Tuesday, August 14, 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.


Blogger jmnlman said...

Oh my this is hideous!

8/14/2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Lampbane said...

Amen, Tim, amen.

...why do people keep thinking thaty graphic designers can design web pages? Or why do people keep graduating from graphic design schools without actually learning how to do proper design work? Graphic design is about creating beautiful things that serve a function. This web site here? Not serving its function very well.

8/15/2007 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Buda Baby said...

It took me less than a minute to give up on that site. For one thing, everything that I clicked took ages to load, and I have a very fast connection!

One Flash site that I think is great is JK Rowling's (jkrowling.com). Lots to click and play around with, but it all works and it is easy to get to content. There are also a lot of tricks embedded in it (for example, if you click things in certain combinations, you are awarded with things like an image of a hand-written draft or a sketch of one of the characters). It's a fun, imaginative, and addictive site.

8/15/2007 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Lilithcat said...

"Form follows function."

-- Louis Sullivan

Man was right!

8/15/2007 12:23 PM  
Blogger Gina said...

I am a web standards nut and follower of the great Mr. Nielsen. Agree that this site could be so much better, especially in the sense of bookmarkable links now that I use and like to collect links at del.icio.us.

JK Rowling's site is a fine exception as it has a specific purpose and encourages playful exploration. However, I usually get my news from more functional sites that are smart enough to provide good RSS feeds.

8/15/2007 4:09 PM  
Blogger mark said...

Hit the backbutton. It works! Try it before criticizing?

8/15/2007 4:30 PM  
Blogger Stephanie M. said...


I think the thing I like most about the J.K. Rowling site, actually, is that there is a super plain text version of it, which is what I always use (unless I'm in the mood to play the little minigames to unlock secrets). I actually prefer using plain text sites, and that's why all my sites are like that.

8/15/2007 4:53 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Oooh, very clever. They're faking it by having two frames—Flash and "history." The latter fakes the browser history for you.

Cool trick, and a neat way to get around the Flash problem. (That said, adding Frames just makes the accessibility problems deeper.)

8/15/2007 4:53 PM  
Anonymous Amanda said...

The frames don't cause any accessibility problems-- it is simply a "hidden frame" used for browser communication so you can keep your back button. Read on at http://html.cita.uiuc.edu/nav/frames.php.

8/15/2007 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that this criticism is falling into a common mistake of assuming the role and goals of a website are one thing. Not every site is a stream of information. Some sites are for branding, to capture peoples imagination, to create an atmosphere, to convey that something is special. I think that this site does it very well. I get information on the books, I get excited about them, and I get a unique experience. I dont think the intention was to create some sort of info-rich, HTML friendly, all-text-all-the-time, web resources (there are plenty of those) but to create a unique marketing tooland experience. Give readers something new. Unique this site is, functional (believe it or not - it also is - they've really done an amazing job with the flash of this site). Of course, it would be great if we could link in, and if google could pick up the content, but I actually take my hat off to them for trying something new. And for doing a pretty good job at it. The web is not only about rss readers and search engine results. Have you critisized movie websites for their over-use of flash or do you just sort of say "well yah, but that is just about hype and style and getting people excited?". The fact that we have hype and style AND info in this site is something worth some praise.

8/16/2007 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

further to anonymous ... the site (and moviesites, etc) ARE Google trackable (similar to back-button 'tricks') when created by developers that know their stuff ... AND, if they thought of it, they easily could have delivered the ability to deep-link to any 'page' in the Flash. I'll bet they do that as this site evolves.

8/16/2007 2:34 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for the comment. I hear where you're coming from, but I think you're wrong. Here's why:

1. Readers don't "think" in publishers. There is precious little branding in publishing, and almost none in literary fiction. (You get it in things like the Dummies books, although the brand is that, not the publisher itself, Wiley.) This means few readers will ask "What is Viking/Penguin publishing this month?"

Authors are the brand. And if they ask "What is Jasper Fforde up to?" they're going to use Google. Publishers are already doing a terrible job there. I went three pages on Google without finding a publisher page for him. LibraryThing is on the first page. When tiny, low-rent and low-cost LibraryThing, which spreads its Google PageRank across more than 100,000 authors loses out on one of a publisher's major authors, something is wrong. (I'd wager money, incidentally, that vpbookclub cost more to make than LibraryThing, and that, even though publishers arne't paying anything for it, LibraryThing ends up selling more copies of VP books than their site.)

2. It's true people occasionally want an "experience." But rarely. Big, rich, luck-of-the-draw experiences are an early-internet thing. People might want to watch a specific trailer, but they're not that interested in going to a studio website to see what trailers the studio is pushing. They go right to the movie they want or to something like Apple, which has all the trailers. Again, studios, like publishers, have minimal brand identity for most consumers—and be fed marketing pablum.

If you don't believe me, compare the Alexa stats for some of the expensive Flash-heavy studio sites and some informational sites. Paramount has a rank of 78,000; Dreamworks 84,000. Rotten Tomatoes is 792.

The same goes for the Flash-based music label sites. Warner is at 61,000. Sony is at 30,000. To put that in context, Sony Music is getting only slightly more traffic than the website of my local newspaper in Portland, ME! Meanwhile, Last.fm is at 298. I'm sorry, people want information and specific entertainment, not "experiences" and "branding."

3. As someone (Steve Krug?) says, "users don't want your content, they want THEIR content." People are quite eager to find out about books. But I don't think they want the combination of slide-show passivity and "where-do-I-click" demandingness of vpbookclub.

4. By the way, I didn't even mention the tackiness of calling something a "book club" that has no actual social interaction. (A locked PDF of a reading guide does not social interaction make!) Vpbookclub is mostly from a graphic designer's point of view, and I sympathize (while I disgaree) with how they see the world, but the name is pure marketing-jerk.

8/16/2007 3:03 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Anonymous. I appreciate assertive viewpoints. Why don't we test this?

Let's take five authors from the VP site. I will wager $100 that vpbookclub does not appear on the first page of Google results for those authors three months from now. If any of them do, you get the money.


8/16/2007 3:07 PM  
Blogger undeadgoat said...

. . . You know, Tim, unless you are tracking IP addresses, you could never actually fulfill that wager. :P

8/16/2007 9:21 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

You mean I'd need to bet with someone non-anonymous?

8/16/2007 9:26 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Tim-- I agree with a lot of your comments, but I'm not sure about the first two. I just googled it and it comes up (first, actually). Also, I noticed that there are trackback urls for almost all of the content, so you can link to all of it. Not so Yuck?

8/23/2007 8:29 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Okay, you can search for the site ITSELF on Google, but that's a known-item search. Here are all the pages Google knows about:


Search for any of the books—even the three on display—and you won't find them.

eg., http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Red+Rover+Deirdre+McNamer&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

As for the permalinks, they're a good idea. I'm pretty sure they weren't here to start. I'm guessing someone read this, frankly.

8/23/2007 8:50 PM  
Blogger prosfilaes said...

I find it interesting that some of the complaints here are the same one's I've had about LibraryThing; everytime I start working with the recommendations, I notice that the back button isn't working the way I would expect. The library can do that, too, as buttons go to the same URL.

10/12/2008 2:21 PM  

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