13.0297 some recent books

Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Sat, 27 Nov 1999 03:24:26 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 297.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 27 Nov 1999 08:13:08 +0000
From: Toby Burrows <tburrows@library.uwa.edu.au>
Subject: Some recent books

Cooper, Alan. The inmates are running the asylum. Indianapolis: Sams, 1999.
ISBN 0-672-31649-8 US$25.00

Computers may be everywhere, but why are they so hard to use? What's wrong
with software that it often makes us feel stupid? What can we do about it?
Alan Cooper thinks he knows. Drawing on more than twenty years in the
software design business, he anatomizes the current state of "insanity" in
software development and offers a radical, but eminently sensible, solution.

The extent of our present problems is clearly and sharply drawn. A culture
dominated by programmers and engineers produces "dancing bearware" -
software which is both too clumsy and too clever. Epitomized by Microsoft's
products, this kind of software suffers from incoherent design and a
proliferation of unnecessary features.

Cooper's answer is interaction design. Not to be confused with interface
design, this approach involves designing software around the practical goals
which users want to achieve, while being careful not to violate their more
personal goals (such as not wanting to feel stupid). The design process
takes place before programming begins, and is modelled through specific user
personas - hypothetical archetypes of actual users - using the software in a
small number of key scenarios. This is the antithesis of traditional
software development, with its task-directed approach, its emphasis on
meeting as many needs of as many potential users as possible, and its
tendency to see design as something added at the end of the programming
process. While he recommends interviewing potential users and observing
their behaviour, he advises against focus groups and customer-driven "wish
lists" of features.

Cooper's aim is to make a hard-headed business case for software development
firms to improve their products, and he does this very effectively. But his
methodology is also relevant to anyone designing computer applications -
including Web or CD-ROM resources in the humanities. His views on the
broader effects and implications of technology - though less sophisticated
and wide-ranging than, say, Donald Norman's in The Invisible Computer - are
forthright and refreshing. "Technology doesn't have to be so dehumanizing",
he says. We should get away from a culture which blames the user for the
faults of the software, and the key to this is the right design methodology.

Fleming, Jennifer. Web navigation: designing the user experience.
Sebastopol, CA.: O'Reilly, 1998. ISBN 1-56592-351-0 US$34.95

There are still far too many Web sites which are hard to navigate. Faced
with inconsistent layouts, ambiguous labels and complicated structures,
users tend to give up and go elsewhere. In a highly competitive environment,
Web site designers can't afford to provoke this kind of reaction.

With this in mind, Jennifer Fleming offers the first systematic guide to
designing navigational structures for Web sites. Her focus is on
user-centred design, and she discusses a range of methods for finding out
what users want and how they are likely to use a site. These include user
profiles and scenarios as well as focus groups, prototyping and testing. She
also offers advice on the process of creating and maintaining a Web site.

The second half of the book is devoted to specific types of sites, including
shopping, entertainment, educational and community sites. For each of these,
Fleming discusses the likely goals and expectations of users, and examines
how they should be reflected in the navigational design of the site. She
also takes a couple of leading Web sites in each category and looks at the
way they design their navigational paths.

This is an excellent guide to the issues and principles of designing the
intellectual structures underlying Web sites. It's practical without being
overly prescriptive or technical, and is full of useful advice and tips.

North, Simon, and Paul Hermans. Sams teach yourself XML in 21 days.
Indianapolis: Sams, 1999. ISBN 1-57521-396-6 US$29.99

This is the latest in a rapidly lengthening line of "introductions to XML".
It is not aimed at programmers but does presuppose some technical knowledge
about the Web and HTML. Some familiarity with SGML is not expected, but
would help nevertheless. It follows the standard format for this series - 21
daily lessons, with specific exercises and questions - and builds quickly
from basic information to quite advanced applications.

The content is mainly technical, covering such topics as the structure of
XML documents, XML objects and the Document Object Model, stylesheets and
XSL, and hyperlinking with XLink and XPointer. But it also aims to cover
"real world XML applications", which includes information on how Web
browsers handle XML and guidance on using the Omnimark programming language
to process XML documents. All this is explained clearly and precisely, with
good use of examples. But like all books on XML this one suffers from the
lack of mature XML applications out there in the "real world" and its focus
remains largely experimental.

XML Developer's Resource Library. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
1999. ISBN 0-13-020311-4 US$119.99

This package of three books and two accompanying CD-ROMS - also published
separately - offers a rich source of expertise for anyone working on
XML-based applications. In "XML: The Annotated Specification", Bob DuCharme
presents the entire official specification for XML, as approved by the World
Wide Web Consortium, with extensive and detailed annotations. David
Megginson's "Structuring XML Documents" focuses mainly on DTDs (Document
Type Definitions) in both SGML and XML. He looks at the design and
maintenance of DTDs, drawing on model DTDs like the TEI (Text Encoding
Initiative) and HTML 4.0. The emphasis is on book-oriented DTDs rather than
database-oriented ones. Megginson also tackles concepts and issues
associated with Architectural Forms, which enable common DTD architectures
to be mapped and linked.

The third component, "Designing XML Internet Applications" (by Michael
Leventhal, David Lewis and Matthew Fuchs), is the most practical. The
authors show how to build specific Web-based applications - a bulletin
board, customer database, search engine, and so on - using XML for the
underlying data format. They also look at XML e-mail and parsers, as well as
data gathering and negotiation. A knowledge of Perl and Java programming is
assumed, and the content is aimed at systems developers.

Humanist Discussion Group
Information at <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>