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Introduction Read me first: Throat clearing and disclaimers

Introduction Read me first: Throat clearing and disclaimers

Is this trip really necessary?


When i started telling people that i was writing a book about how to do what I do, they all asked the same thing: “Aren’t you afraid of putting yourself out of a job?”

It’s true, I have a great job.

  • People (“clients”) send me proposed page designs for the new Web site they’re building or the URL of the existing site that they’re redesigning.

    New Home page design A

    New Home page design B

    Existing site

  • I look at the designs or use the site and figure out whether they’re easy enough to use (an “expert usability review”). Sometimes I pay other people to try to use the site while I watch (“usability testing”).[1]

    [1] ...not to be confused with “voyeurism.”

  • I write a report describing the problems that I found that are likely to cause users grief (“usability issues”) and suggesting possible solutions.[2]

    [2] Actually, this is one thing that has changed since the first edition. See Chapter 9 for the reason why I’ve pretty much stopped writing what I now refer to as the “big honking report.”

    A usability report

  • I work with the client’s Web design team to help them figure out how to fix the problems.

  • They pay me.

Being a consultant, I get to work on interesting projects with a lot of nice, smart people, and when we’re finished, the sites are better than when we started. I get to work at home most of the time and I don’t have to sit in mind-numbing meetings every day or deal with office politics. I get to say what I think, and people usually appreciate it. And I get paid well.

Believe me, I would not lightly jeopardize this way of life.[3]

[3] I have an even cushier job now. Since the book came out, I spend a lot of my time teaching workshops, where, unlike consulting, there’s no opportuntiy to procrastinate and no homework. At the end of the day, you’re done.

But the reality is there are so many Web sites in need of help—and so few people who do what I do—that barring a total collapse of the Internet boom,[4] there’s very little chance of my running out of work for years.

[4] The boom obviously turned to bust not long after I wrote this (late in 2000). Even so, there are probably more people working on usability now than there were then.

Suddenly a lot of people with little or no previous experience have been made responsible for big-budget projects that may determine the future of their companies, and they’re looking for people to tell them that they’re doing it right.

Graphic designers and developers find themselves responsible for designing interfaces—things like interaction design (what happens next when the user clicks) and information architecture (how everything is organized).

And most people don’t have the budget to hire a usability consultant to review their work—let alone have one around all the time.

I’m writing this book for people who can’t afford to hire (or rent) someone like me. I would hope that it’s also of value to people who work with a usability professional.

At the very least, I hope it can help you avoid some of the endless, circular religious Web design debates that seem to eat up so much time.

It’s not rocket surgery™

The good news is that much of what I do is just common sense, and anyone with some interest can learn to do it.

After all, usability really just means making sure that something works well: that a person of average (or even below average) ability and experience can use the thing—whether it’s a Web site, a fighter jet, or a revolving door—for its intended purpose without getting hopelessly frustrated.

Like a lot of common sense, though, it’s not necessarily obvious until after someone’s pointed it out to you.[5]

[5] ...which is one reason why my consulting business (actually just me and a few well-placed mirrors) is called Advanced Common Sense. “It’s not rocket surgery” is my corporate motto.

No question: if you can afford to, hire someone like me. But if you can’t, I hope this book will enable you to do it yourself (in your copious spare time).

Yes, it’s a thin book

I’ve worked hard to keep this book short—hopefully short enough you can read it on a long plane ride. I did this for two reasons:

  • If it’s short, it’s more likely to actually be used.[6] I’m writing for the people who are in the trenches—the designers, the developers, the site producers, the project managers, the marketing people, and the people who sign the checks, and for the one-man-band people who are doing it all themselves. Usability isn’t your life’s work, and you don’t have time for a long book.

    [6] There’s a good usability principle right there: if something requires a large investment of time—or looks like it will—it’s less likely to be used.

    [6] There’s a good usability principle right there: if something requires a large investment of time—or looks like it will—it’s less likely to be used.

  • You don’t need to know everything. As with any field, there’s a lot you could learn about usability. But unless you’re a usability professional, there’s a limit to how much is useful to learn.[7]

    [7] I’ve always liked the passage in A Study in Scarlet where Dr. Watson is shocked to learn that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t know that the earth travels around the sun. Given the finite capacity of the human brain, Holmes explains, he can’t afford to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones:

    “What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I find that the most valuable contributions I make to each project always come from keeping just a few key usability principles in mind. I think there’s a lot more leverage for most people in understanding these principles than in another laundry list of specific do’s and don’ts. I’ve tried to boil down the few things I think everybody involved in building Web sites should know.

Not present at time of photo

Just so you don’t waste your time looking for them, here are a few things you won’t find in this book:

  • “The truth” about the right way to design Web sites. I’ve been at this for a long time, long enough to know that there is no one “right” way to design Web sites. It’s a complicated process and the real answer to most of the questions that people ask me is “It depends.”[8] But I do think that there are a few useful guiding principles it always helps to have in mind, and those are what I’m trying to convey.

    [8] Jared Spool and his usability consulting cohorts at User Interface Engineering ( even have “It depends” T-shirts.

  • Discussion of business models. If history has taught us anything, it’s that Internet business models are like buses: If you miss one, all you have to do is wait a little while and another one will come along. I’m no expert when it comes to making money on the Web, and even if I were, whatever I had to say would probably be passé by the time you read it.

  • Predictions for the future of the Web. Your guess is as good as mine. The only thing I’m sure of is that (a) most of the predictions I hear are almost certainly wrong, and (b) the things that will turn out to be important will come as a surprise, even though in hindsight they’ll seem perfectly obvious.

  • Bad-mouthing of poorly designed sites. If you enjoy people poking fun at sites with obvious flaws, you’re reading the wrong book. Designing, building, and maintaining a great Web site isn’t easy. It’s like golf: a handful of ways to get the ball in the hole, a million ways not to. Anyone who gets it even half right has my admiration.

    As a result, you’ll find that the sites I use as examples tend to be excellent sites with minor flaws. I think you can learn more from looking at good sites than bad ones.

  • Examples from all kinds of sites. Most of the examples in the book are from e-commerce sites, but the principles I’m describing apply just as well to my next-door neighbor’s vanity page, your daughter’s soccer team’s site, or your company’s intranet. Including illustrations from all the different genres would have resulted in a much larger—and less useful book.

Who’s on first?

Throughout the book, I’ve tried to avoid constant references to “the user” and “users.” This is partly because of the tedium factor, but also to try to get you to think about your own experience as a Web user while you’re reading—something most of us tend to forget when we’ve got our Web design hats on. This has led to the following use of pronouns in this book:

  • “I” is me, the author. Sometimes it’s me the usability professional (“I tell my clients...”) and sometimes it’s me speaking as a Web user (“If I can’t find a Search button...”), but it’s always me.

  • “You” is you, the reader—someone who designs, builds, publishes, or pays the bills for a Web site.

  • “We” (“How we really use the Web”) is all Web users, which includes “you” and “I.”

I may sidestep these rules occasionally, but hopefully the context will always make it clear who I’m talking about.

Is this trip really necessary?

I could recite some of the usual awe-inspiring statistics about how many umpteen gazillion dollars will be left on the table this year by sites that don’t mind their usability P’s and Q’s.

But given that you’re already holding a book about usability in your hands, you probably don’t need me to tell you that usability matters. You know from your own experience as a Web user that paying attention to usability means less frustration and more satisfaction for your visitors, and a better chance that you’ll see them again.

I think my wife put her finger on the essence of it better than any statistic I’ve seen:

I hope this book will help you build a better site and—if you can skip a few design arguments—maybe even get home in time for dinner once in a while.

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