Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications

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“ ‘Making the Web Work’ is an excellent read for someone making the transition from print design to web design and has the time to read and reflect on the content.”Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications” is a well-written, meaty book on the entire process of designing interactive websites from a user interface perspective. It should be commended for succinctly describing the entire user-centered design process, but at the same time chided for not focusing more specifically on web applications. A more concerned focus on guidance specific to web applications and a more specific focus on full-fledged web applications would have made this a more distinguishable item on the crowded user-centered design book shelf.

The book itself is structured into five sections. The three middle sections correlate to the three tiers of a visual model that Baxely uses as the framework for discussion of his approach to design. The visual model is similar to Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience (PDF)” diagram, though in Baxley’s case, there are three sections—Structure, Behavior, Presentation—each of which are comprised of three subsections, moving from Conceptual Model in the “Structure” tier all the way to Text in the “Presentation” tier.

Baxley’s writing style is simple and straightforward, casual enough to not be boring but direct enough to be authoritative. The structure of the book is clearly apparent, allowing the reader to skim, skip over familiar sections, or quickly refer back to sections if needed.

The first section—Foundations—is an excellent introduction to the fundamentals of interaction design. Anyone looking for a quick introduction to personas would be hard-pressed to find a better reference than Chapter 2, “Putting the User First.”

Section two—Structure—is broken down into Conceptual Model, Structural Model, and Organizational Model (Baxley’s preferred term for information architecture). While the information in the Structure section is certainly worthwhile and presented well, readers expecting to immediately dive in to web application design specifics may be disappointed.

There are plenty of other books that provide this same basic overview of the user-centered design process, and there is not a significant emphasis on how this information relates to web applications versus traditional websites. Baxley defines a web application as “a specific type of web site that implicitly and explicitly stores and manipulates data unique to each of its users. Put more succinctly, a Web application is software on the Web.” As examples of web applications, he mentions online stores, financial services, travel services, information portals, and online services.

The problem with Baxley’s definition is that it is exceedingly broad. True, a good percentage of sites incorporate these sorts of features, but simply having one interactive feature does not a web application make. If a web application is truly as Baxley defines it—any website that does not give the exact same data to user A that it gives to user B—then nearly all websites would be classified as web applications, and the terms “web application” and “website” would be synonymous.

Describing this book as pertaining to “web applications” implies that it discusses applications that allow users to perform tasks like email, stock trading, and photo sharing (which it does), but not websites that are merely “interactive” in one way or another. For example, readers may not expect to find online shopping (e.g., and portal personalization (e.g., myYahoo) defined as “web applications.” Perhaps some will see this as splitting hairs, but readers expecting information specific to intensive applications may be put off by the attention paid to ecommerce.

The discussion, additionally, could have benefited from more varied examples of web applications, rather than focusing on the aforementioned email, stock trading, photo sharing, and online commerce, since these are but a few of the large variety of web applications that may be developed by readers. An additional perspective could have been gained by discussing web applications that allow system administrators to monitor servers, enable employees to fill in timesheets, let users balance their checking accounts, or permit students to register for classes, just to cite a few examples.

It is not until halfway through the book that the information specific to web applications becomes apparent, and even then, only bits at a time. Chapter 7, “Viewing and Navigation,” focuses mainly on site-wide navigation, but near the end begins to focus on controls for sorting, filtering, and viewing data. Chapter 8 focuses on editing and manipulating data, and chapter 9 rounds out the Behavior tier by focusing on user assistance.

Part four—Presentation—discusses Layout, Style, and Text. Baxley manages to fit a large amount of useful tips and examples into a mere 64 pages, but one would think that a larger part of the book would have been devoted to this tier, since it is here that web applications are most easily distinguished from web non-applications from a visual and interactive standpoint.

The final section includes case studies on and Ofoto. Baxley analyzes these sites according to his three tiers and nine layers, providing useful descriptions and screenshots where necessary. The index, often thrown in to books at the end as a metaphorical afterthought, in this case is extremely well designed and readable. Kudos to indexer Cheryl Lemmens for closing the book on such a positive note.

While accurate overall, there are some minor inconsistencies that stand out. For example, he describes the merits and drawback of using the <ALT> tag for contextual help when he is really talking about the “title” attribute (p. 292), and uses as an example while discussing the merits of a hierarchical organizational system when it is actually facet-based (p. 186). These mistakes are neither common nor severe, but they are fairly noticeable in a book that otherwise should be commended for its fastidiousness.

From cover to cover, “Making the Web Work” weighs in at just over a hefty 470 pages. Though about half of each page is devoted to text, with the extra space used for notes and labels, it is still a lengthy read. It is an excellent resource for someone making the transition from print design to web design and who has the time to read and reflect on the content. Those looking for a shorter way to absorb the information would be well-served by only reading the concise and helpful summaries at the end of each chapter.

Those new to the field of user-centered design will find “Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications” most useful; intermediate or advanced practitioners looking for in-depth information specific to web applications may want to look elsewhere.

Read a sample chapter (Chapter8 – 1.6mb PDF)

  • Making the Web Work: Designing Effective Web Applications
  • Bob Baxley
  • New Riders, 2002
  • ISBN 0735711968
  • 474 pages
  • List price: $45.00
  • Target audience: Practicing designers, product marketers, software engineers
  • Chapters:
      Part I: Foundations

    1. Common Ground: Defining Web Applications and establishing the Goals of Design
    2. Putting the User First: Describing Target Users and Product Goals
    3. Deconstructing the Problem: Prioritizing and Categorizing Different Aspects of an Interface
    4. Part II: Tier 1, Structure

    5. The Conceptual Model: Selecting a Fundamental Motif
    6. The Structural Model: Understanding the Building Blocks of a Web Interface
    7. The Organizational Model: Organizing and Structuring Content and Functionality
    8. Part III: Tier 2, Behavior

    9. Viewing and Navigation: Creating Consistent Sorting, Filtering, and Navigation Behaviors
    10. Editing and Manipulation: Using HTML Input Controls to Accurately Capture Users’ Data
    11. User Assistance: Communicating with Users Through Help, Status, and Alerts
    12. Part IV: Tier 3, Presentation

    13. Layout: Positioning Elements to Maximize Understanding and Readability
    14. Style: Defining Visual Appearance
    15. Text and Labels: Writing for the Web and Calling Things by Their Right Names
    16. Part V: Case Studies

    17. Browsing the Aisles of the Web’s Supreme Retailer
    18. Ofoto: Looking at the Leading Online Photo Processor

Jeff Lash is a Usability Specialist and Information Architect at MasterCard International and writes the IAnything Goes column for Digital Web Magazine. He is also on the Leadership Council for the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture and is co-founder of the St. Louis Group for Information Architecture. His personal web site proudly has no IA-related information.

One comment

  1. Any recommendations for books dealing more directly with web application design than this one? Thanks!

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