the pathetic caverns - books by author - Bob Baxley
eclectic reviews and opinions
Making the Web Work
This is the first in an occasional series detailing the impact that my readings in usability, accessibility, and interface design have had on the Pathetic Caverns web site.
The Pathetic Caverns started as a personal web site in 1995, and evolved into an entertainment web zine over the next 2-3 years. I'd been a programmer for 10 years (developing what is now known as "e-learning") when I started the site, and during that time I was becoming more seriously interested in usability and interface design issues.
By 2004, I had substantial experience designing and usability testing interfaces for professional clients, but this site was still plagued by issues that most professionally-developed Web sites had solved years before. Perhaps even more seriously, it retained organizational quirks that were holdovers from its metamorphosis from a personal site into a web zine.
On 1 April 2004 I cleaned the slate and relaunched the site with a new design heavily influenced by some of the accessibility consulting work I'd been doing for corporate clients. I'll refer to that launch as "Pathetic Caverns 2.0."
At the same time, I started reading (or re-reading) a number of books on Web design and usability issues. I wanted to formalize my understanding of usability principles I'd learned "under fire" and expose myself to some new concepts. I also wanted to validate the pathetic caverns redesign, and address any new deficiences I identifed.
The first book I read as part of this effort was Bob Baxley's Making the Web Work. It deals with "Web applications," not "Web sites." Strictly speaking, Pathetic Caverns doesn't qualify; Baxley defines a web application as a site that has user-specific or user-customizable behaviors (usually requiring some kind of login). At present, Pathetic Caverns has no such features. But it does have a considerable volume of content, and Baxley's book has interesting discussions on how to determine appropriate organizational models for content. (Baxley deliberately avoids the term "information architecture," which he feels has become confused, but it is the term I would apply for much of the book.)
His overall thesis is that a web application can be broken into 3 strata:
- conceptual model
- structural model
- organizational model
- viewing and navigation
- editing and manipulation
- user assistance
Everyone who's developed sites will see where this is going: many teams immediately want to jump into presentation issues, which have the least impact on usability, and are the most easily altered -- but also are perceived much more immediately by users. Baxley's 9-layer cake is redrawn several times throughout the book to demonstrate how different types of Web applications require varying balances of these elements, but throughout he maintains an emphasis on keeping the horse well in front of the cart.
As I was reading Making the Web Work, I realized that I'd made an obvious and serious mistake in laying out the navigation of the site in a way that required rethinking some of my organizational model. I'd already taken the "search" feature I'd hacked up in Perl in 1996 offline, because I was convinced it was worse than useless. I also knew that much of the site's traffic comes directly from search engines. The 2.0 release of the site had alphabetical browse by author/editor, film title, and musical artist, but that was it. There no way to identify content logically related to a given review. Worse, while the alphabetical list was fine when then were 3 or 4 entries on a page, it would become increasingly unwieldy as the amount of content grew.
As a quick fix -- knowing it wasn't ideal -- I added a "Browse by Genre" tab and wrote a script to generate indices from genre tags I added to the files.
Baxley also called into question my structural model -- he specifically cited grouping content by physical media categories like books, CDs, and videos (as I do) as a problematic case. He argues that there is ambiguity as to whether a music video would be best filed under music, or under video. Ultimately, I don't agree. I include crosslinks where I think they're appropriate, but I think of my structure as a bit like a media superstore: when you're in the music department and realize that an artist has a video release as well, you usually need to walk over to the video department to pick it up. I can facilitate that "walking" with an "also see ..." link. I don't think it's a killer issue.
Finally, Baxley's book prompted me to spend time thinking about the two aspects of my site that could turn it into a true "Web application": its search engine, and the question of static vs. dynamic pages.
- I realized quite a while ago that a bad search engine is literally worse than useless. There were a number of strategies I could use to implement search, but I grew concerned that the time (or financial) investment would be prohibitive (and the ROI uncertain). I punted, adopting Google's search-within-site feature to take over the work for me until I could find the time to craft an effective solution.
- The other question was whether I had reached (or would soon reach) the point where an actual content management system made more sense than a toolset for manipulating individual Web pages. This was brought up rather forcibly by the time I had to spend tagging pre-existing reviews with genre codes -- a task in many ways was better suited to a database content repository approach. I decided to stay with the static site for the near-term future. Primarily, I want to make it as easy as possible for search engines to index the site, and for third parties to link individual pages, since I'm aware that a large percentage of my traffic comes from search engines (and deep links from external sites). The static page approach also minimizes the load on my server. But at least I was prompted to think about the issue and actively make a decision, rather than passively continuing with my previous policy. That decision -- "stay the same for now" impacts ongoing decisions for site maintenance, which are now focused to support eventual migration to a content repository approach.
Reading Baxley's book had a clear impact on my site. I like to think I would have recognized those deficiencies on my own, but there's little doubt that Making the Web Work speeded up the process. It's perhaps worth mentioning that Baxley spends considerable time laying groundwork, and the first few chapters may be a little disappointing to those who've already done some reading in the field. My personal recommendation is to stick with the book. My initial impression was that it was a little facile and obvious despite good organization; but as Baxley got deeper into the topic (and particularly into his detailed walkthroughs of what he thinks is right/wrong about several sites), I felt the book had a lot to offer.
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