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on August 8, 1999
When Jared Spool's Web Site Usability: A Designer's Guide was published, I was so interested that I packed it as carry-on reading for my vacation. I had found very few published accounts of empirical studies of web usability issues, and was anxious to compare notes with a fellow professional's web research methods and findings. The book is a quick read, so by the time the plane landed, I was thoroughly disappointed. Mr. Spool sets high expectations in the early pages with these three humble claims: that his book presents "groundbreaking research on web site usability;" that this research "provides actual data - not opinions - about what makes web sites usable;" and that his results are "really cool scientific findings." But the book fails on all three counts.
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: " 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.
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on October 3, 1999
This book is a very poor attempt to provide advice on designing web sites. Right up front you should note that although this book has a publication date of 1999, the research was done in 1996. In Internet time that is a lifetime ago. A typical user in 1999-2000 is much more experienced using the internet than a user from 1996.
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.
0Comment77 of 83 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on February 1, 1999
One of my challenges in dealing with clients is convincing them that design solutions for one medium rarely apply to another. Imagine trying to make a bicycle frame out of wood using the same design you'd use for steel. It's quite possible to have a wooden frame, but they look *nothing* like the steel frame.
"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.
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on November 14, 2000
This book is useful if:
1. You are involved in designing a site that is solely information-oriented.
2. You want a counter-point to Jakob Nielsen, who really has some helpful information.
3. You have a boss who doesn't know anything about the web and you want back-up documentation for your decisions.

Otherwise, this book has the following weaknesses:
1. Too many questions are asked with the answer being "we do not know why" and too many sentences beginning: "we believe, but do not know"
2. The goal was too specific: how well do users find information. This leaves out any websites designed for casual use, 'browsing', or entertainment.
3. The authors keep comparing apples to oranges. They do not usually take into account that some sites might have done better due to the type of content rather than the architecture or design.
4. There is no credence given to learned behavior (which, admittedly, Nielsen also gives short shrift).
5. It's just a TAD obvious. For example, "The better users could predict where a link would lead, the more successful they were in finding information." Well, uh, duh.
6. I don't agree with the model of testing. Users were given 4 questions they were to answer on each of 10 existing sites. Hypotheses were created from the results. However, none of the sites were amended to specifically address these hypotheses (unless, through some coincidence, the sites were updated during the process, and even then there was little before/after comparison).
7. The authors keep stressing throughout the entire book that web site usability differs from software usability. However, not once did they step back and think "maybe web site usability TESTING differs from software usability testing."
While Jared Spool is a great speaker (having seen him in person, I was very impressed with his humor and intelligence), this book leaves a lot to be desired.
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on April 26, 2000
As a long-time web developer and interface designer, I liked this book a lot. It challenges a lot of the assumptions (dogma?) of the web "design" community by taking the approach that end-users are the ones who have the most to tell us about good and bad design, not creative directors.
I had a recent experience with a designer who was invited to observe a focus group of prospective users of a large commercial real estate she had designed. She declined the invitation to attend with the following statement: "I have no need to know what people think of the design. I designed it with a specific purpose in mind, and I believe I achieved my goal. What could I learn?"
What arrogance! Well, guess what folks? The users testing the site found it confusing, hard to navigate, difficult to search, and therefore not something they'd be likely to use. I guess if her purpose was to drive people to better sites, she succeeded.
I've used techniques similar to the ones described in this book to test sites I've designed. They work! It's not always fun to hear users tell you what you've created is clumsy, confusing or downright stupid, but if you don't listen to your users and design for them, you are doomed! Don't be like the designer I mentioned above, read this book and learn something. Your sites will be better, and your users will thank you for it.
0Comment31 of 35 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
A useful book, if only because it challenges some shibboleths of design - for example, their conclusion that graphics have no measurable impact, adverse or otherwise, on site usability. They unfortunately offer up such gems ( and there are some very thought-provoking conclusions they reach) with insufficient methodological rigour to convince me that the conclusion is justified from the data.
I would dearly have liked to have known some demographic info about their sample of test subject - or even the sample size, which remains a complete mystery.
Other reviewers have pointed to the poor layout and design standards and I have to agree. It reads and looks like a corporate-commissioned report puffed up into a book-like object.
Notwithstanding all of the above reservations, I still rate this highly for its attempt, however flawed, to bring some numbers to bear on the mythology of web design and also for turning some conventions on their heads - even if we only end up admiring them better from that angle!
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on April 2, 2001
I appreciate the research of Jared Spool et al at User Interface Engineering, and have consulted it often as I review and design user interface elements. I will, no doubt, do the same with this book. It helps that I've been a longtime fan of the site, which was part of the research this book reports. Now my gut feeling about that site's good usability is backed up by a usability-study report.
But wait! has been redesigned since 1997, which is when this usability study took place. So have most, if not all, of the other sites. This book's screen shots of the sites in the study make the book look like a museum of the 1997 World Wide Web. These sites actually look quaint!
I wonder whether this book's findings have decayed and have become less useful. My concern is not stopping me from using this book as a reference tool, but I do reserve some skepticism in applying its results.
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on September 8, 2002
As a report on a major usability study this one is probably pivotal and I would recommend it to anyone involved in delivering a commercial web presence.
Jared Spool and the UIE team discovered many new things in the studies this book is about. Up to the point of publication, web usability and general usability were closely equated, and not just the test methodology. But Spool's studies find unpredictable users surprising our preconceptions at every turn.
Some may say that the book contains too many questions, but when Spool admits "we don't really know what makes a site usable" he is reflecting the number of surprises his studies unearthed.
As for the causes of those surprises... the studies were performed as 'comparison tests' between sites that fulfilled wholly different purposes.... between (for example) Disney and Edmunds (car facts)... it may be invalid to compare usability between sites even if they are in the same domain, however, let alone when they are so diverse. For it may be a usability test can only identify weaknesses, not strengths. Perhaps that's why Spool says we don't know how to design for usability.
One possible weakness of the tests was that they were designed as 'scavenger hunts.' This is still very common, however, and only by studying the results of this book is one led to suspect that this approach generates an overly-directed browsing behaviour, and thereore measures only a subset of real web visitors utilising only a subset of possible tasks, which are not a proxy for general usability.
If you only read three books on web usability, this should be one of them.... Essential.
0Comment7 of 9 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
The value of this book is that it makes a strong case for thinking in navigation terms when constructing web sites. The content is about how people succeed or fail, when they try to find information , on web pages. It uses real web sites as examples and explains how users rated them. The section on how to regard images and animation is crucial information for beginners to web design. The authors' scientific approach to evidence is honest. If they feel that interpretation is uncertain they say so. Overall, the book contains solid workable solutions for building effective and sensible web pages. I would recommend this book to anybody who is thinking of putting up a web site and is not sure of what approach to take.
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on April 2, 2002
I found this book to be quite helpful in preparation for designing a website. Since the website I am designing is strictly informational in nature, I learned many new concepts not only about the basics of a good informational site, but also about the “cruising” habits of web readers.
The book is a quick read and I took many notes, but the important thing that I gleaned from this book was how to make my site informational, easy to navigate through and what works and does not work as far as design and color are concerned. As a cruiser myself, I know what bores me, irritates me, frustrates ma and what appeals to me when I am on a mission to find information and when I want to find it fast. The information contained in this little was quite valuable in that regard.
This is NOT a book about design and the use of color, etc., but instead a book about making a site usable to the “cruiser” and then giving you, the reader, the information on how to attract users to your site, so that they won’t get irritated or frustrated. Admit it, we all have been to those sites!!
I think one might be surprised when reading this book, that color, tons of pictures and graphics are not key elements in an informational website, and our preconceived notions will quickly be laid to rest!
Very good book for a “newbie” starting out on the road to web-design as well as seasoned designers.
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