Website Owner's Manual
By Michael Ross
This book review was published by Slashdot, 2009-12-21.
Experienced Web designers and developers will readily admit that the most challenging aspect of their professions is not the technical work itself, nor learning the tools of the trade, but rather dealing with clients. Within that area, the most frustrating type of work — aside from the ever-joyless chore of collecting on invoices — is getting (non-technical) clients to understand the possibilities and limitations of Web technologies, design decisions, and all the other factors that can make or break a website project, as well as the site itself. Yet this process can be just as unhappy, and far more confusing, to prospective site owners, who typically are quite knowledgeable of their own fields, but have little to no understanding of how best to ensure the success of any website project they sponsor. Aiming to bridge this gap, is the appropriately-titled Website Owner's Manual.
This book was written by Paul Boag, a veteran Web designer and the Creative Director of Headscape, a British design agency. He speaks at industry events, writes articles for various Web design publications, and cohosts Boagworld, "the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing, and running websites on a daily basis." The book was published on 1 December 2009 by Manning Publications, under the ISBN 978-1933988450. The publisher makes available a Web page for the book, where visitors can order print or electronic versions (purchasing the former entitles one to the latter), read the ancillary portions of the book (the table of contents, the index, etc.), read some reviewers' comments, and download two sample chapters for free: "Chapter 1: The secret to a successful website" and "Chapter 7: Ensuring access for all".
Spanning 296 pages, the book's material is grouped into twelve chapters, covering the following topics: the role and challenges of a website owner; planning a site development project; crafting a project brief, and choosing the team to implement it; how to work with a designer and understand design basics; optimal website content; site usability and testing; site accessibility, and what can undermine it; content management systems; an overview of the Web, browsers, and hosting; online and off-line promotion, including search engine optimization and marketing performance; how to develop your site into an online community, and the many benefits of doing so; preparing your website for the future. The dozen chapters can be thought of as forming three parts, although they are not formally labeled as such.
The book's first chapter is titled "The secret to a successful website", which is also the book's subtitle — at least, as shown on the cover, but oddly not on the title page. It is a poorly chosen chapter title, partly because the author repudiates it on the first page, and partly because it suggests that there is but one element to a successful website, and it is being kept a secret. (One can only hope that the publisher's marketing department is not planning on keeping it a secret.). Fortunately, the silly title does not reflect the chapter's content, which may be brief, but offers sensible advice to any business owner who decides that she needs a new website, or works within an organization and has been given that role. The reader is warned of the dangers of information overload, specialization in only one area of site ownership, and the common failure to comprehend the critical responsibilities of that role: balancing conflicting priorities, defining the role, and planning for the future. This chapter, like all that follow, concludes with a "Next actions" section, containing several tasks that the reader is advised to implement, in order to get the most benefit from the chapter's recommendations.
Chapter 2, titled "Stress-free planning", explores several ways that a website owner can proactively lay the groundwork for a successful Web project: understanding the objectives of an entirely new site or changes to a legacy one, and the organization as a whole; consulting with stakeholders; developing criteria for success; obtaining feedback on an existing site, if any, as well as the competition's sites; and understanding the site's future audience, and representing them in the form of personas. The author posits that this information forms a prerequisite for writing a site brief and assembling "The perfect team", which is the title of the third chapter. He begins by listing the major advantages of either using an internal Web team or outsourcing to an external agency, or choosing a combination thereof (an option that far too many business owners fail to consider, even when it may be the ideal choice). Perhaps one of the most valuable sections of the book is the discussion on how to create an effective brief, and the reasons for doing so even for small and/or internally sourced projects. However, readers may be confused by the assertion on page 49 that revenue can be estimated from profits, when in fact profits are calculated from revenues (less expenses). The chapter concludes with some excellent advice on how to choose the ideal outside team to complete one's Web project, if one has decided to outsource the work.
The second part of the book begins with the fourth chapter, and presupposes that the reader has created a brief and a statement of work, selected a team to implement the latter, and everyone involved has attended a kickoff meeting. Now begins the critical phase of site design, and the author provides sound recommendations on how to avoid some of the most common Web design pitfalls: neglecting the target audience, failing to test the design, designing by committee or on-the-fly, micromanaging the design decisions, overloading the site's homepage, and settling for a corporate brand or page layout that ill-serves the site user and thus the organization. The chapter concludes with discussion of some key topics in the design world: the user's screen resolution, the fold, and the three options for page layout (fixed, fluid, and elastic). Chapter 5 delves into "Creating killer content" — specifically, the importance of context, brevity, logical and user-centric information architecture (through card sorting and use cases), and text that is engaging and easy to read.
In Chapter 6, the author examines a number of aspects of user testing: costs and benefits thereof, techniques for dramatically reducing the former while maximizing the latter, the selection of test subjects, and how best to run usability test sessions and then capitalize on the results in order to hone the website before and during its design. The subsequent chapter — which covers website accessibility — shares common ground with user testing, in some respects, because site testing is an effective post-development strategy to discover accessibility problems. Yet this should be supplemented proactively with an adequate understanding of how to make one's site accessible using standards-based design and coding. The author makes clear the many advantages of separating presentation from content, and of maximizing a site's accessibility — largely by building upon said separation. However, his advice to website owners to read and understand the WCAG 2 guidelines is arguably unrealistic, given that those specifications are admittedly "extensive and highly technical in places"; all clients in my experience would dismiss the suggestion immediately.
Mentioned earlier in the book — as a potential tool for creating a wireframe of a site — content management systems (CMSs) take center stage in Chapter 8, which explores their advantages and disadvantages. One of the criticisms leveled at CMSs — that they reduce site quality by allowing greater user input — is unfair, since a hand-coded, non-CMS site could only allow similar user input with far greater risk (imagine non-technical employees butchering HTML files by editing them in word processors!). Nevertheless, the issues raised by the author definitely need to be considered by anyone planning a CMS-based website. When researching and comparing available CMSs, a business person planning a new site will encounter a plethora of technical terms, many of which are explained in Chapter 9, titled "Decoding technobabble". Yet these terms are just as likely to be encountered during the phases discussed in the book's earlier chapters, and thus this material should have been placed at the beginning of the book, with the suggestion that tech-savvy readers could skip over it; or, the chapter could have been made an appendix, with a similar message at the beginning of the book, pointing to the appendix for those unsure of Web terminology. The only glaring mistake is the statement that "the web consists of a vast network of computers spread across the globe"; that's not the Web, but rather the Internet. Nevertheless, the author's lucid introduction to Web technologies and terms could be a real help to non-technical readers.
The last three chapters can be thought of as the post-launch part of the book, because at this stage in the process, the website owner has completed the build phase, and is now ready to begin increasing the popularity and usage of the site. Chapter 10, titled "Driving traffic", explains the pitfalls and best practices in trying to promote one's site using search engines, social media, and other methods of reaching an audience and measuring the results. The material serves as a decent introduction to the topics, including a brief overview of Google AdWords (although it incorrectly states that AdWords prices start at $.10 per click, when in fact it is one cent). The next chapter explores what is involved in building a vibrant community online, as well as the costs and benefits of doing so. The final chapter, "Planning for the future", begins by warning against the wasteful but common practice of organizations commissioning brand new websites every few years, to replace the previous ones that fell into neglect, oftentimes because the website owner failed to maintain a strong relationship with the site designer. The bulk of the chapter explores emerging trends in the Web world, such as rich media, Web services, and mobile devices.
The book concludes with an index that is quite complete — a characteristic now rarely seen in programming books. Credit should also be given for the neat format and indentation of the table of contents, which facilitates quick scanning.
The text is interspersed with some screenshots, graphs, and, most welcome of all, cartoons that reflect the author's sense of humor and illustrate the conflicts and misunderstandings that can arise during site development and maintenance. All of the screenshots and other technical illustrations are well captioned, except for the one on page 33, which contains an extraneous space after the "link:", and would be baffling if taken at face value, without examining the Google Search screenshot. Sadly reflecting our era of texting and grammatical sloppiness, the chapter titles are not presented in title case, but instead in sentence case — which is especially confusing when they are embedded within sentences in the text. On several pages (45, 60, 86, 91, 102, 140, 185, 186, 209-211, etc.) at least one paragraph contains an errant newline character or is missing an indentation of a paragraph. In general, the production quality of the book does not match the value of the information.
First editions of technical books are usually riddled with errata, and this one is no exception: "Aesthetics refer[s]" (page 5), "principle" (should read "principal"; page 6), "We respects" (page 7, in the form), "site [owner] considers" (9), "Planning give" (16), "possible accessibility problem[s]" (30), "us the web" (37), "she is gives" (37), "a internal" (45), "amazon.com" (47, twice), "suitable [ones]" (48), "are [a] number" (56), "Recommenede" (56), "a RSS" (73), "Resolution affect[s]" (82), "branding and designs" (86), "Pages... needs" (91), "to[o] hard" (94), "This techniques" (95), "can't achieved" (96), "was" (should read "were"; 102 and elsewhere), "content stand out" (104), "Using" (should read "Use"; 104), "on the identifying," (105), "used. and" (111), "longer that than" (115), "This also it" (118), "a certainly level across" (141), "approach take" (141), "JavaS-cript" (143), "then if" (147), "Wordpress" (157), "pervious version" (no joke!; 161), "a enterprise" (161), "open [a] web browser" (173), "photo book" (should read "phonebook"; 173), "than are" (should read "that are"; 175), "in obscure language" (178), and at that point I gave up and stopped recording them. Given the modest length of this book, there are far too many errors such as these.
Readers will likely find that there are two major weaknesses in this book: Firstly, some of the discussion, especially in the first half, is a bit too high level, at times almost like an outline for a meatier discussion — one encompassing more specific information as to how the reader could implement and measure the principles provided. Similarly, because many of the suggestions are fairly general, they would greatly benefit from more examples — either contrived or, even better, real world occurrences — perhaps from Headscape's past projects, with names changed if needed. These could demonstrate the key ideas, and make it easier for readers to see the truth of those ideas in their own past experiences, and then apply them in the future. Fortunately, the book does employee several hypothetical case studies that are incorporated into the narrative, at various points; those are helpful, as are the screenshots that illustrate violations of design best practices.
Secondly, and more importantly, almost no advice is given as to what to do when things go wrong. What can the website owner do when an external design agency begins missing deadlines, but appears to be making an honest effort? What can be done when interdepartmental bickering threatens to sink the specifications process? These and other critical topics are not addressed. (Readers undoubtedly could think of other common scenarios.) It would have been terrific had the author shared hard-won lessons gleaned from his background and those of his colleagues, as well as what methods they found to be effective in squelching those crises, and which ones proved ineffective, and why. Those case studies alone would most likely have been worth the price of the book — again, with no need to disclose the names of the participants. Perhaps there would prove to be enough material to make for a second book.
The writing style can be described using Web design terms: fluid and accessible — although there are some run-on sentences from a lack of well-placed commas. The author explains the topics in a straightforward manner, without the assumptions and jargon that undermine communication between Web experts and non-technical businesspeople. This is one reason why this book should be of value not only to people responsible for websites in organizations of all sizes, but also to designers, developers, user interface specialists, and all other Web professionals who communicate with project managers and end-users.
Website Owner's Manual is a valuable resource that benefits from the experience and insight of a veteran Web designer, and clearly presents guidelines that site managers can follow for maximizing the odds of successful site design, implementation, and maintenance.
Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
This book is available on Amazon