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Book Review: Son of web pages that suck and Web sites that work

Looking at the title of these two books you'd think that these were the complete opposite of each other. In a way this is true, but they are both teaching the same thing, which is how to make a professional looking website. I've reviewed this together as they do in fact have quite a lot in common.

The first book is "Son of web pages that suck" by Vincent Flander. This is a sequel to the book "Web pages that suck". This is an old book which is now out of print, but you can still get hold of a copy.

The second book is "Web Sites That Work: Secrets from Winning Web Sites (52 Brilliant Ideas)" by Jon Smith. This is again and old book (2004), but not quite as old as Son of web pages that suck and is at the time of writing still generally available.

The aim of these books is to help web designers, webmasters and managers to avoid some of the mistakes that web sites make that end up alienating their users or leaving visitors confused or looking elsewhere. Although these are a few years old most of the content is just as relevant today as when they were first published. The main exception are the comments on download times. Whilst not everyone is on broadband and whilst it still makes sense to keep page sizes down to a minimum it is not the big problem it was a few years ago.

The books are mainly for those responsible for professional business websites and in particular e-commerce sites, although many of the lessons can still apply to organisations, individuals or information web sites. The books reflect back on the dot-com boom and bust that saw many badly designed websites disappear as a result.

Son of web pages that suck is a humorous look at some of the really bad web sites that have been created in the past. He pulls the pages apart to show where they page is badly designed and how they can be improved. There is also an explanation about good design techniques with each area covered. Many of the sites leave you nodding in agreement about just how bad these sites are.

Many of the problems are things that should have disappeared years ago, but unfortunately still keep cropping up. I hate to admit that when I first started designing websites some of mine would have been potential candidates, but that was way back in the very early days of the web when bad taste and awful design seamed to be the norm :-( Now I still find some of the examples help me to identify some of the less obvious errors on my website that are still open for improvement.

Flander's sense of humour is not going to be to everyone's taste, but it makes a change from a dull manual. Flanders has a marketing background and is passionate about bad websites. When it comes down to the technical knowledge he refers to his technical friends and the references to the appropriate technologies are not as good as the rest of the book. This is however a good book at pointing out the things to avoid.

Web sites that work takes a very different approach. It is even less technical than web pages that suck focusing instead on the concepts and leaving it for the webmaster to work out how to implement it. Rather than use actual examples of real sites it instead explains the theory, but uses quotes and questions and answers to make it a bit easier to read than a typical text book.

This book concentrates heavily on professional and e-commerce web sites. There are aspects that can be applied to other sites (such as personal or hobby sites), but these are not so prominent.

In some places the books contradict each other, which I think goes to show that much of what is considered "good design" is actually down to personal taste. For example Son of Web Pages that Suck says that you should not put a clock on your website, whereas Web Pages that Work says that can be a good idea.

I do have one gripe about the Web sites that work book, which is its stance on public domain / free access material. Idea number 33 suggests charging for everything and copyrighting everything. It suggests disabling the save as option, which is at best superficial protection as well as view only PDFs which can alienate the user and offer very little real protection (see copy protected PDFs can easily be bypassed). It also encourages watermarking images which is useful if you run a photo stock website, but does not look good on other sites. These techniques only stand to alienate the user and encourage them to look elsewhere. After all where would YouTube and Facebook be today if you had to pay money everytime you wanted to access the site - I don't think they'd have the user-base they have today!

Either of these books can be useful to help cover the non-technical / good taste parts of web design. They don't go as far into actual designing the look of the site for which you are better looking at a book such as The Zen of CSS design, but they can help avoid some of the worst mistakes.

If you are working on a e-commerce web site then Web Sites That Work is probably the better of the two, but for other sites then Son of Web Pages that Sucks is better.