Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself

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Posted on: 03 February 2003


Cover of 'Usability - The Site Speaks For Itself'When my copy of Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself arrived in the post, I was immediately impressed with the quality of the book. Before I'd even read a word. Lusciously illustrated throughout with full colour screen grabs, I was immediately sucked in. But I'm getting ahead of myself here ...

This book covers six sites from different walks of life, from the corporate and highly-funded BBC News to the zero budget Metafilter community sites. In each of the six chapters, the people behind the sites talk about their approaches to achieving user satisfaction with their respective ventures. Although the first word in this book is 'Usability', the case studies are not heavy on User Centred Design strategies and such like. It's more a case of common sense approaches and honesty in the face of problems.

This is not, however, an accessibility book - so why is it reviewed here? Well, web accessibility is one part of the overall usability ethic, and each case study had to take this aspect into consideration. And after all, even if you do make a site accessible, and make it pass automatic tests (such as Bobby/Watchfire), that makes no difference if you have a site that is a pig to use. So, let's have a look at the chapters in more detail.Book Introduction by Molly Holzschlag

The book begins with a well-rounded introduction to usability - what it is, what it isn't and how the topic appears to have been hijacked by many practitioners of late. In this introduction you'll learn some of the history, find out who some of the movers and shakers in the field are (or were). However, perhaps the most important message to come from the introduction is that usability - or rather assessing your site's usability - is useless if you haven't done your homework about who your desired (or actual) audience is.

Chapter 1 - BBC News Online - from broadcast to web

I have to admit that I am an avid BBC News fan. Even on slow news days I must visit it a good four or five times. I have no set pattern - I crawl over the site, perhaps attracted by one of the graphics on the right hand side, perhaps a headline, or maybe I just fancy looking at a certain category and seeing what appears.

With around 300 new news stories appearing every day, the refresh button really gets put to work on this site. Given all this, the BBC News Online team make sure they don't do things by half. We learn about the team's project lifecycle, their attitude towards user testing (and how it forces designers not to be too precious about their work when Joe Idiot can't find the link that you think is so obvious - we've all been there, haven't we?).

We also discover how the site's huge popularity and growth can be a hindrance in some ways - mainly due to navigation, and people's familiarity with the site structure, which makes it extremely difficult to change without spawning numerous scathing e-mails from unhappy visitors (although they soon die down, and sometimes even prompt the people who hated a change to come back with compliments, reveals Head of Design Max Gadney).

All aspects of the site are covered, from the generic page design to the in-depth features, info-graphics and how audio and video is presented (and yet often ignored). We also learn about the Children's BBC site (CBBC) and how it deals very differently with the daily news content in presentation and tone. The sport section is also analysed and problems highlighted - much of it down to the similarity to the main BBC News page layout, and how inheriting that design constrains the sport team.

A very thorough chapter from an organisation that you would expect to be stuffy, but really the BBC team (News Online included) are ahead of many others in the game.

Chapter 2 - - design serving content

Oh dear, oh dear. There is a section in this chapter about where you can imagine the meeting. The collective senior management look at David Wertheimer, who has just decided to ditch (or park) some earlier designs pulled together by an external design house, and instead start from scratch on his own. But not pretty conceptual mock-ups in PhotoShop, no. We're talking first-cut HTML prototypes that David later describes as 'a train wreck'. You can imagine what they were thinking - "Why did we hire this guy?"

It's sections like this that make for really interesting reading - not just the sanitised 'we did this, it was great, you should too' approach, but the warts-and-all 'we did this, it didn't work - avoid it at all costs'. I like this honesty.The chapter really shows the evolution (including the blip mentioned above) of the site designs, all with their own code-names, and demonstrates how a US office can lead the design while a UK team looks after editorial, all working together in one happy virtual world.

The messages to take from this chapter: 'Don't do it alone' and 'Don't be afraid to delegate'.

Chapter 3 - - The World's Online Marketplace

Now here's a chapter that I was interested to read. Why? Because I actually don't much like the eBay look and feel and often felt in the past that the usability of the site was not all that great.

The chapter includes many screen shots detailing the site's evolution, and boy didn't it look basic back in 1995! The fact that it has been around this long seems to be part of the problem - nothing can be changed without serious thought, because while the changes may be for the better, there are so many users who are used to the site behaving a certain way and you really don't want to upset these people!

We learn about how testing boils down to pinning down three distinct types of user: the Newbies, the Buyers and the Sellers. Everything revolves around getting each aspect tailored for those users' needs. Scalability is also covered, and it's something that is demonstrated clearly in eBay's case - there are something like 18,000 categories now. How do you organise that lot? With careful consideration and rigorous testing - you don't ignore a user base of 42 million lightly!

The challenges of designing a site for an international audience is also covered, giving the example of the Japanese version of the site (in which the primary colours are muted - pastels are used instead as they seem to be preferred).

Chapter 4- SynFonts - Flash is 99% OK

For a moment I thought that this chapter covering was going to cover how a site was built entirely from Flash to be completely usable. However, as you should be aware, Flash is generally very harmful in terms of accessibility, and you won't find any advice about making it accessible here, unfortunately.

What you do get, however, is an insight into the trials and tribulations of getting a font-viewer tool to work and work really well. The issue is about how best to do this, and Don Synstelien discusses how he came to settle upon Flash, largely based on the number of people who already have the plug-in available to run the viewer.

The rest of the site is not, as I had incorrectly assumed, Flash-based, so the usual considerations about how to structure the page as a whole are considered. Numerous screen shots show how the viewer part developed over time, demonstrating the various different methods tried out for changing the font size, colour and so on. A very useful read for anyone considering building any kind of Flash widget in their site.

Chapter 5 - - Workers of the Web, evolt!

For anyone who thought that evolt was 'that place where they've got all the old browsers archived' - think again. is a great example of a community-driven site, and this chapter details how the site has been built with that in mind.

Adrian Roselli covers all the different sections of evolt, touching on aspects of designing for different screen resolutions, how to best use drop-down navigation, customisation options and printable pages. The key thing, though, is about how to involve users - how to get them submitting articles, rewarding users for commenting on articles and how to stop people's un-moderated postings blowing up carefully crafted page layouts.

Chapter 6 - - Adventures in Zero Budget Usability

Zero budget? That rings a bell! As with the previous chapter, this chapter majors on the community aspect of the site - it is a site that cannot exist without the members. However, unlike the previous chapters, there is a stronger focus on accessibility issues as Matt Haughey goes to great pains to demonstrate how the site performs equally well in simple text-based browsers as it does in fully-featured browsers, largely thanks to the great use of Cascading Style Sheets to style the pages.

Metafilter uses forms very effectively, and you will find numerous tips for making form input easier, more intuitive and accessible (hey, the <label> tag even gets a mention!)


This is a very well-presented book, in full colour and full of sensible advice. What makes it even better, from my point of view, is that the authors of each chapter are not afraid to hold their hands up and admit when they have got something wrong - problems are discussed rather than swept under the carpet, and this is incredibly useful. We all learn by our mistakes, and we are given opportunities to learn from others' mistakes too by reading this book.

For site usability, you don't just have to take Jakob's word for it - take it from a selection of people instead, from a variety of different backgrounds, and you'll find it a much more refreshing take on the subject.
Review by: Ian Lloyd, February 2003

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Title Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself
Publisher Glasshaus
Written by     Max Gadney, David Wertheimer, Kelly Braun, Don Synstelien, Adrian Roselli, Matt Haughey (Edited by Molly Holzschlag and Bruce Lawson)
ISBN 1-904151-03-5