to let you understand what is relevant, and then they move on.
They also provide all kinds of examples. Without exaggeration, about 95% of the pages contain some kind of picture, diagram, or visual cue. And it isn't trash, it's good stuff. The downside, not surprisingly, is that they don't explain enough. At times, they even talk about completely irrelevant things.
Unfortunately, they tend to focus on Web pages rather than Web sites. Too bad. It would have been much better if they took a more global view of Web development. This is a great place to say that I think that Information Architecture for the World Wide Web is a great foil to Web Pages That Suck. You should use both at the same time so that you get a balanced dose of Web site design advice.
Supposedly, Web Pages That Suck is based on the idea that you can learn good design by looking at bad design. I don't buy that idea at all. Indeed, even the authors readily admit that their book primarily looks at Web sites that are pretty good, but have some minor problems. The result is that Web Pages That Suck has very few bad examples, and I think that you learn more that way. So, let's get the story straight. Flanders and Willis provide so many good examples that it is a crime to say that understanding bad design is the key to good design.
I fully recommend this book to most levels of Web site developers, information architects, and especially neophytes. As long as you can stomach the tackiness and poor editing of the book, you simply can't go wrong. The accompanying CD-ROM is good, the tips and tricks are excellent, and the overall content is vastly superior to other Web books of this ilk.
The bottom line is that Web Pages That Suck isn't a simple Web site development book. It is a nuts-and-bolts, do-it-yourself manual plastered with outstanding advice.--Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books