Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

VP Book Club: A gorgeous mistake

The imprints Viking and Penguin just launched a new website, www.vpbookclub.com. It is without doubt the most beautiful book website I have ever seen.

And it is a complete failure.

My coworker Altay put it best. It’s not a web site, it’s a “Flash monstrosity.” It’s beautiful. It glistens. It moves. But it doesn’t work like the web. Instead of building a website, Viking and Penguin have built an elegant custom application, like some Director-based CD-ROM from 1997. They let the graphic designers make a website, and shut the information architects up in a closet. On today’s web this sort of design doesn’t fly.

What’s wrong with it:

1. The site has lots of great content, but you can’t link to any of it. Everything takes place in Flash running under one URL. So if I want to blog about some new book I have to link to the top level and then tell people to perform a series of clicks. Yuck!

2. The site will never appear on Google. Google needs URLs to follow. It won’t “get inside” somebody’s Flash application. Without links and without Google, how exactly is this site supposed to get traffic?

3. The site has completely unnecessary “features.” There’s link to “customize your desk.” I figured this might be about selectig my favorite authors or my local bookstore. I’d love to do that.

No, it’s literally customizing my desk. The whole application has a desk metaphor, and they allow me to add a coffee cup and a cookie, and to change the surface of my desk to something like plywood or brushed metal. Do they seriously believe people want to visit a publishers website to tweak backgrounds move photographs of a coffee cup around?

4. External links go to PDFs. The site does have a few external links, to reading guides, to “About” and to “How to use this website.” They all go to PDFs. That’s like a child that knows only one song, and it’s “It’s a Small World After All!”

Users hate PDFs because clicking one generally launches an external application, like Acrobat Reader or Preview. That means delays, downloaded files, windows popping up and confusing new controls.

The dean of usability, Jacob Nielsen, wrote about the perils of PDF links back in 2003 (“Alertbox: PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption.“) He’s been right for four years now.

“Users get lost inside PDF files, which are typically big, linear text blobs that are optimized for print and unpleasant to read and navigate online. PDF is good for printing, but that’s it. Don’t use it for online presentation.”

It might be a good idea to provide the reading guides as PDFs, perhaps as a link from an HTML version. Sometimes people want to print those out. But who makes the “Help” page a PDF?

5. News, but no RSS. One link they’re missing is to RSS. The site collects author schedules, but you can’t link to them and you can’t put them in your feed reader. It took me six clicks to find out that Jasper Fforde is appearing in “Portland” (of course, not my Portland):

Archive > U-Z > The Well of Lost Plots > Jasper Fforde > More > More

Are they really expecting I’ll check back and do this regularly?

5. Flash doesn’t work like the web. Nielsen wrote this back in 2000, when Flash was at it height (“Alertbox: Flash: 99% Bad”). He’s modified his 99% number somewhat since then, but the main point is as true as ever–Flash “breaks web fundamentals.” You can’t bookmark pages; the back button doesn’t work; The links aren’t blue; the scroll bars aren’t the regular ones (I missed theirs at first); you can’t use the brower’s find function and you can’t resize text. As for accessibility, there is none. The site is as invisible to the blind as it is to Google.

The back button issue is particularly acute. The browser one doesn’t work since everything is under one URL. And the site itself provides the link only fitfully. As I understand it they’ve decided that “back” is about tree-level navigation, not user-path navigation. So, you can get “back” from an excerpt to the book page, but you can’t get “back” when you click from a book to an author. Authors aren’t “below” books in their navigational tree, so there’s no path upward.

This is everything that is wrong with trees. The message is that their structure is the important one. The way you’re using the website is unimportant. Suck it up.

Correction: Apparently they’ve faked up the back button. The URL never changes, but they’re using frames to keep track of where you are. It’s a neat trick. I missed it because I look for the forward and back buttons to operate on the URL.

6. It’s designed for the wrong people. People design for people like them. (I am not immune from this error!) Unfortunately, this looks like it was created by hip, young graphic designers. These aren’t your typical readers. Readers like reading more than they like graphics and animation, and around 40 most people’s eyes start to go so. Right-aligned un-resizeable 10-point sans sertif type on a changeable background is pretty, but it’s dreadful to read.

To sum up, the site is beautiful, but misconceived. It doesn’t work like the web, and it’s not part of it. You go there to find out about a book and you’re trapped in a shiny snow globe—pretty, confusing and remote.

The idea for a new site was good. Publishers, like libraries, have found themselves singularly disadvantaged on the web, passed by retailers like Amazon and by Google Books. It’s great to see them take another crack at the Web. But this was the wrong crack. Flash-based design like this went out for content sites six or seven years ago. It fundamentally misunderstands what the web is for and what people do on it. It was replaced by design that uses standard HMTL and which make it easy to navigate, bookmark and link to the content.

It’s not to late. There’s a lot of great content here, and some good design work around the edges. Someone needs to take hold of this Flash application and redo it as a website. Permanent link-URLs scattered here and there will not be enough. Fortunately, HTML is easier than Flash—easier to write and easier to maintain (and the people who do it don’t get paid as much). Reconceive this as a website and Viking and Pengin might have something worth all their effort.

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