Book Review

The Art of Readable Code – Book Review

The Art of Readable Code – Simple and Practical Techniques for Writing Better Code – by Dustin Boswell and Trevor Foucher – is a book on advice on making your code more readable.

Why would you want your code to be more readable? It might not seem so important while you are coding, specially if you are a solo developer like me. But when you next have to change or debug something in your code, you will be grateful that you spent the extra time. Not only that, but it is much easier to find bugs on readable code.

One book I will always remember is Code Complete, by Steve McConnell. I read it the year after I finished university, and I immediately loved it. It was full of useful techniques and ideas on how to make your code better – more readable, less error prone, better formatted, etc. And it used plenty of studies to demonstrate what really worked.

I bought The Art of Readable Code half expecting it to be a poor version of Code Complete. I was very pleasantly surprised to find to be not only a nice, fun read but also full of interesting ideas and excellent examples.

When I finished, my Kindle version was full of highlights and bookmarked pages.

Highly recommended.

Book Review

The Developer’s Code – Book Review

The Developer's Code – What Real Programmers Do – by Ka Wai Cheung is supposed to contain “nuggets of wisdow” on how to sustain a healthy relationship with your work.

Overall, I found a few interesting tidbits on the whole thing. It is a relatively pleasant read and worth the time to read it and the price of the book.

What I liked:
– The Parallels between architecture and developing – and why some of the architectural metaphors can make planning excessive for software
– Perk can be destructive for higher-level thinking (according to a TED talk from Dan Pink on motivation)
– If you can, start writing the most interesting part of o program and work out from there
– First impressions of a program can be skewed because we don't know how we will conform to it
– Suggestions on how to schedule pet projects
– Make two things better about the software each day – even if they are small items such as better error messages and comments
– Some techniques for handling your to-dos
– the off-time concept – where for two hour shift per developer, there are no interruptions
– the generals ideas on code generation.

Book Review

Killer Headlines for Web Content – Book Review

Killer Headlines for Web Content, by Nick Osborne is an e-book by WordTracker.

It is more of a report than a book, at 65 pages. This is a problem in the sense that it limits the amount of content it covers, but it also makes it a quick read.

The book proposes to cover a few approaches so that you can write better headlines.

It does have good suggestions – mostly the classic approaches (numbered lists, fear, how to, etc) – but it does feel quite oriented for news and generic articles, rather than business content. It does mention this in the Introduction, and says that these headlines work, and it is your job to fit it to your pages and articles to make them work.

I feel that the approaches were reasonably well covered, and it did give me a few ideas. I might even look at my notes when I'm looking for a good headline.

At the current discounted price – US$19 – I feel that the book is worth its price, but I wouldn't recommend it at its full price.

Book Review

Smashing CSS: Professional Techniques for Modern Layout: Book Review

Smashing CSS: Professional Techniques for Modern Layout – by Eric Meyer covers a number of techniques, tools, tips and tricks on using CSS. The book is very clear about the level of the reader – advanced beginner to intermediate.

If you are really advanced, you will probably know about most tricks, and if you are too much of a beginner you will probably be confused most of the time. This is not a CSS starter book.

The book is divided in 3 parts:

Part I- Fundamentals

Chapter 1 covers a number of tools, such as Firebug, Diagnostic Style Sheets, Reboot Styles and IE9.js. There are many interesting points made about the tools, and it can be very useful if you don't know all the tools (I knew some, but not all of them).

Chapter 2 is about selectors. My (Kindle) chapter is heavily underlined and bookmarked. Several good tips and explanations on the finer points of pseudo-classes, pseudo-elements, attribute and child selectors.

Part II  – Essentials

Chapter 3 – Tips – has tips on a number of areas, such as server-specific CSS, styling the html tag, indenting and outdenting lists, and much more

Chapter 4 is all about layout. Most ideas on how to do layout here (mostly ways to do different kinds of grids) are available on the web, but I found the overview and discussion to be useful.

Chapter 5 – Effects has a bunch interesting effects you can achieve with CSS. A few are outdated by CSS 3 but are still presented.

Part III – Cutting Edge

Chapter 6 is all about tables. Mostly about different ways of styling (which are much better than the class heavy ways I've used on the past). There are also two very interesting sections – making CSS based maps and graphs. Both are quite clever, and personally I have never seen it done this way.

Chapter 7 mostly covers HTML 5. The new declarations, media queries, the new color and shadow types and 2D Transforms. If you are interested in the subject, I recommend the HTML 5 and CSS 3 book.

Overall, a good and short read.









Book Review

Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web – Book Review

I have just finished reading Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web by Lukas Mathis. The book covers how to create applications and web sites that people can use and love.

As an application developer, that was my main focus when reading, although many insights also cover my (right now very limited) web development.

I highlighted tons of the book while reading on a Kindle (which has awfully slow highlighting!), because so much of it seemed useful.

One interesting bit for people working solo like me is that the beginning of chapters will mention when techniques are mostly useful for larger groups.

The book is divided in three parts:

1) Research

– How to understand what your users need – contextual interviews, remote shadowing.
– Interesting points about text usability (which not very surprising, sounded somewhat like most copywriting advice I've seen).
– Card Sorting – how to organize hierarchies on products or sites that meet the user's mental model.

2) Design

– Sketching, Prototyping, Storyboards and Mock-ups – various ways to get your design right before you start coding, and techniques to do so, such as Paper Prototype Testing – which I found interesting but a bit quaint (I feel that for most desktop apps, I might be faster doing actual screens with Delphi rather drawing them in paper). They do suggest that users tend to be more critical on paper prototypes, as they make it seem like you have invested less time than in a full working prototype.
– Natural User Interfaces
– Fitt's law, which cover how target sizes for mouses and touch screens should be considered. One of the principles mentioned bother me – Screen Edges have Infinite Size – if you have another monitor to the side, not really. Of course, in a regular, one monitor setup that makes the screen edges easier to hit.
– How to use animations properly (explaining state changes, directing user attention, etc)
– Don't interrupt your user – front-load questions whenever possible and whenever possible, just do what seems best instead of stopping to ask the user about it. Use undo instead when possible.
– Remove preferences when possible – just choose what should be best for the user. That reduces the number of configuration options – thus making it easier to find the important ones. Each preference is a kind of mode for your app, and all these options have to be supported by the developer. And every option can make a problem harder to debug.

I recently had an user complaining about large, fuzzy images after passing them through STGThumb. After a while I discovered that he was setting JPG Smoothing (which I wouldn't remember existed without looking at the program – I implemented this feature nearly 10 years ago at a user's request and never touched it again) to 100% – which works as a strong blur filter.

That would be covered by one of their suggestions on how to avoid preferences – say no to your users! Other ways they suggest is running an usability test or having implicit preferences, such as using the previous settings.
– Speed – some tips on how to make your programs seem faster
– How to avoid features – something that all developers should know.
– How to remove features – I particularly liked the idea on getting anonymous usage statistics to figure out how and if specific features of your app are being used.

3) Implementation

– Usability Testing, including Guerilla (getting random people on a cafe to try your product, for example), regular or remote (using Skype screen sharing or something similar).
– Common Mistakes when testing
– A/B Testing
– Collecting Usage Data

Overall, I liked the book, and I feel it can really help me improve my designs. I have a few ideas of things I'd like to try with my own programs already.

Book Review

Article Marketing: The Write Way to Build More Links – Karon Thackston – Book Review

Article marketing is now horribly popular, to the point that Google had updates to specially tame article directories and content farms. Of course, that happened because articles are an easy way to get links to your site, as well as get content to Adsense sites.

You have probably noticed that the average quality of those article is awful. WordTracker Masterclass: Article Marketing: The Write Way to Build More Links by Karon Thackston teaches how to write better articles, that get more results.

Chapter 1 begins by looking at your audience. Obviously, whatever is your topic different audiences will have different perspectives and interests, and the article will simply work better for them if it is tailored to them.

Chapter 2 looks at the various styles of article – such as interviews, cases studies, top N lists.  This covers a large part of the book, specially as it has a lot of articles demonstrating the style. Some are interesting and useful, and others just beg to be skipped over.

This list is useful for ideas on how to approach a topic. Some of this (and more) is covered on another of WordTracker's book, The Web Content Recipe Book.

Chapter 3 has some notes on planning content and getting topics.

Chapter 4 goes into optimizing articles for search engines. Being a WordTracker book, of course it mentions keyword research. Personally I like and recommend Market Samurai . Not that WordTracker isn't great (and it has the advantage of having its own huge database), but it is quite expensive in comparison.

Chapter 5 has useful tips on how make an article outline, as well as the right way to write your Bio/Author box.

Chapter 6 covers title and opening paragraphs. It is somewhat useful, but I have seen better copywriting suggestions in other books, such as Writing Kick-ass WebSite Sales Copy .

Chapter 7 and 8 talk about how to write articles that get reprinted and how to publish it. It list site names as well as ideas on how to select the best.

It also suggests that to get the best results, you should avoid article-blasters and getting your articles everywhere (the Pagerank you get from most sites is going to be minimal and there can be repercussions on Google's duplicate content filters) and what I felt is the best suggestion in the book – place the article on your site and wait till it is indexed before you distribute. I have no idea if this makes any real difference on Google ranking, but it does sound good.

So, is this book worth your time and money? Barely so, at the current launch price (US$29). It is acceptable, but doesn't cover a lot that is detailed in other books I mentioned throughout this review. I recommend you get one of those instead.








Book Review

Save the Pixel – Review

Save the Pixel is a web design book by Ben Hunt. I recently read and reviewed another book by him, Convert! .

Save the Pixel is all about minimalist web design, thus the name. One of the principles repeated over and over is that you should not waste screen space – and most importantly, the visitors attention – with elements that don't contribute for the message.

He also is a believer that the site should be designed with the content – instead of the traditional template/content separation. Seeing his examples, it is easy to see what he means, and it does looks like it makes sense.

There are several chapters about how to make your design work, with explanations on how to use white space, size, contrast and color to make sure that your content gets the attention of the visitor.

Overall, the book was good and I learned a few lessons, but I liked Convert! more. Maybe because the topic seemed more interesting and less design related.  It also very much feels like an expanded sequel in some of the aspects covered by Save the Pixel.

One thing that I'd like to have seen more is actual conversion data for the many case studies.  There were maybe 2 or 3 stats throughout the whole book, unlike Convert! where they were everywhere.

Ben Hunt also has a web design course . It is video based (with some spreadsheets and PDFs too) explaining design, marketing, SEO and the business. I finished the course, and learned a lot, and I have posted a review in Ben Hunt's Web Design Course Review. You also get the book for free when you join this course.

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Book Review

Convert!: Designing Web Sites to Increase Traffic and Conversion – Review

I've just finished reading Convert!: Designing Web Sites to Increase Traffic and Conversion – by Ben Hunt. The book covers many ways to improve your traffic – and most importantly – how to improve the conversion rate you get from that traffic.

The book is divided in two parts. The first part is Designing for traffic.

This part of the book is about his ideas on how to get better SEO and relevant traffic – multiplicity, good keyword targeting and appropriate use of the Awareness Ladder.

The Awareness Ladder allows your site to reach deeper markets by covering multiple stages of the same market, starting at Step 0 – where people have a problem but don't yet realize they have a need for the solution you are offering – and step 5 – Convinced of your solution and ready to buy. Pages should go and gradually convert the user till they reach Step 5, and – very important – be targeted to catch users from all steps.

That also cover the multiplicity – your pages should cover each a good keyword, to get good SEO positioning. And what is a good keyword?

A good keyword should have low competition (so that you can get in at a good position), enough visitors, and be targeted to your solution. The book explains various ways to get these keywords, and their suggestion is why I got Market Samurai , which is a great tool for finding useful keywords.

The second part is Designing for conversion.

This part covers how to design, set and optimize your funnels – the path from your landing page to your goals. It also covers the specific design of pages, how to keep a visitor's attention and setting up your calls to action.

The book finishes with a coverage of how to optimize your site with Google Web Optimizer.

Overall, I really liked the book – to the point that after reading it I entered his Pro Design and Marketing course.

There is clearly a lot to be learned from this book. I've started adding simple extra landing pages to my site, with some promising results. I also have much more in the copious notes I took that I plan to apply over time to my sites.

Very much recommended – Convert!: Designing Web Sites to Increase Traffic and Conversion.

Book Review

Pragmatic Programmer’s Automatic Kindle e-book delivery

I've bought many e-books over the years at the Pragmatic Bookshelf.

One neat feature I haven't noticed till today is that now they can deliver your e-books to your Kindle with wi-fi.

It's a small touch, but downloading the e-book (not only the first time, but on every update), getting your Kindle, connecting it, finding the file and moving it to the proper folder and ejecting it from the computer is a lot more work than you have when buying from Amazon (i.e.: click on the link and wait a few seconds for the download).

With this, it's exactly the same process after the purchase (it's still much easier to buy in Amazon).

Given their great selection, it's well worth checking them out!

Book Review

The Link Publicity Book – Review

I've just finished reading another WordTracker book – The Link Publicity Book.

The purpose of the book is teaching you ways that can help you get featured by media – newspapers, magazines, big sites, etc. Getting featured on such places gets you direct traffic – plus traffic from blogger comments of those stories, PR from Google and increased trust from customers.

The core of the book is a number of stories of press coverage of a site. Each story is followed by ideas that you might be able to apply to your own site. It has interesting suggestions, such as setting Google Alerts with your main keywords, so that you can react to those stories by commenting on them with your insight, a blog post or plugging your product. It also adds up to many ideas on how you can get an interesting press release from your business.

Chapter 4 focus on techniques on preparing your press release. Chapter 5 follows up by showing how to build a list of journalists who will want to hear your news, which also includes several simple ways to publicize your press releases.

Overall, an interesting book. If you are interested in getting publicity, you'd do well checking it out.