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“What better way to say ’we’re a start-up that’s going to make it’ than a big, beautiful chandelier.”

An introduction should begin at the beginning. And this book’s journey began in the 90s, when I worked at HotWired. I had a problem that I was sure a book could solve.

It was San Francisco during the boom, and the web was growing so quickly and dramatically that it was hard to keep track of all the changes. Everything was new—from the technology to the business models—and we struggled to train our growing staff on everything we’d learned so far.

I would always wish I had a manual that I could just hand to new employees and say, “Here. This is everything we’ve learned about the web. Read it, and then we’ll get started.”

This, I hope, is that manual.

what this book is...and isn’t

Whether you’re building a site for a local restaurant, a multinational corporation, or your gardening club, this book can help. It’s based on the idea that all web sites succeed for the same reasons. The principles that help the big dogs stay ahead of the pack can also help the little guy.

Now most web books are specialized, covering design, technology, or specific topics, such as community-building. But this book is for people who have to think about everything. It was written for web producers—or anyone who bears the primary responsibility for a site’s success. And it covers a lot of territory, because they have to.

In this emerging industry, everyone wears multiple hats. You have to know a little bit about a lot to create a successful site. So this book covers the entire development process, from planning your site to designing, building, and maintaining it after it launches. The focus is on practical solutions to real-world problems—from increasing traffic to improving site speed to setting up an email list—in organizations that may or may not have money to invest in a solution.

What this book is:

  • A reference guide for web professionals that fills in the gaps in your knowledge, reminds you of things you already know, and offers persuasive arguments for following—or avoiding—particular development paths.

  • A do-it-yourself workbook that breaks down tasks—like improving site speed or increasing traffic—and gives you a step-by-step approach to effecting positive change on your site.

  • A glimpse behind the scenes of web sites that face challenges similar to yours.

  • An introduction to web development for professionals who are new to the field or for business owners who are bringing their organizations online.

What this book isn’t:

  • It isn’t a technical manual. There are many, many books and web sites that will guide you step-by-step through the technical procedure of creating a site. I don’t try to replace their work here. Instead, I offer an overview and point you toward more complete reference guides.

  • It isn’t a design portfolio. There are many books that offer lush examples of beautiful and innovative sites. They’re great for inspiration and ideas! But in the interest of saving space, I’ve limited my use of images.

  • It isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. I can’t promise you there’s a pot of gold at the end of your Internet rainbow. But this book can help you create a site that meets the needs of your customers and your organization. Maybe this will make you rich! But it probably won’t overnight.

what we’ve learned about the web

Over the course of the last year, I had the great fun and good fortune to talk to nearly 50 web veterans about what they’ve learned. These industry experts (who are listed starting on page 344) came from a range of disciplines—design, engineering, marketing, finance—and spent the last 5–10 years working on a wide range of sites: from small start-ups like gURL.com and BlackPlanet (now leaders in their category) to corporate ventures like Levis.com. From small business sites like, say, The Yoga House of Bellevue, to large portals like MSN and Yahoo!.

These interviews helped me solidify ideas and confirm (or reject) theories I was hatching. They also expanded the scope of the book, bringing in lessons I hadn’t yet learned (and from which I’ll now be spared!). For example, many people independently mentioned—without prompting—that pull-down menus are an absolute disaster as a navigation device. I didn’t know that, actually. But now I do. And you do, too. (See why pull-downs are not for navigation on page 113.)

The interviews also brought out a larger theme that greatly changed the content of the book. I heard—over and over again—that the real challenge of web development isn’t technology or design or bandwidth or funding. It’s people. People and their organizational politics. So I expanded the book to shed some light on workplace issues.

More than anything, these interviews confirmed my suspicions that there’s a growing body of knowledge about web development that’s broadly applicable across all kinds of sites and for all kinds of industries. It was striking to me how many web developers had independently reached very similar conclusions about what was working and why. Also striking was how universal these lessons seemed, across sites large and small, independent and corporate, commercial and not-for-profit.

So, what exactly did we learn? Well, above all, we learned to focus on the user—to build sites that meet their needs, speak their language, and make sense to them, visually. We learned to start small and stay focused. We learned to evolve our sites over time to better meet our customers’ (and business’) needs. We learned to use clear (not clever) names for site sections. We learned to promote our sites online, to improve our rankings in search engines, and to encourage our customers to spread the word. We learned that site speed matters. We learned to use email to keep visitors coming back. And we learned how to collaborate, compromise, and communicate across disciplines—essential for the balanced teams that develop successful sites.

These lessons are incorporated throughout the book, of course. But you’ll find highlights on the front and back covers that tell you—honestly—almost everything you need to know.

However, it’s important to remember that the web is still in its infancy. The industry is in its very early stages, and a lot of things—including industry leaders, winning strategies, audience expectations, and interface conventions—will change over time.

But I have a hunch that many of these early lessons—focusing on the user, defining goals, evolving the site, labeling things clearly, testing thoroughly, and, of course, resolving office conflicts—will remain relevant for years to come.

June Cohen
New York City
May 2003

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