Sunday, March 02, 2008

Book Review: "Web Usability For Dummies"

I've not read a lot of the "Dummies" series, but whenever I've picked one up, I've been impressed by the quality of the product. "Web Usability For Dummies" is no exception. In about 300 pages, the authors do a good job of laying the foundation for a solid understanding of the important aspects of usability. It looks like this book might be out of print now, but you can probably find a copy at your local library or via

What I particularly liked about this book was the focus the authors give to the Usability Design Cycle. This is a process that helps answer questions about designing for usability and is broken into six steps that are performed in an iterative fashion. The usability design cycle starts with "Study the user", then leads to "Set goals", "Design", "Build", "Test" and finally "Deliver product". It's truly a cycle since the process should be iterative, each part building upon the previous step. As the authors state in the beginning of the first chapter, there are many good books out there that focus on the "build" part, but not nearly enough on setting goals, designing or testing, which arguably are the most important. Thus, they make this the thrust of the book and why I think it's worth picking up.

Chapter 1 begins the book with an overview of what web usability is all about. This leads into a discussion about studying your users (the first part of the usability design cycle) in Chapter 2. Sharp readers will remember that Mary Beth and her team kicked off the whole Notes 8 project by doing this very thing...studying what the users of Lotus Notes wanted, how they interacted with the software, etc. While the focus of this book is clearly on web design for external websites, there are enough nuggets of information that you can use for internally driven sites or application design in general. I liked the section in Chapter 2 that dealt with actual customer visits. I think this is something more developers need to do and this part of the book might help you become a little more comfortable with the process.

Chapter 3 looks into the whys and wherefores of setting goals for your website. This includes issues such as determining what needs of your users you really want to meet, creating actual business goals, using metrics and setting goals for the site's usability. This chapter rounds out the first part of the book.

Part II of "Web Usability for Dummies" (Chapters 4-6) is all about the design of usable sites and includes topics such as organization and site navigation. Part III (Chapters 7-9) explores the concepts involved in creating usable web pages. Since this book is several years old, there are bits and pieces which aren't really relevant anymore, but as a whole the ideas are still pretty solid. If you're a Notes developer who is just interested in usability in general, you can probably skip these parts of the book, as they are pretty specific to the web.

The final parts of the book deals with "Reaching a Broad Audience" (Part IV, Chapters 10-12) and "The Part of Tens" (Part V, Chapters 13-16). Subjects touched on include broadening the appeal of your site as well and several nice lists such as Do's & Don'ts, ten cool tools for usability, etc. Chapters 11 & 12 are my favorites since they deal with (surprise, surprise) usability testing! The authors feel that this subject is important enough to warrant two chapters and this book is probably worth tracking down just for their advice on the matter.

When all is said and done, "Web Usability For Dummies" is a fun, quick read presented in the standard Dummies fashion. Experienced designers may not find a lot of new material here, but this book would serve as a great introduction to many of the important concepts in the field of usability. With used copies available on Amazon for as little as $3.20, it wouldn't be a bad investment to add this to your reading pile. While certain chapters may not directly pertain to the work you are doing, the first part and last part of the book provide a very compelling case for usability and are certainly worth the cost of admission.

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