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Review of  Web Site Design is Communication Design

Reviewer: Sophie Piron
Book Title: Web Site Design is Communication Design
Book Author: Thea M van der Geest
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Computational Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 13.1192

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Date: Fri, 26 Apr 2002 08:00:10 -0700 (PDT)
From: Sophie Piron
Subject: van der Geest (2001) Web site Design is Communication Design

van der Geest, Thea M. (2001) Web Site Design is Communication Design. John Benjamins Publishing Company, paperback ISBN 1-58811-010-9, vii+165pp, $34.95, Document Design Companion Series 2.

Sophie Piron, Universite du Quebec a Montreal

This book focuses on information architecture and communication issues within the process of designing web pages. The analysis is based on case studies.

The book is divided into six chapters. In the first one, entitled "From gadget to medium", the author insists on the fact that the web has evolved from a technology show room to a communication medium. As a matter of fact, nowadays people search the web in order to find information. For this reason, the web has become an enormous field of communication. Therefore a communication perspective must be taken when comes the time of designing a web site. Both traditional and new communication questions must be addressed for messages to be effective.

Traditional communication questions concern the goals of the web site, the audience's expectations, the site content, etc. In contrast, when it comes to new communication questions, web designers have to think about modes of presentation, kinds of interactions or transactions, and also how to present the amount of information organizations usually possess.

The book has two main orientations. The first one deals with the process of decisions undertaken to achieve a communicative goal. The other orientation provides communication-focused information through case studies.

Chapter 2, "The web sites", presents the ten case studies on which the book is based. The selection of these ten web sites has been carried upon two issues : on one hand, the range of communicative functions found in a web site (such as factual information, persuasive information, transaction support, interaction support, instruction, entertainment); on the other hand, the range of presentation modes found in those sites (such as diagrams, images, animated images, canned video, live video, canned sound, live sound).

There has been also a try for bringing diversity between the different case studies. But as the author says, the selected cases are not considered a sample from a much larger group. Instead they are studied for their own. Two tables summarize the content of the web pages chosen, taking the perspective of the communicative functions and the presentation modes.

This chapter then describes the web sites chosen for the study. The ten examples are based in the United States (in the Washington area) and propose web pages of public services, local government, state transport, but also local web giants such as Amazon and Microsoft. Each of these sites is described through a unified structure : what the site is about, how the site all started from, the reasons for selection and the presentation of the organization members interviewed. Finally, the author describes the kind of approach she used for building up her fieldwork. She discusses the questions she asked to her interviewers.

Chapter 3, "Why using the web?", is a review of the various motives for organizations to start using the web. The analysis is based only on the organizations pertaining to the case study. Each reason for building up a web site is discussed and exemplified. Distributing a large amount of information, updating information that changes rapidly, reducing costs and efforts, improving customer relations, etc. are some of these reasons.

Chapter 4, "The design process of web sites", proposes an analysis of the design process web site designers and producers have to follow. This process is defined as "the series of decisions, ranging from global, strategic decisions in the early stages of the design process to detailed production decisions when people are making pages (...)" (p. 57). The existence of an ideal list of sequence of decisions is "a myth" (p. 57). The situation-related factors make each design process different. Still there is an underlying framework : the one presented in the book is adapted from Siegel's model (Siegel 1997). This model is explained through the ten case studies.

The design process of web sites can be divided into four phases.
In phase 1 (strategy and tactics) web designers must evaluate how the web strategy fits into the overall business strategy.
In phase 2 (creative decisions) people generate ideas about what the site will be at the end. At this stage, there is no html writing at all. What is done is a definition of the look, the content, the possibility of different kinds of interactions with customers (transactions for instance), the technical infrastructure and the project planning.
Phase 3 (production process) is the execution of the preceding phase. Written content is produced, as well as sound and images. At this stage, technical checks and testings are performed. And approval must be given on the achievement of global goals (intended purposes, communication policy of the organization, etc.).
Finally, phase 4 (launch and maintenance) focuses on an important aspect when publishing on the web : directing the intended audiences to the new web site. This can be achieved by several means like advertising the site, making it retrievable by search engines, and also creating incoming links to the site. Another aspect that must be taken into account when launching a web site is its maintenance. Organizations usually face content explosion and as a consequence have to plan re-design quite rapidly. The author insists on the important fact (too often forgotten) that a web site changes the organization itself because it changes the way the organization deals with communication.

Chapter 5, "Evaluating effects", is about assessing the site once it is presented to the public. The goals of such an evaluation are reviewed, as well as the different kinds of evaluations that can be performed (formative versus summative evaluation).

The author gives four topics that should be submitted to evaluation. These are effectiveness (is the site found by search engines, with visitors' own words?), appreciation (is the content attractive both visually and verbally?), usefulness (are visitors satisfied with the content?) and functionality (are intended functions fulfilled?).

The chapter then summarizes the methods that were used for the evaluation by the ten web sites in the study. These methods include visitor feedback, online surveys, focus groups and collection of various types of data (number of hits, pages viewed, visits, etc.).

The final chapter, "Web site design is communication design", presents five checklists which make clear what kinds of decisions have to be made in the design process. Each checklist contains the people who should be involved in that part of the process, a series of important issues to be considered for each decision and possible questions to these issues with their answers.

These checklists are process-oriented and go beyond the sum of activities and issues reported by the organizations under study.
Checklist 1 is called "strategic and tactical decisions". It covers topics such as goals, audiences, audiences' expectations, effect on the organization, strategic requirements.
Checklist 2, "creative decisions and project planning", is mostly about leading ideas, main content, interaction and transaction facilities, multimedia, technical infrastructure.
Checklist 3, "production decisions", considers issues on html templates, production team, review meetings, quality of the structure, content, multimedia, interactions.
Checklist 4 verifies several items like "approval, launch and maintenance decisions".
Finally, checklist 5, "evaluation and re-design decisions", asks questions about re-design planning, conditions for effectiveness of the site, cost-effectiveness of the site, ease of use and visitors' appreciation.

This work is an academic analysis of case studies, in the sense that the report is constructed directly from the fieldwork and conducted by a progressive reflexion. The choice of the case studies is justified and amply explained. The following chapters go beyond the simple presentation of results by proposing a mix of theoretical reflections and practical examples.

The subdivision of each chapter into many thematic sections and the reproduction of print screens make the book readable and pleasant. It also gives a visual counterpart of the explanations proposed. Moreover the case study approach makes the reader enter a very realistic discussion. It allows to point out unpredictable effects carried by a web site. But it is important to insist that the reader must not expect to find a generic communication design to be applied instantly on particular web sites. First of all because such a thing does not exist. Every case is different from each other. Another reason is that the practical side of a communication design is far from being unique.

The communication design the author presents in the last chapter is the culmination of her work. Up to chapter 6 everything has always been related to case studies and this last chapter overpasses this style of writing. The checklists proposed are the conclusions of the fieldwork (i.e. the theory learned from practical examples). It is not about technical information at all, but instead it is aimed at guiding the management of a web project. These checklists provide a way to deal with the long-run task of constructing a web site. It makes this study suitable for management professionals. It opens them a whole horizon of strategic decisions.

The main reflexion to draw from this book is that building up a web site is not just a matter of technical details. Behind the technical matters, there is a process of decisions on content and diffusion of it.

Siegel, David (1997) Secrets of successful web sites. Project management on the World Wide Web. Indianapolis: Hayden Books.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Sophie Piron is a PhD student in cognitive science and computer science at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. She is a research assistant at the department of linguistics. She is also currently doing some research at the Computer Service of this university with the aim of re-designing web pages to make them more customer-oriented.