Web Bloopers, Jeff Johnson

Morgan Kaufmann, 2003, 329 pages, C$75.00 tpb, ISBN 1-55860-840-0

As someone with more than a passing interest in web design (I know enough about what I don’t know enough to avoid calling myself a “web designer”), any book that wants to tell me what I shouldn’t do will be met with a mixture of eagerness and wariness: Yay for the hints and tricks, but really, who are you to tell me what to do?

For Web Bloopers, usability expert Jeff Johnson scoured the web for examples of bad design and collected the worst examples. Government sites, educational sites, even commercial sites are all implacably dissected for lousy usability features in sixty “common web design mistakes”, themselves split in three parts (“Content and functionality”, “User Interface” and “Presentation”) and eight chapters. Aside from the mandatory screen-shots, Johnson describes and dissects the bloopers in detail, then presents solutions to avoid them. Most of the examples are illustrations of things to avoid, but some others are highlighted as best practises worth emulating.

Like most technical books destined to a professional audience, this one doesn’t come cheaply at nearly 75 Canadian dollars. But the flip-side is that few expenses have been spared to give the book a generous design. There are enough illustrations in here to satisfy even the most demanding readers. (Though the accompanying text often tends to run ahead of the illustrating material) The layout is free enough to accommodate illustrations, annotations, cartoons, footnotes and very generous amounts of text.

Perhaps too much text, in fact. Johnson has a tendency to repeat material and describe things in too much detail. His straightforward writing style works well when comes the time to present straight-up information, but it’s a fair thing to say that no-one will read this book for the style alone. Furthermore, the solutions he offers to solve the mistakes he describes are often implicit in the description of the problem. A lot of them simply boil down to “don’t do this”, which is a bit useless after an entire page of “this is not right because…”

Now don’t get the wrong impression: “Too much detail” is a very minor sin in the litany of problems a technical book can suffer from. While Web Bloopers doesn’t have the same density of information-per-square-inch as Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!, not everyone can be Steve Krug. (Nor can everyone get Steve Krug to pen the foreword to their book, as Johnson has been able to do here.) If you assume that the book will more frequently be read by non-technical web managers rather than actual webmasters, the repetition almost becomes essential.

As someone with a fair bit of web design experience, it was almost inevitable that I would have objections to some of Johnson’s “bloopers”. Non-standard link colours (#53), for instance, aren’t always a mistake; well-used, they can be a boon to the site’s design. (But a cursory recognition of this is included ) Redundant navigation schemes (#16) can, once again, be immensely helpful when properly used. Johnson’s perspective may be influenced by his experience in application GUI design; the web is evolving its own usability standards, and those often run at odds with the “usual” common wisdom. Then you have to consider the target audience of Web Bloopers, more likely corporate web managers than independent web designers willing to push the envelope and purposefully break rules.

But a few disagreements here and there shouldn’t be interpreted as a dislike of the whole book: By and large, Johnston succeeds in presenting an invaluable collection of web design mistakes to avoid. The web would be a much better place if the principles of the book could be drilled into the heads of those wacky webmasters poisoning the experience for all of us. Yours truly included.

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