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Website Owner's Manual 40

Michael J. Ross writes"Experienced Web designers and developers will readily admit that the most challenging aspect of their professions is not the technical work itself, nor learning the tools of the trade, but rather dealing with clients. Within that area, the most frustrating type of work — aside from the ever-joyless chore of collecting on invoices — is getting (non-technical) clients to understand the possibilities and limitations of Web technologies, design decisions, and all the other factors that can make or break a website project, as well as the site itself. Yet this process can be just as unhappy, and far more confusing, to prospective site owners, who typically are quite knowledgeable of their own fields, but have little to no understanding of how best to ensure the success of any website project they sponsor. Aiming to bridge this gap, is the appropriately-titled Website Owner's Manual." Read on for the rest of Michael's review.
Website Owner's Manual
author Paul Boag
pages 296 pages
publisher Manning Publications
rating 8/10
reviewer Michael J. Ross
ISBN 978-1933988450
summary A guidebook for anyone responsible for a new website.
This book was written by Paul Boag, a veteran Web designer and the Creative Director of Headscape, a British design agency. He speaks at industry events, writes articles for various Web design publications, and cohosts Boagworld, "the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing, and running websites on a daily basis." The book was published on 1 December 2009 by Manning Publications, under the ISBN 978-1933988450. The publisher makes available a Web page for the book, where visitors can order print or electronic versions (purchasing the former entitles one to the latter), read the ancillary portions of the book (the table of contents, the index, etc.), read some reviewers' comments, and download two sample chapters for free: "Chapter 1: The secret to a successful website" and "Chapter 7: Ensuring access for all."

Spanning 296 pages, the book's material is grouped into twelve chapters, covering the following topics: the role and challenges of a website owner; planning a site development project; crafting a project brief, and choosing the team to implement it; how to work with a designer and understand design basics; optimal website content; site usability and testing; site accessibility, and what can undermine it; content management systems; an overview of the Web, browsers, and hosting; online and off-line promotion, including search engine optimization and marketing performance; how to develop your site into an online community, and the many benefits of doing so; preparing your website for the future. The dozen chapters can be thought of as forming three parts, although they are not formally labeled as such.

The book's first chapter is titled "The secret to a successful website," which is also the book's subtitle — at least, as shown on the cover, but oddly not on the title page. It is a poorly chosen chapter title, partly because the author repudiates it on the first page, and partly because it suggests that there is but one element to a successful website, and it is being kept a secret. (One can only hope that the publisher's marketing department is not planning on keeping it a secret.). Fortunately, the silly title does not reflect the chapter's content, which may be brief, but offers sensible advice to any business owner who decides that she needs a new website, or works within an organization and has been given that role. The reader is warned of the dangers of information overload, specialization in only one area of site ownership, and the common failure to comprehend the critical responsibilities of that role: balancing conflicting priorities, defining the role, and planning for the future. This chapter, like all that follow, concludes with a "Next actions" section, containing several tasks that the reader is advised to implement, in order to get the most benefit from the chapter's recommendations.

Chapter 2, titled "Stress-free planning," explores several ways that a website owner can proactively lay the groundwork for a successful Web project: understanding the objectives of an entirely new site or changes to a legacy one, and the organization as a whole; consulting with stakeholders; developing criteria for success; obtaining feedback on an existing site, if any, as well as the competition's sites; and understanding the site's future audience, and representing them in the form of personas. The author posits that this information forms a prerequisite for writing a site brief and assembling "The perfect team," which is the title of the third chapter. He begins by listing the major advantages of either using an internal Web team or outsourcing to an external agency, or choosing a combination thereof (an option that far too many business owners fail to consider, even when it may be the ideal choice). Perhaps one of the most valuable sections of the book is the discussion on how to create an effective brief, and the reasons for doing so even for small and/or internally sourced projects. However, readers may be confused by the assertion on page 49 that revenue can be estimated from profits, when in fact profits are calculated from revenues (less expenses). The chapter concludes with some excellent advice on how to choose the ideal outside team to complete one's Web project, if one has decided to outsource the work.

The second part of the book begins with the fourth chapter, and presupposes that the reader has created a brief and a statement of work, selected a team to implement the latter, and everyone involved has attended a kickoff meeting. Now begins the critical phase of site design, and the author provides sound recommendations on how to avoid some of the most common Web design pitfalls: neglecting the target audience, failing to test the design, designing by committee or on-the-fly, micromanaging the design decisions, overloading the site's homepage, and settling for a corporate brand or page layout that ill-serves the site user and thus the organization. The chapter concludes with discussion of some key topics in the design world: the user's screen resolution, the fold, and the three options for page layout (fixed, fluid, and elastic). Chapter 5 delves into "Creating killer content" — specifically, the importance of context, brevity, logical and user-centric information architecture (through card sorting and use cases), and text that is engaging and easy to read.

In Chapter 6, the author examines a number of aspects of user testing: costs and benefits thereof, techniques for dramatically reducing the former while maximizing the latter, the selection of test subjects, and how best to run usability test sessions and then capitalize on the results in order to hone the website before and during its design. The subsequent chapter — which covers website accessibility — shares common ground with user testing, in some respects, because site testing is an effective post-development strategy to discover accessibility problems. Yet this should be supplemented proactively with an adequate understanding of how to make one's site accessible using standards-based design and coding. The author makes clear the many advantages of separating presentation from content, and of maximizing a site's accessibility — largely by building upon said separation. However, his advice to website owners to read and understand the WCAG 2 guidelines is arguably unrealistic, given that those specifications are admittedly "extensive and highly technical in places"; all clients in my experience would dismiss the suggestion immediately.

Mentioned earlier in the book — as a potential tool for creating a wireframe of a site — content management systems (CMSs) take center stage in Chapter 8, which explores their advantages and disadvantages. One of the criticisms leveled at CMSs — that they reduce site quality by allowing greater user input — is unfair, since a hand-coded, non-CMS site could only allow similar user input with far greater risk (imagine non-technical employees butchering HTML files by editing them in word processors!). Nevertheless, the issues raised by the author definitely need to be considered by anyone planning a CMS-based website. When researching and comparing available CMSs, a business person planning a new site will encounter a plethora of technical terms, many of which are explained in Chapter 9, titled "Decoding technobabble." Yet these terms are just as likely to be encountered during the phases discussed in the book's earlier chapters, and thus this material should have been placed at the beginning of the book, with the suggestion that tech-savvy readers could skip over it; or, the chapter could have been made an appendix, with a similar message at the beginning of the book, pointing to the appendix for those unsure of Web terminology. The only glaring mistake is the statement that "the web consists of a vast network of computers spread across the globe"; that's not the Web, but rather the Internet. Nevertheless, the author's lucid introduction to Web technologies and terms could be a real help to non-technical readers.

The last three chapters can be thought of as the post-launch part of the book, because at this stage in the process, the website owner has completed the build phase, and is now ready to begin increasing the popularity and usage of the site. Chapter 10, titled "Driving traffic," explains the pitfalls and best practices in trying to promote one's site using search engines, social media, and other methods of reaching an audience and measuring the results. The material serves as a decent introduction to the topics, including a brief overview of Google AdWords (although it incorrectly states that AdWords prices start at $.10 per click, when in fact it is one cent). The next chapter explores what is involved in building a vibrant community online, as well as the costs and benefits of doing so. The final chapter, "Planning for the future," begins by warning against the wasteful but common practice of organizations commissioning brand new websites every few years, to replace the previous ones that fell into neglect, oftentimes because the website owner failed to maintain a strong relationship with the site designer. The bulk of the chapter explores emerging trends in the Web world, such as rich media, Web services, and mobile devices.

The book concludes with an index that is quite complete — a characteristic now rarely seen in programming books. Credit should also be given for the neat format and indentation of the table of contents, which facilitates quick scanning.

The text is interspersed with some screenshots, graphs, and, most welcome of all, cartoons that reflect the author's sense of humor and illustrate the conflicts and misunderstandings that can arise during site development and maintenance. All of the screenshots and other technical illustrations are well captioned, except for the one on page 33, which contains an extraneous space after the "link:," and would be baffling if taken at face value, without examining the Google Search screenshot. Sadly reflecting our era of texting and grammatical sloppiness, the chapter titles are not presented in title case, but instead in sentence case — which is especially confusing when they are embedded within sentences in the text. On several pages (45, 60, 86, 91, 102, 140, 185, 186, 209-211, etc.) at least one paragraph contains an errant newline character or is missing an indentation of a paragraph. In general, the production quality of the book does not match the value of the information.

First editions of technical books are usually riddled with errata, and this one is no exception: "Aesthetics refer[s]" (page 5), "principle" (should read "principal"; page 6), "We respects" (page 7, in the form), "site [owner] considers" (9), "Planning give" (16), "possible accessibility problem[s]" (30), "us the web" (37), "she is gives" (37), "a internal" (45), "" (47, twice), "suitable [ones]" (48), "are [a] number" (56), "Recommenede" (56), "a RSS" (73), "Resolution affect[s]" (82), "branding and designs" (86), "Pages... needs" (91), "to[o] hard" (94), "This techniques" (95), "can't achieved" (96), "was" (should read "were"; 102 and elsewhere), "content stand out" (104), "Using" (should read "Use"; 104), "on the identifying," (105), "used. and" (111), "longer that than" (115), "This also it" (118), "a certainly level across" (141), "approach take" (141), "JavaS-cript" (143), "then if" (147), "Wordpress" (157), "pervious version" (no joke!; 161), "a enterprise" (161), "open [a] web browser" (173), "photo book" (should read "phonebook"; 173), "than are" (should read "that are"; 175), "in obscure language" (178), and at that point I gave up and stopped recording them. Given the modest length of this book, there are far too many errors such as these.

Readers will likely find that there are two major weaknesses in this book: Firstly, some of the discussion, especially in the first half, is a bit too high level, at times almost like an outline for a meatier discussion — one encompassing more specific information as to how the reader could implement and measure the principles provided. Similarly, because many of the suggestions are fairly general, they would greatly benefit from more examples — either contrived or, even better, real world occurrences — perhaps from Headscape's past projects, with names changed if needed. These could demonstrate the key ideas, and make it easier for readers to see the truth of those ideas in their own past experiences, and then apply them in the future. Fortunately, the book does employee several hypothetical case studies that are incorporated into the narrative, at various points; those are helpful, as are the screenshots that illustrate violations of design best practices.

Secondly, and more importantly, almost no advice is given as to what to do when things go wrong. What can the website owner do when an external design agency begins missing deadlines, but appears to be making an honest effort? What can be done when interdepartmental bickering threatens to sink the specifications process? These and other critical topics are not addressed. (Readers undoubtedly could think of other common scenarios.) It would have been terrific had the author shared hard-won lessons gleaned from his background and those of his colleagues, as well as what methods they found to be effective in squelching those crises, and which ones proved ineffective, and why. Those case studies alone would most likely have been worth the price of the book — again, with no need to disclose the names of the participants. Perhaps there would prove to be enough material to make for a second book.

The writing style can be described using Web design terms: fluid and accessible — although there are some run-on sentences from a lack of well-placed commas. The author explains the topics in a straightforward manner, without the assumptions and jargon that undermine communication between Web experts and non-technical businesspeople. This is one reason why this book should be of value not only to people responsible for websites in organizations of all sizes, but also to designers, developers, user interface specialists, and all other Web professionals who communicate with project managers and end-users.

Website Owner's Manual is a valuable resource that benefits from the experience and insight of a veteran Web designer, and clearly presents guidelines that site managers can follow for maximizing the odds of successful site design, implementation, and maintenance.

Michael J. Ross is a freelance website developer and writer.

You can purchase Website Owner's Manual from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Website Owner's Manual

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  • by grub ( 11606 ) * <> on Monday December 21, 2009 @03:23PM (#30515570) Homepage Journal

    limitations of Web technologies, design decisions, and all the other factors that can make or break a website project, as well as the site itself

    Hmmm... I wonder if Amazon can deliver to Taco by Xmas if I put a rush on it.
  • In my experience... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward

    People expect too much from a web site. They don't grasp that a web site is something that needs to be advertised, contrary to their expectation that a web site is advertising. This puts the web designer in a difficult position: No matter how well the site is done, it can't satisfy the expectation that it will generate customers all by itself.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      If you're decent at optimizing a website for Google, you won't have that problem.

      Using proper meta tags and a handful of other tricks one can practically Guarantee my customers they'll show up within the first 2 pages if they enter the 2 best words to define their business and the city they are located in.

      "Oh you do Hardwood Flooring? In Calgary? I'll build you a site, it'll use paypal to handle orders online. You tell your customers to visit the website to see more flooring patterns, a month after launch y

    • Actually I've found that most of my clients expect too little. I have so many clients(aside from e-commerce clients) who think that the point of having a website is only to have a presence on the web and don't think about things like using the site as an tool for marketing feedback or as an effective place to put details about products that they can't get across with their 30 second TV spots. Not only that but I've had to beg clients who pay me 10k for their site for answers to questions like "what does y
  • by Anonymusing ( 1450747 ) on Monday December 21, 2009 @03:26PM (#30515604)

    1. Measure twice, cut once.
    2. Plan for the marriage, not for the wedding.

    And one which never applies: if you build it, they will come.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Unless it's a porn site?

      • Of course.

        Or, alternatively, if you are posting right-wing conspiracies about the government trying to take your guns, euthanize your grandmother, and kill your babies.

    • by grcumb ( 781340 )

      1. Measure twice, cut once. 2. Plan for the marriage, not for the wedding.

      And one which never applies: if you build it, they will come.

      Etc. etc. etc.

      When I saw this review, I felt a small spark of hope that someone was actually attempting to express the essence of the web to people who don't really get this stuff. Unfortunately, all we seem to have is yet another fucking cookbook for managers who lack even an iota of imagination.

      I would love to see a Sun Tzu-style book, a collection of simple, pithy aphorisms that properly express the essence of a website, its dynamics and the general rules that govern it. Something similar to this brillia []

      • So many clichés, so little paper.

        I'd like to see a book like this which has side-by-side real-world examples of each aspect of web design, one example of success and one of failure. And I mean long-term success, not just "we met this month's budget". Maybe a whole book on just how to define "success" for a web site.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Thinboy00 ( 1190815 )

          Success story: Google
          Failure story: Yahoo!

          • Don't fill your search home page with random crap.
          • Your first focus should be on the search algorithm--revenue is second to that.
          • Don't enter the search market now that Google controls it.
    • measure with mics
      mark with chalk
      cut with axe


      cut to size
      beat to fit
      paint to match

  • Umm, duh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Monday December 21, 2009 @03:30PM (#30515646) getting (non-technical) clients to understand the possibilities and limitations of Web technologies, design decisions, and all the other factors that can make or break a website project, as well as the site itself.

    Most people who do web design/programming already know that it is a hybrid field. It has a lot in common with technical support, and a lot in common with graphic design: Both fields are less about what you know and can do, and more about how well you can market yourself and understand your client's needs (in the case of tech support, special needs). A lot of people think that because they're good with computers, they should head into IT work. And everybody needs a website, right? Web technologies are fairly easy to master, and so there are always books and classrooms eager to accept money to teach people this. But then they get out in the real world and realize that they've only got half the puzzle. People get out of the field as often as they get in because of this.

    IT work is a spectrum from engineering to marketing. But most of us are in 'glue' positions -- our job is to improve existing business processes, which means we need to understand that business process first. It's an aspect of our field that even most people who've been in it for ten years or more can't really articulate. You can't really teach interpersonal skills per se, you have to earn it with experience.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I'm a freelance web developer. I asked one of my clients for a testimonial, and he responded with a glowing writeup saying how I was their go-to "IT guy" and a real "techie." I was completely blown away.

      This was from a guy who is also outsourcing his *real* IT to an IT company. So you're right, people see us as a solution. If we really want to grow, we need to grow socially, so peole *like* seeing us as a solution over other potential solutions.
  • is that deal with people is hard. In other news water is wet and snow is cold.
    • is that dealing with people is hard. In other news water is wet and snow is cold.

      I'll get this english thing eventually, it's only my first language.

      • by c_sd_m ( 995261 )

        is that dealing with people is hard. In other news water is wet and snow is cold.

        I'll get this english thing eventually, it's only my first language.

        Never having been taught anything useful about a language is a pretty good excuse for errors. Most of the strong English speakers I know do have it as a mother tongue but speak a related language too. The other are old enough that the curriculum wasn't diluted to just reading when they were in school. Actually studying grammar and structure seems to make a difference.

  • How about making your own website? Or making a website with people you know?

    Not everything has to clone the old-media approach of speech and media as "content" production [].

  • Nit-picking review (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ratface ( 21117 ) on Monday December 21, 2009 @05:02PM (#30516750) Homepage Journal

    When I read a book review, I am usually less interested in a grammatical analysis of the book and more interested in the book's content and usefulness. I found it difficult to get much out of this review because of all the nit-picking. It would have sufficed to point out that the book contains grammatical and spelling errors rather than detailing them all. That information would perhaps be more interesting to the book's editor.

    • Perhaps that was the point, as your experience with the above review mirrors the reviewers experience with the book: it was difficult to get much out of it because of these annoying details.
  • ...what all this tech + sales hybrid hooplah is all about. Any job that involves an individual selling their skills is such a job. Be it law, music, video productions, industrial design, consulting, politics, hair styling, whatever. It may be a coincidence that many freelance web designers emerged thinking their job was unique, but that has nothing to do with how the world really ticks.

    If you suck at sales, get a job at a firm where they only need your tech skills. If you suck at tech, but are great at sale

  • Clients From Hell [] seems like a relevant link to add here...

Adapt. Enjoy. Survive.