Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide is a report that every person involved in Web design, commerce, or online marketing will want to have. This book is, undoubtedly, the most comprehensive data demonstrating how Web sites actually work when users need specific answers. Researched and compiled by User Interface Engineering, the results are written in an easy to understand style, illustrating the need to make Web sites useful, not complicated.
* Based on an extensive study of actual users -- not theory, not graphic design principles, and not new tricks to make a "cool" Web sites
* Demonstrates how people actually navigate and extract information on Web sites
* Offers guidance for evaluating and improving the usability of Web sites
Because the authors neglect to describe their research methods up front, the first errors the reader will notice are problems of logic, definition of terms, and overgeneralizations based on limited observations. The first chapter presents a set of "major implications," each of which is meant to debunk some common-sense idea of web design; for example, Implication 1 is "Graphic Design Neither Helps Nor Hurts." However, the reader who tries to follow the logic behind the titillating assertions will find it mortally flawed. In this example, a little digging reveals a misunderstanding of the meaning of graphic design, which the authors interpret as the quantity of picture elements in a given web page or site. This misinterpretation leads them to conclude that if a site with few pictures (described as a "nearly 'design-free zone'") fares better with subjects than do other sites with many pictures, it is because graphic design is unimportant.
Some of the conclusions are directly contradicted by reported results. The authors conclude, for example, that "The more white-space there was on a site, the less successful users were at finding information." Yet Edmund's, which uses white space very effectively for visually separating the various informational categories, was ranked best for ease of finding information.
The research methodology is mentioned only very briefly, toward the end of the book. Even then, the little information offered is enough to raise serious questions about what is not revealed. Here is a sampling of the facts I could glean: The researchers did not consider the sites' intended audiences when selecting subjects to evaluate them. The sites examined were aimed at vastly differing audiences ranging from kids (Disney) to durable-goods comparison shoppers (Edmund's) to small business owners (Inc.). Yet a single group of subjects was chosen to represent all the sites' users in the testing.
Test tasks did not necessarily resemble likely end-user tasks, and the purposes of the sites were disregarded. Obviously, the effectiveness of a site should be evaluated in the context of the reasons for the site's existence. One site may be designed to facilitate the users' speedy navigation to information the user is seeking out, while another may intentionally divert users to certain pages to attempt to sell impulse items. It is not meaningful to compare these two types of sites on the same criteria.
The test data are a sloppy combination of between- and within-subject ratings. The authors explain that "...each [subject] tested as many web sites as possible in [the three-hour time allotment] (no [subject] tested all the sites)." The ratings tables do not include the number of observations used to calculate each "average" rating score. No variables were held constant across sites. Therefore, the reasons asserted for any differences between sites' ratings are strictly conjecture on the part of the researchers. Even more distressing than methodology described are the questions left unanswered. These include some as basic as: How many subjects participated in the testing? What incentives were used to motivate the subjects' participation? What were the demographics of the subjects?
The most valuable piece of information in this book is the one uncharacteristically candid remark tucked away in the Foreword: "...no one should accept our reasoning without question." Subtract the two final words of this statement, and you will have a pithy summary of my review.
None of the web sites that they used for their study look anything like what they did at the time of the study. In fact, they failed to get pictures of one of the web sites (from the 1996 Olympics) which was no longer available when they got around to writing this book. In most cases, the problems that were found at web sites were corrected long before the results of this research were produced which shows that this book may have been needed in 1996 but is useless today.
No information is given to us about the people who participated in the study. Were they novice users or well experienced in using the internet? We will never know. That information, however, can be critical when trying to design a web site. The study also examined one small part of usability of a web site. How easy was it for the participants in the study to find a particular piece of information at a particular web site? But is that really the only reason that we visit a web site? Is that the only aspect of usability? And does any of this mean anything when we don't know who the participants were?
In short, this book might have been somewhat useful had it been published in 1996 but it is useless and a complete waste of money in 1999.
"Web Site Usability" is excellent source of material for me when I'm trying to explain and/or justify differences in design approaches based on functional requirements. This book, which makes no pretense of being a comprehensive, academic review of theoretical methods instead presents a broad variety of *real world* attempts to solve web UI problems and then describes both the strong and weak points discovered. It is, if you will, a narrative approach to understanding the issues involved in usability design, and to a lesser extent, user interface design.
This narrative approach has proved far more helpful in dealing with the increasing numbers of non-technical folks who're being given the problem of creating interesting, usable, *and* attractive web sites than the typical academic approaches couched in jargon and steeped in rigid methodology.
Regardless of your degree of technical knowledge, reading this book will help you in establish a strong foundation for understanding usability in all its contexts.