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Reading List

July 13, 2003

On my recent foray I had enough time off that I needed a vacation from the general vacationing. Our particular form of escapism involves reading, so there were multiple stops in Borders in CA, CT, and other states. I can say definitively that much like Starbucks, homogeny amongst stores is the name of the game country-wide. Strangely comforting and disturbing at the same time.

Spending too much money at Borders, I wound up with two gems in the lot that I read cover-to-cover over the course of the trip. Every respectable web designer needs to have these on their bookshelf.

Designing With Web Standards — Jeffrey Zeldman

Designing With Web Standards

A common complaint running through the current set of Amazon reviews for this book is that if you read on a regular basis, this book doesn’t offer much new.

A point I’d have to concede, but there has always been a temporal feeling to the daily posting paradigm which marks older thoughts as less relevant, when sometimes they’re the most relevant. This is the first time Zeldman’s thinking has been collected and presented in such a clear manner in one spot, and it’s well worth owning if for no other reason than to pass it around the office.

The first four chapters of the book are devoted to the Why. As in, why use web standards to build your site. The last half deals with the How, and goes over basic XHTML, CSS, and DOM methods that likely won’t open your eyes if you’ve been reading his site for any period of time.

Already in its second printing, DWWS deserves a spot on your shelf whether you’re new to the game, or just need a definitive resource to point to when making the case for designing with web standards.

Don’t Make Me Think — Steven Krug

Don't Make Me Think

At 190 pages, Steven Krug’s very popular book on web usability gets right to the point and tells you what you need to do to make your work as easy to use as possible. Finally, a usability expert that actually gives you information you can use.

This book really opened my eyes — a lot of the things he discusses are intuitive, but not obvious. They’re the sort of things you inherently feel, but have never been able to verbalize before. As you read you can’t help but slap your head as each epiphany leaves you muttering “oh yeah, of course.”

People use the web a certain way. If you peg the average web user as the type who will click through three pages to find what they need before giving up and moving on to the next site, you have much to learn.

Much as web standards are a continuum, so too is web usability. Krug notes that if you make even 50% of an effort to make your work more usable, he’ll be pleased. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the same effort will cause your site to be far more successful.

Reader Comments

July 13, 01h

Don’t Make Me Think - excellent. One of the best books I’ve read. Much better than anything Nielsen has come up with.

Designing With Web Standards - OK from what I’ve read (if you’ve got a credit card you can read it for free online for 14 days). I wasn’t impressed by finding incorrect details very quickly though, such as it stating IE5 supports XHTML. I haven’t learnt a thing from flicking through it myself.

July 13, 07h

I agree with you Tom on both points. For any web professional, Krug’s book is a must buy. His insights and writing style help you see “the forest before the trees”.

I wanted to buy Zeldman’s book because he is a web genius. But I skimmed the book at Barnes and Nobles and was disappointed to find there was really nothing new for me. Great book for beginners, but for anyone who keeps track of these things and has been around for a while I don’t think it helps.

Matthew Farrand says:
July 14, 03h

IE 5 does support XHTML. Pages coded in valid XHTML work when viewed in that bowser. In my experience, valid XHTML doesn’t cause any more problems than HTML4.

If you mean that pages served up as as application/xhtml+xml
don’t display properly in IE/WIn then you’re right. The standards say you don’t have to serve up XHTML as as application/xhtml+xml, and that text/html is perfectly valid.

I really enjoyed Zeldman’s book. He presents standards, not as an exercise in semantic purity but as a practical solution to real problems. If you have to serve up XHTML pages as text/html what is the real problem, if by doing so you have solved problems of accessibility, bandwidth and device independence?

Even if you do read regularly, the book is worth getting. Reading the arguments presented in a coherent form over 400 pages gives the book a huge benefit over a collection of articles on the web.

AdLad says:
July 14, 05h

If you just skim the book you may think there’s nothing new in it. ‘“Box model hack,” yeah, I know about that. “Structured markup,” sure, I’m all about that.’ But if you look closer there’s probably alot you didn’t know, and there’s an overall perspective you couldn’t get from reading a Zeldman post here, an ALA article there.

And do your clients know? Do the people you work with know? In the past when I wanted to explain why accessibility or validation was important, all I could do was send my client a bunch of links from sites all over the place. Most of those links didn’t make a strong business case like Zeldmans book does. They didn’t connect the dots. The book has already helped me get through to my clients what I couldn’t say for myself.

July 14, 11h

IE has absolutely no XHTML support AT ALL, no matter what Content-Type you try and send it by.

If I made a markup language called “Tom’s Lovely Markup Language” which happened to look a bit like HTML and thus tagsoup parsers in current browsers accepted it, I could hardly claim they supported it could I? It is just a fluke that browsers do an OKish job at processing XHTML served as text/html.

But sending XHTML as text/html is a hack. Whether or not the standards have it in or not is irrelevant, it’s still a hack.

Zeldman’s book several times mentions how wonderful and nice XHTML is, but as far as I can see never really explains its benefits over HTML. It just states that XHTML will make pages more semantic, which really, is rubbish. It’s encourage the myth that using HTML means your markup will be tangled, cluttered, presentation-ridden hell.

I’m convinced that the vast majority of people using XHTML don’t really know why they are, and are just following others because they say it’s cool.

Keith says:
July 14, 11h

I agree 100% with what AdLad had to say.

One thing I love about both of these books is the fact that you can easily hand them off to someone as a quick “Web best practices” primer. When I worked for Connexion we had all the marketing and engineering folks read Don’t Make Me Think and that helped us develop a common frame of reference for usabiltiy, etc. And I’ve pointed out Zeldman’s book to quite a few people as a place to start with Web standards.

When you are working with stakeholders, newbies, graphic designers going Web, etc. these books can be invaluable in getting those people on the same page with those of us who’ve been around for awhile

Dave S. says:
July 14, 11h

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I use XHTML for these reasons:

It’s easy. Ignoring the MIME-type business, there was almost no effort required to make the switch to lower case tags and quoted attributes.
It’s transitional. Being halfway between XML and HTML, when XML rendering comes of age I will be able to start using XML in older pages without having to re-write them. This is basic long-term planning.
It’s professional. This point applies equally well to HTML 4.01, but clean, validating code means you take your craft more seriously than presentational hackers. It’s the difference between mass-produced and hand-tooled. People buy mass-produced products because they’re cheaper, but they expect less of them. They don’t view markup this way for some reason, but the point remains that more effort and care goes into valid code than <B>ed & <BR>eakfast markup.
It’s psychological. I will not build a table-based layout in XHTML 1.0 Strict, because it goes against the grain of what Strict is trying to accomplish. I feel guilty when using tables in XHTML 1.0 Transitional. I get absolutely sloppy when writing in HTML 4 because hey, it’s forgiving. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Sure HTML can deliver semantic markup, but XHTML goes further to encourage it psychologically.

Each point has been well covered in DWWS. That’s good enough a case for me.

AdLad says:
July 15, 05h

Tom, I don’t think we read the same book. Zeldman’s book discusses the application/xhtml+xml problem in its Introduction. In later chapters starting with chapter 5 he spells out the benefits of XHTML clearly. He doesn’t say “XHTML will make pages more semantic” like you imply. He plainly says the opposite:

“Developing in XHTML goes beyond converting uppercase to lowercase and adding slashes to the end of <br /> tags. If changing ‘tag fashions’ were all there was to it, nobody would bother, and instead of web standards, this book would be filled with delicious tofu recipes…. To benefit from XHTML, you need to think about your markup in structural rather than visual terms.” (pages 167-168)

He then does a couple of chapters on structure, going from obvious things [that aren’t obvious to a lot of designers] to more subtle things I never thought of myself.

Tom, if you had actually read the book you would be making different points. I see that you skimmed parts of it for free online instead of buying it. That you “flicked through” it. Nothing wrong with that but it probably doesnt put you in the best position to critique the book. Unlike most computer books this one needs to be read from beginning to end. It’s written well and it has a theme that evolves. If you just flick thru it looking for standards tricks and tips, you’ll miss the books value.

John McFadyen says:
July 15, 07h

Having just, literally, bought both of these books from Amazon this whole discussion makes me feel I may have a good couple of books in the next few days.

I have found nothing but praise for Don’t Make Me Think! as a method of getting the management to understand what I have been trying to explain for months. As to the fact that simply mentioning Designing with Web Standards has provoked such a response, I believe it proves that Zeldman has continued with, rather than reviewed, his intentions of making the Web design/development community think.

What do I know, I haven’t read them yet…