Amazonked! (or, the 2nd Edition Dilemma)

Amazon.com gets an enormous number of things right. And it gets them right years before competitors even think of them. Nearly everyone in web design or online sales, when tasked with innovating, simply copies from Amazon. Amazon can even do things traditional, brick-and-mortar stores can’t. For instance, Amazon can stock and profit from items almost nobody is interested in. But there’s one thing Amazon has trouble with: second editions.

Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition was listed at Amazon for nearly a year before the book was written; it could be found by clicking a mislabeled “used and new” link on the first edition’s Amazon page. As no information pertinent to the second edition was available at the time, the “second edition” page used first-edition imagery and text.

The second edition is now available at Amazon, but it is mostly filled with first-edition editorial text and first-edition reader reviews. Its star rating (the at-a-glance, impulse buyer’s decision-making tool) is likewise based on the first edition. Initially Amazon’s second-edition page also showed first-edition cover art, a first-edition table of contents, and a first-edition “look inside the book,” but those errors have been corrected. The other problems may never be corrected, not because Amazon is uninterested or unwilling, but because second editions pose a special problem to Amazon’s databases—and possibly also to its information design. But as it would be bad manners to highlight a problem without proposing a solution, I’ll do so two paragraphs from now.

The problem is not unique to DWWS2E. When Eric Meyer wrote Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Edition (O’Reilly Media, 2004), the “Editorial Review” on Amazon’s second edition sales page referred to the out-of-print first edition. Two and a half years later, it still does. Most reader reviews also refer to the first edition—so much so, that one reader felt compelled to preface his review by pointing out that he was writing about the book being sold on the page, not about a previous edition.

What should Amazon do?

Replacing first-edition publisher-supplied text with second-edition publisher-supplied text is an obvious place to start. The next right move is less clear, but I think we can find our way to it.

One possibility that initially seems right is probably wrong. Amazon’s DWWS2E page might say, “This book has not yet been reviewed” until a few reviews of the second edition have been written and approved. Likewise, the star rating might be kept blank until a few readers have rated the edition being sold. Yet to have no reviews and no star rating would be wrong in a different way, because a second edition is not a fledgling book taking its first baby steps into a possibly indifferent marketplace; it’s a successful book that has been updated.

A graduated migration is probably in order, and it could work in two phases. When a second edition initially becomes available, how readers felt about the first edition is worthwhile information, at least as a rough buyer’s guide. By this reasoning, when an old title debuts in a new edition, it’s okay to keep up the old reviews and old star ratings, as long as their connection to the earlier edition is clearly labeled.

The second phase follows immediately. Once new reviews and new star ratings trickle in, Amazon should dispense with the old reviews and old star ratings—or make them available on a page where the old edition is still sold, with a “What readers said about the previous edition” link. How many reviews and star ratings should Amazon collect before removing the old reviews and old star ratings? The directors at Amazon, who are brighter than me, and who have access to more data, can figure out that part.

[tags]amazon, publishing, marketing, writing, books, retail, long tail, dwws2e, web standards[/tags]

ALA 220: Problems and Solutions

Issue 220 of A List Apart, For People Who Make Websites, is all about problems—avoiding the avoidable and coping with the rest. Stuck for design ideas? Lost your work? Issue 220 can help.

Interns Andrew Fernandez and Russell Heimlich contributed mightily to this issue. As always, the visual stylings of Mr. Kevin Cornell add sauce and savor. Bon apetit!

I Wonder What This Button Does

by Mike West

We’ve all lost work to file overwrites and other minor disasters. There are remedies—and as Mike West explains, you don’t have to possess awe-inspiring technical skills to take advantage of them.

Designing Through the Storm

by Walter Stevenson

As designers, we all face the inevitable slump. That point where our creativity stagnates and we find ourselves at a dead end. Walter Stevenson offers suggestions on staying productive and creative.

A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on designing with standards. Explore ALA’s articles or find out more about the magazine. A List Apart, For People Who Make Websites, is a publication of Happy Cog™.

[tags]a list apart, alistapart, web design, webdesign[/tags]

An Event Apart Seattle

Join Kelly Goto, Erin Kissane, Jason Santa Maria, Eric Meyer and me for a jam-packed day of design and code on glorious Puget Sound.

The Time and Place

Monday 18 September 2006, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Bell Harbor International Conference Center
2211 Alaskan Way, Pier 66, Seattle, WA 98121 (Map)

Beautifully situated at Pier 66 on the downtown Seattle waterfront, Bell Harbor provides stunning views of the city and across Elliott Bay to Mt Rainier, plus easy walking proximity to the shops and restaurants of world-famous Pike Street Market.

The Schedule

Doors open at 8:00 am and the fun starts at 9:00:

9:00 am Hardcore CSS [Eric Meyer]
An in-depth exploration of what makes CSS work, how it works the way it does, and how you can make it work harder for you.
10:00 am These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For [Zeldman]
Selling design, accessibility, and web standards to tough clients, stubborn bosses, and unconvinced colleagues.
11:00 am BREAK!
11:15 Solving (Re)Design Problems [Jason Santa Maria]
Visually repositioning a beloved brand (namely, A List Apart). Design as problem solving. Knowing which problems to solve.
12:00 pm “One True Layout” [Eric Meyer]
Incredible stroke of genius or gross hack to be shunned? Eric analyzes this new “miracle” CSS layout technique and examines the pros and cons, both immediately and into the future.
1:00 pm Lunch
2:00 pm Sponsor Giveaways
Free software and services courtesy of Adobe, AIGA, Media Temple, Mozilla, and New Riders.
2:10 pm Textism (Writing the User Interface) [Zeldman]
Better design, better branding, and better usability through word choice. Editing for designers.
3:00 pm Designing for Lifestyle [Kelly Goto]
As design migrates from the web to mobile devices, our approach must also shift. Learn how companies are using ethnographic-based research to design smarter interfaces.
4:00 pm BREAK!
4:10 pm CRITIQUES [Kelly Goto, Erin Kissane, Eric Meyer, Jason Santa Maria, Zeldman]
A rip-snortin’ romp through the design, code, and content of sites created by some of the smartest people in the world — namely, the attendees of An Event Apart Seattle

The Afterglow

Join us after the event for a Happy Hour and a Half featuring free cocktails, sponsored by Blue Flavor.

6:00 pm – 7:30 pm
The Alibi Room
85 Pike St Ste 410
Seattle, WA 98101-2001
(206) 623-3180

[tags]aneventapart, an event apart, seattle[/tags]

Applications on parade

The ice caps may be melting, the nations may be playing chicken with the Apocalypse, but there is still some good in the world. Today we look at two newly released (free, open source) web applications and a (new, free) community built around that oldest of human activities. No, that other oldest of human activities: sharing stories.

Waferbaby’s open source CMS

Waferbaby is both a site and a person. The site has been around for about a dozen years, the person (Daniel Bogan) for somewhat more. But wait. Now Waferbaby is also a third thing. It is also the content management system (CMS) that Waferbaby the person built to drive Waferbaby the website. The website has many features. So does the CMS. Why do you care? Because you can use the CMS if you want to. Waferbaby, the open source content management system, built with Ruby on Rails and “freely available under a liberal BSD license” is yours for the taking. Be gentle.

Enhanced Simple PHP Gallery v2.0

Point B Studio’s Enhanced Simple PHP Gallery is free, open-source software that lets you post photos online. The brainchild of Rich Pedley and Paul Griffin, the program is thriving at the nurturing bosom of brilliant web architects and developers.

With version 2.0, it has been completely overhauled to support detailed annotation (“footnotes”) of objects (such as artwork or photos), including citations, dimensions, latitude/longitude and other identification metadata.

A demo page lets you log in as an administrator and put the program through its paces. Point B welcomes comments and suggestions. Happy gallery-mongering!

Dandelife debuts

(Disclaimer: I sit on Dandelife’s advisory board.)

Dandelife is a social network built around the telling of your life’s stories. You can use Dandelife to create your own personal biography and then share that with the rest of the world. Imagine all your own notes on all the people you’ve met, the places you’ve been, the events you’ve gone to and the stories you could tell about them all. That’s your Dandelife.

Co-founder Kelly Abbott, late of Airshare.org and other socially conscious web projects, is that rare entrepreneur whose primary motivation is not cash but community. Soft-launched this week, Dandelife isn’t perfect yet, but it is already attracting storytellers, and Abbott hopes to recruit more creative people spinning more yarns, “making the site that much more fun to waste time at.”

Tags are beginning to emerge: there are drinking stories, nickname origin stories, 9/11 stories. People are joining and sharing. Here are a few stories that struck me:

a very long story about how i got an unfortunate nickname
Embarrassing but well written coming-of-age tale.
Champagne Katie
The story of an unfortunate nickname.
Hilarious brush-up (sic) with death
Life and near-death in the Himalayas.

An angry fix

Some of the best minds working in web standards have been quietly or loudly abandoning the W3C. Björn Hörmann is the latest. His reasons for leaving the W3C QA Group make compelling reading (hat tip: Terje Bless). I believe in W3C standards, particularly the ones you and I use every day, but I worry about the direction in which the W3C is headed.

Beholden to its corporate paymasters who alone can afford membership, the W3C seems increasingly detached from ordinary designers and developers. Truth be told, we and our practical concerns never drove the organization. But after ordinary designers and developers spent nearly a decade selling web standards to browser makers and developing best practices around accessibility and semantics, one hoped the W3C might realize that there was value in occasionally consulting its user base.

Alas, the organization appears unconcerned with our needs and uninterested in tapping our experience and insights. It remains a closed, a one-way system. Like old-fashioned pre-cable TV advertising. Not like the web.

To be fair, the W3C solicits community feedback before finalizing its recommendations. But asking people to comment on something that is nearly finished is not the same as finding out what they need and soliciting their collaboration from the start.

We require coherent specifications based on our and our users’ actual needs. Upcoming accessibility and markup specifications fail on both counts. We require validation tools that work and are kept up to date. Instead, tools are still broken years after problems are reported.

Two things could happen. Either the W3C will make a course correction, or the standards-based design community will look elsewhere.

[tags]web standards, w3c, wcag, xhtml, web design, microformats[/tags]

And boy are my arms tired

6:40 AM, laptops and collateral parked at the curb, waiting for Scandinavia House to open.

An Event Apart NYC is over. It lasted twice as long as previous events. Featured three times as many speakers. Took at least four times as much effort to prepare. And was ten tons of fun.

We couldn’t have done it without you

Thanks first and foremost to all who attended. You made the show.

Our speakers were some of the best thinkers, designers, and coders this side of Antarctica. Thanks, Ze Frank, Khoi Vinh, Tantek Çelik, and Aaron Gustafson.

Jason Santa Maria, in addition to speaking eloquently, designed the identity system for the conference, right down to the lanyards.

Day One: Jason Santa Maria onstage an hour before the show starts.

Eric Meyer is a genius. You could put a mic in front of him anywhere and a crowd of CSS-hungry devotees would soon gather. You could even put him on after Ze Frank.

Baltimore filmmaker Ian Corey videotaped the event, supplied and maintained additional equipment, and ran the sound system.

Daniel Mall and Jon Aldinger, web designers and event assistants extraordinaire, lugged heavy boxes of collateral from Happy Cog to Scandinavia House. They also (with brilliant Rob Weychert) manned the doors, cleaned the auditorium after attendees filed out each day, and assisted Ian with the sound.

A space this elegant and food this good are hard to come by in the world of conferences. Perfectly tuned service is equally rare. Victoria and Bo of Scandinavia House and Peter and Angellique of Restaurant Aquavit, along with their discreet yet ever-present staff, provided almost unheard-of levels of service. We thank them, and I recommend them to anyone hosting an intimate or mid-sized design conference in New York City. (The theater seats 168 but we cut off registration at 120 to maintain intimacy.)

Thank you for your constant and astonishing support: Adobe, AIGA, Media Temple, and New Riders.

Happy Cog paid for the drinks.

Linky-poos

Rekindle the memories or start new ones:

[tags]aneventapart, an event apart, eric meyer, khoi vinh, jason santa maria, ze frank, tantek, aaron gustafson, media temple, adobe, AIGA, new riders, happycog, happy cog, nyc, zeldman[/tags]

ALA 219: Automatic layouts and goodbye to <embed>

Two swell authors we’ve never had the pleasure of publishing before bring creative solutions to the 219th issue of A List Apart:

Automatic Magazine Layout

by Harvey Kane

Even if you (or your client) has talented designers on staff, they’ll rarely have time to resize and reposition the images that bring life to a web layout. You need photos laid out automatically, but you’d rather your page not look like it was designed by orangutans. Harvey Kane’s clever script will make your life easier (and your site more attractive).

Bye Bye Embed

by Elizabeth Castro

In the age of Google Video and YouTube, can you embed QuickTime video reliably across browsers without using the invalid EMBED element? Building on the pioneering work of Drew McLellan, Ian Hickson, and Lachlan Hunt, best-selling author Elizabeth Castro sets out to embed without EMBED.

About these authors

Mr Kane is a prolific writer and developer. Ms Castro is a superb author whose HTML, XHTML, and CSS: Visual QuickStart Guide has sold more than a million copies. The Sixth Edition(!) comes out next month.

[tags]a list apart, alistapart, web design, webdesign[/tags]

We hold most of these truths

A copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is on public view at The New York Public Library. Accompanying it are several of the very first printed versions known to have survived.

Standing in the presence of these yellowing pages is like glimpsing the face of God, for they are the foundation of American democracy, and their core idea underlies all human rights struggles, liberation movements, and emergent democracies around the world.

The version in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is fascinating not only because it’s in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, but also because it contains passages that would have ended slavery at the birth of the American nation. But those passages had to be deleted before the Declaration could be signed by representatives of states where slavery was practiced.

Put another way, the client bought a document intended to liberate all humanity, but demanded changes that kept part of humanity in chains. It would take another 100 years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before slavery ended, and the tragic legacy of African enslavement plagues the U.S. to this day. (At The New York Times: a slide show of Freedom Rider portraits, a work in progress by my friend Eric Etheridge.)

So the next time a client requests changes that make your work less beautiful, less usable, or less smart, remember that greater people than you have lost bigger battles over far more important matters.

The Declaration of Independence is on view at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue now through 5 August and admission to the Library is of course free. If you’re in New York City this summer, the exhibit is worth a look. (Plug: And if you’re in town next week for An Event Apart, the Library is just a few blocks away from the Scandinavia House venue.)

The Power of Positive Whining

I recently had a bad experience on a good website and wrote about it here. Writing about experiences is not the same as writing about facts. A company might spend $40,000 to ensure that its navigation labels can be clearly understood by all users. That they spent the money and conducted the tests is the fact. Yet some users might not understand the labels anyway. That would be the experience of those users. Fact versus experience: not the same thing.

Most professionals who create websites want to know when a user has a bad experience. Most professionals who create websites worry about bad experiences. Most professionals who understand the craft of user experience design spend much of their time thinking about the user. That’s why they call it user experience design.

Thinking about the user means listening and trying and testing and changing. When you are lucky you get it right for a lot of your users. But there will always be some people you fail. When you are lucky, you hear about the failures.

The user is never wrong

If web design were not an art, then we would always get every part right. But it is an art, and, like all arts, it deals with the subjective. The subjective is something you can never get 100% right.

As a web professional, I value user feedback even when it’s exactly what I was afraid of hearing. As a web professional, I value user feedback even when the user is “wrong.” Like, when the user misses the giant red headline and the big fat subhead and the clearly stated error message and the grotesquely large exclamation point icon in the unpleasantly intrusive “warning” triangle.

A user can miss everything you put in his path, and call you on it, and the user is never wrong, even if there is nothing more you could have done to help him understand. The user is never wrong because experience is experience, not fact.

Paths and walls

As a designer I am always collecting data on what went wrong for one user or another. It helps me do better on the next round.

As a designer who interacts with websites, airport and subway signage, nasty little cell phone interfaces, and other variously successful communication attempts by designers and engineers (in short, as a user), I not infrequently write about my user experience—especially when my experience is not what the designers and engineers intended.

I do this not as complaint, which is of no use to anyone, but as critique and information-sharing. It is critique when, by examining a specific case, it illuminates a point of interest or failure in many designs. When it’s less broad in implication it still has value as data about a particular path that hit a particular wall.

If the designers and engineers see what I’ve written, they may think about their product in a different way that is helpful to them and to some of their other users. If other designers and engineers see it, they may think differently about their own designs, especially if their designs are informed by the site or product I’m writing about. Write about a usability error at Amazon, and 100 sites that copy Amazon will improve.

Why we fight

I am a walking edge case. If an operating system upgrade goes smoothly for everyone I know, some part of it will go wrong for me. The written directions from Manhattan to Rye may convey you safely and serenely between those locations, but the way I read the same words, I will end up on the dodgy side of Yankee Stadium. I suffer so you don’t have to.

Writing critiques is a thing I sometimes do on my site. I’ve been sometimes doing it on my site for eleven years and will keep at it. Some of these posts can be characterized as pointless, misinformed grousing, while others contain spelling errors. A few have had mildly beneficial effects in the wider world, and that’s good enough for me.

My friend Flickr

My Flickr Pro account has returned, along with the vanished photos and sets. Welcome back, photos! I’ve also learned a few things:

  • Flickr emails users before their accounts expire. They therefore emailed me, although the message didn’t reach me. (Using Flickr mail in addition to traditional email would help avoid heartache.)
  • As a Pro account nears its expiration date, Flickr posts warnings on your home page, advising you of the coming purge and suggesting you top off the account before it ends. I didn’t see these warnings because I never log into my home page; I go straight to my photo page. You never know what a user will do.
  • Discreet warnings were also placed on the photo page, I’m told. I didn’t notice them, possibly because their posting coincided with big changes to the Flickr interface. The designer who formatted the warnings may also have erred on the side of understatement. Designing error and warning messages is tough. Make them too big and users gripe; too small, and nobody sees them.

It will be interesting to see if Flickr changes the way it reacts to a lapsed Pro account in the future. Here’s hoping.

Most sites I use (and a few I’ve had a hand in creating) cause frustration because of poorly considered usability and design decisions. A very few sites, products, and applications delight us precisely because their design and usability are so good. Flickr is one of these rare delights. Like Apple, it is a company whose occasional lapses (or seeming ones) bug us, even as we forgive (or barely notice) the screwups and mediocrity of other companies. We hold these companies to a higher standard. But, hey, they’re the ones who set it.