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Book Review:
Homepage Usability

by Larisa Thomason,
Senior Web Analyst,
NetMechanic, Inc.

   Click here to buy Homepage Usability book.
Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed Jakob Nielsen
New Riders
January 2002
Buy it at Amazon.com
  
  
November 2002
Vol. 5, No. 21
 • Promotion Tip
 • Accessibility Tip
 • Book Review
  

Just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, we're recommending a design book to please everyone - from serious Web developers to hobbyists. Homepage Usability contains the clear, well-researched usability guidelines developers expect from Jakob Nielsen. In this book though, he abandons the text-heavy, rather Spartan layout of his Web site, UseIt.com, and creates what is quite possibly the first coffee-table book about Web design.

Two Books In One

Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir (Director of Strategy at Nielsen Norman Group) dissect the home pages of 50 top and medium-sized Web sites including Citigroup.com, ESPN.com, and PBS.org. They evaluate sites according to the usability principles outlined at the beginning of the book.

Indeed, this first section would be a valuable standalone reference for most designers - especially beginners. That's where Nielsen and Tahir explain their methodology and discuss the basics of homepage design and usability:

  • The role of the homepage
  • Guidelines for communicating the site's purpose
  • Site content
  • The role of links and site navigation structure
  • Site search
  • Graphics and animation

After an in-depth discussion of these and other topics, the authors distill their recommendations into a two-page checklist of "Recommended Homepage Design" elements. It's a handy reference that deserves a place of honor on every Web developer's desktop. You'll probably have it taped next to your monitor soon after finishing the book.

Nielsen and Tahir list page elements and rank their design importance with one, two, or three stars. You can see at a glance how the page elements you're considering rank in the authors' hierarchy.

Something For Every Site

It's important to read this first section before you move on to the actual homepage discussions. There, Nielsen and Tahir discuss the page elements specifically in relation to the home page design recommendations they make at the beginning of the book.

If you've skipped the beginning sections, resign yourself to flipping back and forth between the front and back of the book.

Nielsen and Tahir list the Web sites in alphabetical order - from About.com to Yahoo.com. In between, you can peruse lesser-known sites like the sites of the James Devaney Fuel Company or Slussers Landscaping Company.

The sites represent a comprehensive mix of large corporate sites, portals, content sites, and sites for smaller, niche businesses. The authors devote between 4 and 6 pages to each individual site.

The first two pages contain a color screen shot of the site's home page, a brief description of the site's purpose, and the authors' opinion of the overall site effectiveness. The balance of the critique is an in-depth discussion of individual page elements, their placement, and how they affect the page's usability.

Even if you're working on a small, local site, you can learn a lot from studying the design of large sites. That's because, every Web site is really just a collection of small page elements that work together to create a pleasing, usable design.

The only downside is that some of the individual homepages the authors discuss have been redesigned since the book came out. The Disney.com site discussed so thoroughly (often negatively) in the book looks has changed a lot. Who knows? Perhaps Disney's design team took some of the criticisms to heart!

A Helpful Resource For Design Ideas

Don't let the $39.99 (USD) price scare you. This book is an excellent resource and well worth the cost. You're making a mistake to think of it as "just another reference book" to gather dust on your shelf.

No, you'll reach for it in many situations: when a client calls wanting a new site design, when you're researching a redesign of your own site, or if you're just idly searching for new ideas and techniques.

The friendly, open writing style - not to mention the dazzling graphics - will catch everyone's interest. Once your non-designer friends and family discover how interesting and attractive the book is, you'll probably have to beg them to give it back!

How many Web reference books can make that claim? Homepage Usability isn't one of those lumbering, code-heavy books that also doubles as a sleep aid. It's interesting, informative, and an excellent addition to the Webmaster's essential bookshelf.

Have a favorite book that you think might help other subscribers? Send us the title, author, and publisher along with a brief explanation of why you like it and we'll check it out!



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