UX Book Reviews: July 2010

Book Reviews

Johnny's reviews of great UX books.

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In this round-up of book reviews we are moving from usability testing to business ideas and children. We reviewed Steve Krug’s ‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy’, a collection of essays called ‘Mobile Technology for Children’, 37Signals’ ‘Rework’ and Donna Spencer’s newest book ‘A Practical Guide to Information Architecture.’

Rocket Surgery Made Easy

Type: theory & practical

Authors: Steve Krug

Publishers: New Riders

ISBN: 978-0321657299

Details: 161 pages, paperback

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Need to convince your boss or a client that they need to do more usability testing? This book does the trick.

This book is Steve Krug’s follow up to the very successful ‘Don’t Make Me Think’. In the first book Krug told (and showed) us in an easy way what web usability is all about, while the purpose of this book is to get people to actually start user testing. The audience for the book isn’t usability professionals, but everybody involved in creating new websites that don’t do any testing right now. It is written in the same style as ‘Don’t Make Me Think’, which is very amusing to read and enthusing to pick up what he recommends.

In the book Krug explains that usability testing isn’t as complicated and scary as it looks. He explains not just why you should do test, but also when and how. The book isn’t trying to downgrade professional usability testing, but it is explaining that the more you test the better. It’s better to do multiple small tests with three users during the development of a website in contrast to doing one big-scale usability test at the end of a project.

This book isn’t for people who know what the power of usability testing is. But if you’ve never done a usability test before: buy this book. It will surely make you a believer. I do believe the book is also a perfect gift for clients at the start of a project. It shows them the power of testing and makes them less scared to invest in this.

Mobile Technology for Children: Designing for Interaction and Learning

Type: theory

Edited by: Allison Druin

Publishers: Morgan Kaufman

ISBN: 978-0-12-374900-0

Details: 353 pages, paperback

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The book consists of a collection of essays from various experts providing insights on how children use mobile technologies and how these technologies can support children’s learning and development. There is no doubt that children use technology very differently than adults; especially the youngest generation, which grow up using all kind of technologies as part of their normal daily life.

However the use of mobile technologies to support children’s learning started only a few years ago and it is still a topic of debate among parents, teachers and educational systems. Very often when children step into the classroom they have to leave their cell phone, mp3 player, portable gaming device, etc. aside as educational systems have not found a way to cope with the potential of these technologies. There is no clear answer on how to design and really take advantage of them, yet.

Among the benefits of using mobile technologies is that they have the potential to reach children in isolated or economically disadvantaged communities, this could provide them with a way to access information cheap and without the use of traditional computing devices. As a consequence learning and development opportunities can be equal for all children.

The book is clearly written and provides many interesting examples and case studies. But the down side of being a compilation of essays is that some basic information about mobile technologies repeats it self several times, which is a shame. At the end you don’t have a set of tools to work with, it’s clearly a theoretical approach.


Type: management

Authors: Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson

Publishers: Crown Business

ISBN: 978-0307463746

Details: 288 pages, hardcover

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A short, but inspiring book about starting your own software business.


In this book Jason Fried and David Hansson of 37signals share their thoughts and learnings on creating a successful business. It’s a typical business book in which you see dozens of taglines on how to do business differently. But I have to admit that the message they try to bring across does sound interesting. And why not? They are the ones who’ve set up a highly successful company.

The book is a compilation of dozens of short (two page) columns. These columns are grouped in about twelve themes, ranging from hiring people to the culture of your company, but also damage control, competition and productivity. In each theme you see columns that are obvious, but also ones that contradict everything you learned at school. The theme I liked most is ‘Productivity’. Here the writers claim that you should not be a hero; if something can’t be fixed in a defined time, ignore it. Another point they try to make is that you have to make tiny decisions and good enough is fine.

Some other great insights I’ve gained by reading this book (I will only share five, otherwise I am copying the book):

  • Underdo your competition: focus all your efforts on the core of your product, don’t make it a Coldwar game with the competition;
  • Why grow? If companies are successful they want to grow. Why? A small company is very flexible and capable of responding to market change;
  • Hire great writers: if you don’t know who to hire, hire the best writer. These are people who know how to think clearly and how to structure;
  • Focus on what won’t change: a lot of companies and designers focus on the next big thing, but the core of your business should be built around things that don’t change. Make the core better;
  • Let customers outgrow you: “When you let customers outgrow you, you’ll most likely wind up with a product that’s basic […] There’s an endless supply of customers who need exactly that.”

It’s a very interesting read for people working in a business. If you are an avid reader of the 37signals blog ‘Signals vs Noise’ you’ll probably learn nothing new. But in any case it’s a nice collection of small insights.

A Practical Guide to Information Architecture

Type: practical

Authors: Donna Spencer

Publishers: Five Simple Steps

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An introduction to information architecture.


If there is one thing that can be said about Donna Spencer’s new books, it’s that it is very practical. This book is a great primer for anyone just getting started with Information Architecture, or someone who is looking to get a refresh on the guiding principles of the field. One of the best aspects of the Donna’s book is the tone in which she writes, it’s playful but very instructional. This allows for the reader to become truly engaged with the content, and makes for a wonderful learning experience.

The specific role of Information Architecture and Information Architects is a bit hazy. Donna breaks it all down very nicely though. She describes what skills are most needed by an Information Architect, and also how the role of IA applies to projects that live off of the web. Readers also are able to gain a sense of how best to collaborate with other roles when designing out an information architecture, for teams where the specific activities cross role responsibilities.

Another fine gem of the book is the overview of Information Architecture Patterns.  Patterns for hierarchies, databases, hypertext, linear, catalog, and more are displayed along with real world examples.  While this just scratches the surface of this topic, it exposes the overall depth patterns and how they can be applied.

If there is one area of the book that I wanted to see more of was recommendations on how long some of the described activities take. This type of information is vital for someone just getting started in the field, or trying to introduce an information architecture process to their organization.  Providing realistic estimates are always a challenge, but essential for planning projects accordingly and creating organizational buy-in.

Overall, Donna’s book was an engaging and educational read. It should be a staple for any UX Bookshelf, and required reading for junior information architects. It’s filled with bit of humor, and contains many real world examples to back up the lessons she is providing.

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Love reading books? Especially for you we made a bookstore full of the best books in our field. Check out our UX Book store. The above book reviews were written by: Anahi Bagu, Brad Nunnally and Jeroen van Geel

Johnny Holland

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