Thursday, February 17, 2011

Review - Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class

February 17, 2011 Posted by Jason Irwin No comments
Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class


As a developer I tend to (subconsciously) consider web interface design as a soft art that takes a back seat to the science of computer programming. I’ve long needed to brush up on my design skills and was excited to review O’Reilly’s series - Scott & Neil's Designing Web Interfaces Master Class. I was hopeful of an in-depth overview of web interface design with plenty of battle-hardened nuggets of wisdom. The presenters were sufficiently credentialed to offer such nuggets of wisdom and to me, the best part of this course was Bill Scott’s insight into designs from his time at Yahoo! and especially his current company Netflix extremely interesting. While I enjoyed this course and gained some knowledge in the process, I’m not sure that I – a UX rookie – learned enough for this series to live up to its master class title. I certainly don’t feel like I gained mastery of the subject matter in the process. Pedantic, I know, but those were my expectations based on the title and they weren’t really met by the content. The series isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination – it just didn’t fully live up to my expectations.


As with the previous O’Reilly video series I reviewed, the series production was of extremely high quality with superb audio and video providing an immersive experience. The presenters were both extremely competent, knowledgeable and well-spoken and had plenty of relevant experience.

A minor annoyance with the content is that, when demonstrating key layout points, the presenters used screenshots and/or videos. While I’m sure that logging into the many websites utilized as examples in the series would have constituted a logistical (and personal privacy) nightmare, the use of static screenshots and video recordings didn’t really work. There were a number of awkward moments throughout the series where the presenter wished to illustrate a point and resorted to rewinding video or, worse still, pointing at a static screenshot and asking the viewer to use their imagination.

The course got off to a pretty slow start. The longest video (weighing in at almost 1.5 hours) introduces a myriad of possible screen layouts with suggestions as to which layout should be used when. Unfortunately the video is long winded and pretty subjective – what I loved about the Croll & Power’s Communylitics Master Class video series was that everything was backed up with statistics and/or studies. When reviewing different layout options I would have loved to see some similar statistics applied – specifically detailing why users act the way they act with comparisons of layouts based on quantitative data and detailing where users spend their time on websites, etc. etc.

Instead, the screen layout and user control videos felt more like best of the web affairs with the presenter spending a substantial amount of time showing off really nice websites, grouped by layout/control types. While there was nothing wrong with these videos (I would love O’Reilly to make and distribute a poster with all of the included layout types and screenshots) the same impact could have been achieved in a lot less time. Also, knowing that combined these accounted for almost 50% of the series, I was a little disheartened having finished watching the titles and feeling that I really hadn’t learned all that much.

As the series progressed a bunch of patterns and anti-patterns were discussed. The series really came into its own with Bill providing many insights into designs at Yahoo! and Netflix and I found it refreshing not only to hear about (and see) real life experiences of good and bad design decisions but to gain insight into the world of prominent and relevant web giants – this is something you don’t often get a chance to see!

All in all I found the series to be useful without fully living up to expectations – had this been advertised as an introduction or even a mid-level course then I think the title was acceptable, but as a master class the information was not prescriptive enough. If I, as a developer with little design experience, didn’t gain much knowledge from the title, I can’t imagine that a designer would gain anything at all. I would recommend this series as I thought it was both enjoyable and a worthwhile watch – but I would adjust my expectations a little before watching…