UX Book Reviews: January 2010

Book Reviews

Johnny's reviews of great UX books.

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There are so many interesting UX books coming out that it’s hard to know which ones are worth your money. So from now on we will try and be your guide. Each month we will share with you our opinion on the newest UX books. And as a bonus we will add a classic you must have.

This month we review Card Sorting, Designing Social Interfaces, Thoughts on Interaction Design, and revisit The Inmates Are Running The Asylum.

Card Sorting

Type: practical
Authors: Donna Spencer
Publishers: Rosenfeld Media
Details: 160 pages, paperback

With this book you can learn card sorting in a few days.

Card sorting is a method for finding patterns about how people categorise content and functionality on a website. In Spencer’s book she sets out to explain how you can successfully apply this inexpensive research method. And she did a good job at this. The book is a handy guide for anybody who wants to do card sorting, ranging from beginners to people who want to do it the proper way.

Spencer splits up card sorting into two variations: open and closed card sorting. In open card sorting participants are given cards which they have to group any way they think best. This version is very useful for creating structures for new and existing websites. Closed card sorting means participants are given cards which they have to sort in pre-defined groups. This version is useful when working with new content in an existing structure. In the book she takes you through every step to make both types of card sorting work.

If I had to name one thing I would have liked to see different in this book, it would have been the focus. Right now it presents itself as the definitive guide to card sorting, but all the examples, cases, and text focus on websites and intranets. It would have been more interesting to see how card sorting can be applied in a wider UX context.

But what I like about the book is that it’s honest and practical. Card sorting isn’t presented as the holy grail in user research, but as an interesting and useful part of it. Spencer notes that if you want to do proper research you have to also use other techniques alongside this one.

Designing Social Interfaces

Type: practical
Authors: Christian Crumlish & Erin Malone
Publishers: O’Reilly
Details: 478 pages, paperback

A practical guide for anybody who is working on social interfaces.

Are you currently working on a social media project? O’Reilly have once again published a trustworthy book full of principles, patterns and best practices. You can save yourself a lot of time on coming up with ways to make it a social environment that works, as long as you are willing to follow the patterns.

The book has been divided into five parts. Each one is a collection of principles, patterns and best practices. These aren’t pre-defined categories, but overlapping themes:

  1. What Are Social Patterns?: introduction;
  2. I Am Somebody: focusing on the notion of self, my online identity;
  3. Objects of My Desire: about the type of activity you want to encourage;
  4. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood: focusing on the social network, shared activities and interest;
  5. But Wait… There’s More!: creating an open experience.

The format makes it a wonderful resource you can grab when facing a specific challenge. And I am not just saying this because I think so, but because I actually used it. In the past I’ve bought quite a few practical books that never gave me the answers I needed.

Thoughts on Interaction Design

Type: theory
Authors: Jon Kolko
Publishers: Morgan Kaufmann
Details: 2nd edition, 155 pages, paperback

Understand the story behind our profession on an academic level, but with an accessible tone.

In 2007 Jon Kolko self-published ‘Thoughts On Interaction Design’. These 1,000 copies, now known as ‘The Green Books’, have become treasured items. Fortunately Morgan Kaufmann decided to republish the book (with a blue cover) so that every interaction designer has access to this thought provoking material.

In ‘Thoughts on Interaction Design’ Kolko and several other authors explain to the reader what interaction design is all about. They dive into the history of interaction design and its relationship to engineering and design. In an almost academic, but also realistic way they explain what we do (or should do), how and why. Even though there are several books that have attempted this, Thoughts on Interaction Design is the first that explains it in a way that sticks – it not only makes me proud as an interaction designer, but also gives me knowledge to apply in a discussion.

To give you a feeling of the writing style, here is a sample from the book’s website,

Interaction designers are trained to observe humanity and to balance complicated ideas, and are used to thinking in opposites: large and small, conceptual and pragmatic, human and technical. This is not a jack of all trades. Instead, it is a shaper of behaviour. Behaviour is a large idea, and may, at first blush, seem too large to warrant a single profession. But a profession has emerged nonetheless. This professional category includes the complexity of information architecture, the anthropologic desire to understand humanity, the altruistic nature of usability engineering, and the creation of dialogue.

A must have for every interaction designer.

UX Classic: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Type: Methods
Authors: Alan Cooper
Publishers: Sams
Details: 288 pages
Published: 1999

See where personas started – and why we needed them in the first place

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, if you’re in interaction design you know about personas. The technique burst onto the scene in Alan Cooper’s 1998 book ‘The Inmates Are Running the Asylum’.

It’s perhaps fitting that a technique that has generated so much debate is found in a equally provocative book. Cooper spends much of  ‘Inmates’ setting up what’s wrong with current products and IT culture, mixed in with a few of his own software exploits for good measure. Luckily he a gift for clear, engaging prose and memorable catchphrases such as “dancing-bearware” (it’s not that it dances/functions well, it’s that it does it at all), “software apologists”, and (my favourite) “programmers act like jocks”. Yes, it can be over-the-top, but you can’t accuse Cooper of lack of passion.

Interesting with a decade of hindsight is Cooper’s horror stories of ’90s Silicon Valley projects. He documents bad products (VCRs, ATMs), Microsoft team battles, and a Job-less Apple scraping by on the power of its brand.

Still, while this is all great, its all a lead-up to Cooper’s tour de force: personas. Developed as “a precise description of our user and what he wishes to accomplish” (p123), Cooper goes through in detail their purpose and how they’re made (for the record, he is emphatic that they’re based on research and they they’re “discovered” rather than “made”). His case study of Sony Trans Com’s P@ssport IFE still holds up today in both demonstrating the process and the final product (the other studies have dated more). How would “Clevis McCloud, crotchety [but spry] septegenarian … slightly embarrassed about the touch of arthritis in his hands” (p126) use your product?

“The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” is worth buying even for the twenty or so pages on personas – it’s not only the first example of it, but still probably the best. Beyond that, it’s a great reminder on what can go wrong in IT. The day all of the examples are irrelevant will be a happy one for interaction designers indeed.

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Johnny Holland

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