Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself

Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself

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In: Reviews > Book Reviews

By James McNally

Published on November 29, 2002

image of Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself book cover

As Molly Holzschlag points out in the introduction, “This book exists to help web professionals gain perspective, not from the usability pundits that have popped up like so many mushrooms after rain, but from real practitioners.” Since the book warns readers they are entering a pundit-free zone, it makes for a less intimidating and more entertaining way to learn about usability.

What exactly is meant by the term usability? When it comes to the web, there is no common definition, but Holzschlag points out that three disciplines with longer histories than the web have come to contribute to an understanding:

  1. User Interface Design
  2. Human Computer Interaction
  3. Graphical User Interface Design

Each of these separate disciplines, informed by computer science and engineering as well as by design, have come together to create the amalgam referred to as “web usability.” Despite all the lofty-sounding terminology, a fast and dirty definition of Web usability is anything that helps visitors more easily use a site for its intended purpose. An important point made in the book’s introduction is that thinking about usability must be flexible, primarily because of the huge variety of users and platforms, but also because the technology is constantly changing.

The bulk of the book consists of chapters written by the creators of several different sites: two commerce sites (eBay and SynFonts); two content sites (BBC News and; and two community sites ( and MetaFilter). The creators discuss issues of usability, not in general terms, but in specifics. The challenges that faced them are unique to each site’s audience and purpose. I like the inclusion of two examples of each type of site. This avoids reducing the book to cookie-cutter methods for any particular type of site. Even within each category, widely different approaches were used and were successful.

Jakob Nielsen, in his online usability newsletter (, has condemned the use of Flash on websites as “99% bad.” Don Synstelien is either in the one percent left or else he is out to prove Nielsen wrong. Synstelien’s site, SynFonts, is Flash-based, and, far from being just a personal or portfolio site, is a commerce site that sells fonts directly to the user. This example is one of the most interesting chapters in the book.

SynFonts began in 1994 when Synstelien began selling his fonts through AOL, CompuServe, eWorld and local bulletin boards. By 1995, he had created a downloadable font catalogue using Macromedia’s Director software. During the next few years, Synstelien created and tweaked the SynFonts web site, experimenting with plug-in technology, including FutureSplash, the forerunner of Flash, but discoveres his users were “almost violently opposed” to having to download plug-ins. By late 2000, he redesigned again, this time using Flash to restore some of the interactivity of his earlier downloadable catalogues.

Since every user was not expected to have the proper plug-in, he designed multiple versions of the site (Flash 4 and 5, at the time, plus a non-Flash site), and he tested each of them on a variety of platforms and browsers. Synstelien involved many friends and family members at every stage in this process and found that it cut down on final testing when he was ready to launch. Although he couldn’t build the same functionality into every version, he was willing to compromise. For example, the heart of the site was a type browser built in Flash. Those with Flash 5 enjoyed full functionality; those with the Flash 4 plug-in couldn’t change the color of the text; and those without Flash were presented with simple images of the typefaces.

One of Synstelien’s strongest pieces of advice is to aim for liquid design rather than designing for one particular resolution or screen size. Visitors use different monitor resolutions and may also resize their browser window.

At the end of the chapter, Synstelien provides a list of nine “rules” for usable Flash design. Chief among them is the exhortation to drop animated introductions, one of the biggest pet peeves of web surfers. Although I’m still not a fan of sites designed in Flash, if a few more designers followed Synstelien’s guidelines, I’d be willing to reconsider.

Following each chapter of the book, the editors asked each contributor to furnish examples of usable design. Perhaps the most amusing among the items pictured are disposable diapers, Velcro, Lego, and duct tape.

Although books like Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself aren’t designed to present an overarching manifesto, if I had to distill one piece of wisdom from it, it would be, “Listen to everybody.” For every commandment, find an exception. The more examples of successful usability you can examine, the more you’ll realize that no one is going to do the hard work for you. One book, no matter how good, isn’t going to teach you everything you need to know. Find out who your audience is and ask them for feedback. Find other designers who have faced similar challenges. Read some of the pundits, but, in the end, your site’s usability solution (or your firm’s, or your client’s) will need to be as unique as you are.

Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself
Molly E. Holzschlag and Bruce Lawson, editors
glasshaus, 2002, 279pp.

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Related Topics: Usability, User Experience

James McNally is a Toronto based freelance writer and web designer. He is desperately clawing his way back into a new media career. His personal weblog is at