(In theaters, April 2002) A line of dialogue in this film essentially states that “it’s a terrible thing to let children play with such wondrous technology”, and that pretty much sums up my own feelings about Clockstoppers. When such cool effects as virtual cameras are used to prop up an average teen science-fiction film, well, there is a tangible impression of waste. It’s not as if it’s a bad film, mind you: Jesse Bradford does a good job as the lead (though he’s not nearly as cool as in Bring It On) and Paula Garcés is fine to look at (though older than her character by nearly a decade, to the delight of post-teen males in the audience). It’s just that the script makes no attempt at being anything more than simply a science-fiction film for teens. Some of the antics are juvenile, the romance feels contrived and artificial, the enemies are too caricatured to be believable and, well, everything seems so intentionally aimed for teens that it loses the rest of the audience. The “logic” of hypertime is shakily established, and then carelessly broken time and time again. (The DJing sequence is particularly painful to watch) Naturally, the special effects are a lot of fun (though you can see most of them in the trailer) and done with a certain amount of skill. Too bad that they serve such a forgettable script.
(In theaters, April 2002) The trailers will try to sell you a black-versus-white story of a poor family man being unjustly tormented by a rich young lawyer. But that’s not quite the story of Changing Lanes, which proves to be more complex than that. Our young rich lawyer (Ben Affleck, in a rather good role) proves to be the protagonist with the most to learn. Our middle-aged family man (Samuel L. Jackson, also quite good) turns to be a walking ball of barely-repressed anger. Neither is particularly sympathetic, and that proves to be one of the film’s weaknesses. Changing Lanes proves to be curiously tepid, as the quasi-juvenile war of dirty tricks between both rages on for a full day. The awful coincidences propelling the plot forward, the contrived situations manipulated by the screen writer and the all-too-sugary conclusion are also sore points. On the plus side, though, there’s a great confrontation between Affleck and Sidney Poitier, an unconventional battle of characters and an attempt at social reflection on the meaning of civilized behaviour. Unfortunately, the film stumbles as many times as it advances, and the end result is merely so-so.
New Riders, 2000, 195 pages, C$52.95 tpb, ISBN 0-7897-2310-7
Good web design is a blend of science, art and experience that isn’t properly appreciated by most people, including many web designers themselves. Not only do web sites have to look good and use technology effectively, they also have to serve some of the most bug-ridden hardware ever conceived: humans.
Web design is merely the latest offshoot of usability, a field with a long and illustrious history. Ever since someone has mass-marketed something for others, human/machine interaction, ergonomics, interface conception and pleasant design have found an essential place in industry. The challenge of the web is that now everyone with a text editor and an image-manipulation program has to care about usability. But whereas car manufacturer wouldn’t dream of releasing a car without expensive input from ergonomics specialists, companies often unaccountably entrust their financial future to HTML weenies without an inkling of interest in human factors.
Web-usability guru Jakob Nielsen has made a name for himself by becoming an expert at pointing out other people’s web boo-boos. His best-known book, Designing Web Usability is well-worth its cover price for any serious webmaster. But he’s not the only guru in cybertown, and that’s why Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think! is definitely worth a look.
From the deliberately provocative title onward, Krug’s book is refreshingly breezy. Light, funny and to the point, Don’t Make Me Think! is, as the sub-title indicates, a non-nonsense primer. Written by a professional for a wide audience, Think! is neither too technical nor too abstract, striking a balance between all the different parties -and requirements- involved in building a good web site. The top-level view of web design is also a refreshing change after once too many nuts-and-bolts HTML reference guides.
It’s a short book (under 200 pages!), but don’t be fooled by the size: Every page counts and Krug practices his own precepts (“Happy talk must die”, “Omit -needless- words”, etc.) with ruthless efficiency. Don’t Make me Think! is cleverly illustrated and the book’s layout is exemplary in a technical field where embarrassing mistakes have been committed in the past. (Again, refer to Nielsen’s book) This is a book written and designed in such a way that you’ll rush through an initial read, but re-read again and again in order to refresh your memory.
Krug’s main bugaboos are worth repeating; Don’t make users think (guide their eyes, guide their minds and eventually they will discover the rest for themselves), be succinct (cut every word that doesn’t deserve to be there), include good navigation (often simply offering multiple ways of getting to what they want) and test-test-test! (Even cheap user testing -explained here- is better than no testing at all)
There is a lot for everyone in Don’t Make me Think!, from the technician to the CEO. Usability testing won’t be of interest to the techy-in-a-cubicle, but the how-users-think should be sufficient to avoid the worst mistakes. As if to assuage guilt, Krug gently uses real-world examples in how good designs can be improved even further.
Combining great advice with a compulsively-readable writing style, Don’t Make Me Think! ranks up there with Nielsen’s Designing Web Usability as one of the few dead-paper resources worth owning by pro web designers. Read it once, and then keep it close.