Blast from the past

The College Reporter, the student newspaper of my alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College, has digitized all its issues from 1987 through 2001. Score one for the anal editorial staff that kept a good archive all these years. The archive is scanned images of each page of each issue—not the most versatile format, but a nice preservation method.

I was a longtime Reporter staffer: weekly columnist, then editorials editor, then editor in chief through my senior year. Somewhere in that digitized archive are all the columns I wrote during my tenure. A few of them are quite good; I’ll try to hunt them down.

In the meantime, let me direct you to my first-ever newspaper editorial, on page 7 of the October 12, 1992 issue (here’s the engine; direct links don’t work). Be forewarned, it’s pretty trite, although I’m pleased to report I wrote with a strikingly similar voice.

Update: My all-time favorite column was on February 21, 1994, page 5. Unlike most of my writing from a decade ago, it still holds up.

While we’re at it, here’s my all-time favorite unpublished college essay, on a typical David Wertheimer paper-writing night. I’m pleased to report my business school assignments are usually done around midnight.

Past tense

Glasshaus Press closed up shop Friday.

During its brief existence, Glasshaus was a top-notch publisher, releasing books on Web site accessibility, usability and online development that were clear, useful, and enjoyable to read. Their passing is a typical dotcom bust insolvency issue, as far as I can tell, and a sad one.

Glasshaus turned me into an author last year (see right-hand column). I always knew my book would have a short shelf-life; after all, how sites are designed is continually evolving, and today’s epiphanies may be tomorrow’s gaffes. But I expected the book to dwindle on its own terms.

Still, while I’m being shuttled to the archives a little early, that doesn’t take away from the quality output Glasshaus produced in its day, and the joy I felt in participating.

Good luck to Bruce Lawson and his staff, and thank you for your good work.

Another book review

“Usability: The Site Speaks for Itself” gets a thumbs up from sitecritique.net. “This book is extremely important for project managers, as well as designers who are looking for some guidance before beginning a large project.”

Hot property

“The Site Speaks for Itself” is, as I write this, number 237 146 125 in Amazon’s Sales Rank listings.

That’s one hundred and twenty-five. Out of some two and a half million books. Hoo hah!

If you’ve spotted the book being promoted somewhere, please tell me; I’d love to know about it. If you’re not yet familiar with the book, visit Amazon’s main listing or their excellent Look Inside pages.

[See also: Behold the navel-gazing author, posted June 20]

Book Excerpt: content design concepts

A dissection: What constitutes a good content-based Web site? An excerpt from my chapter on Economist.com in “The Site Speaks for Itself.”

Concept: Good Site Content

A fundamental issue behind the redesign effort was a deceptively straightforward question: what constitutes a good content-based web site?

My job as design director for Economist.com was to define quality content delivery, and to both embrace and expand that definition for our site.

Our redesign would ultimately share numerous organizational cues with other successful content-driven web sites. We were not interested in cribbing others’ designs, but we did want to reflect upon the successes of other sites and integrate good ideas that had been established elsewhere. What, then, are the marks of a strong content-based site, and specifically, what aspects of content design had to be stressed and maximized by Economist.com?

Identity: The overall design has to reflect the voice and style of the offline component. The site’s logo is prominent and in the same place on every page. Our site in particular represents the brand in a unique design without imitating the print edition.

Navigation: The site should be easy to use regardless of the page, as users can enter the site at random points. The same basic navigational elements should be in set locations at all times.

Page length: While long pages can reduce navigation, and articles on content sites are often cut into multiple pages to increase ad impressions, most pieces are best read in one sitting, and are best displayed on a single screen when possible.

Clean content: Whenever possible, keep navigation and advertisements from getting in the way of reading an article. Ads should be labeled as such to help readers identify page components. Content sources should be labeled so users can easily identify items originating from the print edition.

Strong header: In a site with multiple content areas, the top of the page should signal where the reader has landed, giving context to the article and/or links on the page. This sense of place helps with orientation and navigation.

Consistency: As noted in the items above, the site should use the same elements repeatedly—similar locations for many items, and the same functions on each page, minimizing the user’s need to learn the site more than once.

Frequency: Establish a publishing schedule and convey it to the readership with date stamps and prominent placement of new content.

Balance: When a site has paid content, provide enough free material to give users a complete unpaid experience, and enough value past a pay barrier (separating unregistered visitors from subscriber-only content) to entice users to join.

In addition to this list, the development team had to consider editorial needs, such as a browser-based content management system, and publishing flexibility, like exporting text to both web pages and wireless PDA files. Balancing all these requirements would prove to be a far more challenging and exciting project than I had anticipated.

The Site Speaks for Itself, presenting case studies on Web site usability, is in stores now.