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Dec 19, 2005: Woof (or, what makes for a good design book?)

I've had dozens of informal conversations about my new gig over the past few months. (Rosenfeld Media is my new start-up, a publishing house that will produce short, practical books on user experience design.) And in almost every case, I find myself recycling an old Argus colleague's saying: "You've got to eat your own dog food."

In this current context, I'm referring to the need of a UX publisher to inform its own design decisions by utilizing UX methods. By "design decisions," I mean two things specifically: 1) determining which books to publish, and 2) determining which features and formats these books should employ.

From my limited research, it seems that many conventional publishers don't bother with user research other than occasional focus groups. Decisions get left to acquisitions editors and marketing staff, with little or no input from actual users (namely, potential readers). I'd like Rosenfeld Media to do things differently, and really involve users in the decision-making process. It would be hypocritical for RM not to adopt the methods that its own books will recommend. Lou, meet dog food...

I'm already working on developing methods to help address that first issue, which topics to cover; more on this in the coming months. But I've not really had much chance to consider the second issue. Other than a good topic, what makes for a really great book on user experience design? Or, to drop the jargon momentarily, on design in general?

It seems like there are a zillion attributes to consider, including length, writing style and tone, veracity of information, authority, formats, quality of illustration, layout, and indexing, and availability of supplementary materials. But I'm really lost as to how to gather user input regarding these attributes. Essentially, I'm hoping someone out there can suggest a methodology for determining what makes for a good design book (aside from topic) based on input from the UX community.

Any takers?

I ask not only because I'm personally invested in the answer, but also because I think it makes for a generally interesting UX design challenge.

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Comment: Hanan Cohen (Dec 20, 2005)

Am I ashaming myself in public by suggesting to carefully read Amazons' readers reviews?

Comment: Peter Morville (Dec 20, 2005)

Don't forget Jakob's First Rule of Usability:

Don't Listen to Users!

Seriously, you may want to start with the best *selling* design books (what users do) and ask users to explain why they bought them and why they liked them (what users say).

It's worth recognizing there may be a gap between behavior and opinion. Also, the elements that cause someone to purchase a book may be different that those that cause them to enjoy and find value in the book.

In this context, I'm guessing Rosenfeld Media wants to embrace the genius of the AND :-)

Comment: Elton Billings (Dec 20, 2005)

You probably thought of this already, but I though I'd mention it anyway.

I'd consider some personas based on market segments. (Even though I always hated the term "market segmentation." Sounds like you're chopping up your customers.)

Even for "short, practical books on user experience design" I think there might be multiple markets. A few that suggest themselves:

1. "C-level" execs who need to learn enough to direct efforts in the area.
2. Existing UX experts wishing to polish their craft and expand their approach.
3. Hands-on information-space managers who suddenly realize a need for immediate action in improving user experience.
4. Students learning the UX craft, in or out of a classroom situation.

Each of these groups might have different needs that would drive the purchase and use of a UX book. For example, the info-space managers might best be served by simple step-by-step recipes for improvement, while UX experts probably want thought-provoking fresh ideas to inform their own methods.

It may be true that any given book can be written so as to satisfy the needs of all groups, but by identifying their separate needs you can create a "feature set" to guide book design.

BTW, the groups I mention above are just examples and not based on research. Actual results may vary.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Dec 20, 2005)

Hallelujah! One of the chagrin-inducing aspects of my iSchool experience this year was being assigned to read a usability book that was itself unusable.

Perhaps once you get this worked out for your own books you could create a niche doing UX consulting for the publishing industry?

Comment: Donna Maurer (Dec 20, 2005)

I think for this type of research, stories are key. I'd ask people to tell two stories - one about a recent UX book (even one that is tangential) that has helped in a practical way, been inspiring or similar. The other story about a UX book that you thought would be good and turned out not to be so.

I think from this, that you would get a great deal of rich information that would contain great insights. Far more than you would get from asking "what do you need from UX books" or trying to nut out the magic formula on your characteristics (writing style etc).

In fact, I'd even be so bold as to say none of the characteristics really matter - as Kathy Sierra says, the most important thing is "Did it make me kick ass?", and that comes down more to content than characteristics.

Comment: vanderwal (Dec 20, 2005)

The second question seems to have one answer, "it depends". There are a variety of purposes with books. There are reference books, which have certain design needs (my favorites are Kelly Goto's Redesign..., John Cato's User-Centered Web Design, Mike Kunaivsky's Observing the User Experience, and Van Duyne (et al)'s The Design of Sites. These books all can be jumped into at any point and good helpful information can be pulled out. The graphics are insanely helpful and are casual, which brings the reader in (particularly since I loan out most of my books to colleagues and clients who are looking for an easy entry into the subject). The O'Reilly Head First series is much like this.

For getting new ideas across and educating the reader (mostly with text) I am a huge huge fan of MIT Press. Nearly all of my favorite books the past couple of years have come from them. Be it my current favorite book of the year, Bruce Sterling's Shaping Things or Macolm McCullough's Digital Ground the books are insanely well edited. The author's voice is clear and active and the books are incredibly well annotated and footnoted with solid research and examples. Sterling's book seems to have taken MIT Press in a slightly different direction as the book is playful in its design, but it is well crafted by the author also.

I have been quite intrigued by the open editing of the recent Ruby on Rails book. It really created a tight, well presented and top notch technical book. If there is one thing that drive me nuts it is the design and UX fields not having good tech editing. Our friends and peers in the community are often not the best technical editors (subject matter editors, big yes, but not technical). We are not only writing books for ourselves, but to educate and enlighten those in other disciplines and not having the technical elements right shoots our credibility and we really can't afford that. Looking at the Ruby on Rails book as it was being edited made me wonder what a UX book would be like if we could do that same approach (unfortunately all I can think of is the "defining the damn thing" crowd showing up and the book gets nowhere).

Comment: Todd Warfel (Dec 21, 2005)

When I think back to the books on my shelf that are most memborable, that I read from cover to cover, tabbed quite a few pages, and refer back to time and time again, a few things stand out:

1. The language was conversational. It wasn't highly technical, borish, nor gave me the feeling that I was sitting through a lecture class. It felt like I was having a dialogue with the author (e.g. Observing the User Experience, About Face 2.0 (Inmates), MTIV Process, Masters of Innovation).

2. It was practical and applicable. Each of these books had something I could use in my daily work.

3. It was something I hadn't read before. I've got a dozen books on Flash. I browse them, I don't read them. They're reference materials, not reading materials.

4. They give examples and provide context. They introduce a topic, then provide a story to help you relate to the topic in context.

5. The book was usable. The layout was good, clean, clear.

Comment: Dan (Dec 22, 2005)

Two ideas:

1. Go to a bookstore and buy a bunch of books. Go on a tour of the design firms in your neighborhood. (Or come to DC, it would be great to see you again.) Bring in the books. Sit down for an hour with a designer or two or three and have them use the books. First, be sure to get a list of expectations (like Todd's above). Then, ask them to look up something. Ask them to learn something new. Ask them to read a chapter and give their impressions.

2. The Jared Spool method: give some designers $100 and send them to Barnes and Noble, or Borders, or whereever. Go with them. Watch them look through the books and ask 'em questions. Why'd you put that book down? Are you going to buy that book or just bring it to the cafe to look through it some more? What do you look at first?

For what it's worth, the last computer book I bought was Lemur. The last one I bought before that, I can't even remember.

Comment: Molly Stevens (Dec 22, 2005)

A book that worked as a sort of "choose your own adventure" of user experience might be interesting. For example -- "If you're looking to answer questions about a physical product, read this chapter - then turn to chapter 7." Then when you get to chapter 7 it would say, "Do you have control over the budget? Yes, turn to part 2 for a discussion of where to spend the money. Do you have to submit to a committee for funding? Yes, then turn to part 1 for a discussion of strategies for "selling" user experience research." What I often find is that I know the techniques -- but making sure that I'm approaching the questions with knowledge of the context and pitfalls is difficult.
Also, a book that will lay flat is great -- I hate books with a tightly bound spine.

Comment: RTodd (Dec 23, 2005)

Someone once said that a good book is like a bag of popcorn; you can pick it up anywhere and find something to chew on. I may have bought over 2,000 books over the years and the really great ones fit this definition. Sounds silly, but simplitcy and clarity always wins over cuteness.

Comment: Marko Hurst (Dec 23, 2005)

Without having to repeat much of the aforementioned such as topic, audience, type of book, tone, etc. I would take a very hard look at all the Edward Tufte's books. While most noted for “Information Design”, it is how he applies to all manner of items he creates. The thought process for ease-of-use and improved user experience of reading a book (yes, I mean it don’t laugh), from layout, color, texture, information design, context, spacing, footnotes, usability, etc.

For those who have never heard of Tufte I highly recommend learning about him and his works. For those who have never held, read, or looked through his books I will simply state you are in for a treat. At http://www.edwardtufte.com, you can (amongst other things), sign up for a seminar, order his books, or other works. If you are looking to learn about books TAKE THE SEMINAR!!!! Even if you’re looking to learn about books Tufte is such a wealth of information on information design that you will carry it over into all of your work

Comment: Steve Portigal (Dec 24, 2005)

I'm of a similar mind to Donna. It'd be interestint to get stories around the books people have that have been well received, or those that haven't been well received. Of course, few experiences are entirely good or bad, so using two different tacks will get you some good insight (presuming you then go on to ask "why"). And then consider some other ways of asking the question (the point being to keep coming at it in different ways)
- what is the next book you plan to buy?
- what was the first one you bought? If you had the book-buying process to do over again, what would have been the first one you would buy?
- who hasn't written a book but should have? -or- what title or topic for a book about UX hasn't been written yet, but should be?
- can you imagine a Frankenstein monster composed of (topics, attributes) of existing books?
- what books have you bought but gotten rid of?
- what books have you bought for others?
etc. etc.

Comment: Lorelei (Dec 28, 2005)

This is a little too zen, but what about the thing that you can't find in a book? It seems to me that books are great at explaining the same ideas many different, accessible ways, but few books explaining hard ideas simple ways. For instance, I can find a whole slew of ideas explaining IA in a way almost anyone can get their arms around. Usability testing? No problem. Making a CV? Library science up to my ears.

UX topics that seem to be missing are practical UX books: selling UX, enterprise UX (AKA being sneaky and influencing people), UX deliverables that can be understood by all, building UX teams, and so forth.

Comment: Lou (Dec 28, 2005)

Fabulous comments, everyone; so useful, and I can't say there are any I'd disagree with. Please keep them coming!

Peter, Donna, Dan, and Steve, your suggestion about starting with the books themselves, and then having users deconstruct them is right along the lines of some of the work I've already done (or plan to do). If I'm leaning in any direction at this point, that's it.

Thomas, I'm also planning on a variation on the open editing concept. Todd, along those lines, I agree: books have got to be designed as snapshots of dialogues; no way around it, and no excuse not to do it this way.

Thanks again to all of you!

Comment: Dmitri Zdorov (Dec 30, 2005)

I was looking really hard and did not find anything that would cover Extreme Designing, that is similar to Extreme Programming.

Comment: Ken Westin (Dec 31, 2005)

I think what is needed is more hands on examples, case studies etc. Theory and concepts are great, but actual examples and how it improved the bottom line will go a long ways. Really what is needed is to see theory applied in practice... does this make sense?

Comment: Jack Kennard (Dec 31, 2005)

In my first design seminar my question was, What design layout should I use?" And of course there was no answer.

Now I use standard constructs, color combinations, and starting to use more images in ways that fit in a liquid layout.

So the next book I'll buy will be about what's on the bleeding edge and still works with web standards,,, Oh yeah, the last book I bought was like that too.

Comment: Greg (Dec 31, 2005)

Maybe this is assumed but I would love a new book publisher who didn't rush to slap print on page on the topic of the latest craze, leave that to the fish wrap pushers. This might be contrary to the practice of being a book publisher but I find that of the hundreds of books I've purchased in the last ten years there are only three-to-four that I frequently use as tools to refocus and sharpen the strategies and tactics as applied to architecture, design, business and writing.

I find that the books that really hit the nail on the head are a combination of theory, how-to, with detailed case studies presented through a more casual than lecture style. David Segal's Secrets to Successful Websites from 1997 is my most often used book and until someone can do better it will continue to be number one. My input is not much different than what's already been said but I wanted to increase the vote in that column.

The idea of shorter, concise works versus the kitchen sink, one-shot-kill all encyclopedias is excellent -- as if anyone really needs to know how to use all one-gazillon functions and processes in Photoshop.

Good luck Lou, I look forward to your success as a publisher.

Comment: Vincent (Jan 1, 2006)


I haven't come across any good UE books on web application UI design.

Comment: Adam Greenfield (Jan 2, 2006)

Lou, I don't think you should pay any attention at all to what books sell the best, and I think Peter's advice re: not listening to users is spot-on.

The only point to starting up a publishing company in 2006 is to provide the world with perspectives *you* think are lacking from the current discourse and media environment. Just about every other publisher in the world focus-groups titles half to death, homogenizes their content and presentation lest any aspect of them depart from the nominal audience-pleasing curve...it's getting harder and harder to express an idea in print with any idiosyncrasy, even when that idiosyncrasy is the source of all a work's verve.

Also, I'd hope you would consider publishing as an opportunity to build and grace the world with beautiful objects. The look and feel of any book worth reading cannot be decoupled from its physical, uh, presentation layer. Otherwise we might as well be downloading PDFs, right? Nurri and I recently had the privilege of visiting with the master printer Jack Stauffacher in at work in San Francisco, and the gulf between the love and attention to detail that went into his work and the product of contemporary publishing just about made me cry.

That's about all the advice I can share, filtered as it is through my own viewpoints and prejudices. Hope it's useful - and best of luck in your endeavor.

Comment: Adam Greenfield (Jan 2, 2006)

(I, of course, meant to say that the *content and meaning* of a book cannot be decoupled from its presentation layer. See how useful editors can be!)

Comment: Sally Carson (Jan 2, 2006)

I noticed that I tend to enjoy books that are positive or optimistic. I have read a couple web design books that focused so much on all of the road blocks and frustrations, or were so cynical, that I found myself getting negative and I associated those negative feelings with the book.

Dan Cederholm's books on web design always give me a warm fuzzy feeling. The underlying tone of his writing seems to be "there IS an easy solution, isn't this fun and interesting?"

Comment: Austin Govella (Jan 3, 2006)

Here's my observations of me using my books:

1. Not too long. More a heft thing. If I can carry the book around in my bag along with my laptop and paper files and not kill myself, I'll more likely read the entire book.

2. Good margins. Nice margin towards the gutter (so the lines don't bend on one end) and wider margin on the other so I can scribble notes. Decent top and bottom margins are nice too (for more notes).

3. Pictures and diagrams. I love words. I live for words, but pictures help me navigate a good book and re-find an idea mentioned in the words. (They also help visual learners.) Also, have a *real* graphic artist or designer prepare the diagrams and illustrations. It's worth the expense.

4. Nice paper, but not too glossy. My pens smear on glossy paper if I'm not careful. Also, paper shouldn't be so thin that my notes on page bleed through too much. I hate that. It makes me stop notating, which makes the book less valuable for me.

5. Citations and a bibliography are nice, but it's better to have one online that links to the sources. Researching book sources would be a full-time job if I had to type each one into Google, look for an online version, etc. I don't look up a lot of citations because it's a pain. ***But I want to.***

6. Make diagrams communicate. Krug's book is concise and well-written. And the illustrations are humurous and informative, but... the illustration seem like they're communicating the illustrators verve before they communicate the point. Communicate the point. First.

7. Good cover. The covers for About Face 2.0 and Design of Sites are too thin. They curl up, tear, or get munged when hastily stuffed into bags, boxes, or shelves. Don't Make Me Think is good. No curling, tearing, or munging. (Though you could probably go lighter than Krug's.)

8. I'd rather buy black and white for $20-$30 than color for $35. Color isn't necessary if you have a designer make the diagrams/illustrations. I didn't buy Krug's book till October because it was $35 worth of stuff I already knew. I finally bought it so I could use his succinct language to communicate with clients. (But if I'd purchased it years ago, I would have recommended it to numerous people since then.) Tufte's impeccable *hard* cover is $45.

9. Have it nicely typeset. Tufte's books are so nicely set, they're a pleasure to read. O'Reilly books are set less nicely. Not sure if it's the line-height or the typefaces, but one more than one occasion I've noticed the type detracted from the experience of reading the book. And don't use trendy typefaces. Typefaces are like suits. Buy something classic, and it'll look classic when you first wear it, and still look classic 50 years from now.

10. Avoid witty titles. Wit is good, but it shouldn't obscure the purpose of the chapter or section. Good for refinding, but more so for when I'm in the bookstore scanning through books to choose one to buy.

11. High contrast title on the spine. Good for my shelf, but better for Borders when I'm trying to find your book amidst the 300 others they've crammed into a section with no regard for any useful organization.

12. A cover I can recognize from 5-7' away. This is how far away I satnd from the Borders shelf when I'm scanning a section (not a shelf), looking for a book. (I stand much closer to the shelves.)

13. Less is more. I'm buying the book for a concisely comprehensive look at the important bits on a subject. This does not include every interesting footnote/sidebar that may be of interest.

14. Teach. Books teach. Let me learn. Adopt relevant best practices from instructional design.

(I was going to stop at 10, but kept going... hope it's of some use.)

Comment: Dane (Jan 3, 2006)

1.) I have found that from the designers side of things, there is little in the way of how to design the content. Adding voice is a common statement in the publishing world when it comes to print, but little is available on how to do this when building an interactive experience.

2.) Create assets for multiple delivery formats. I have seen more time and money wasted by tresting different delivery formats as entirely different projects. Lets not reinvent the world with each format. By formats I mean - video, web site, device access, email, print etc...

Comment: Dylan (Jan 4, 2006)

I didn't have time to read all of the comments aove so this may have already been mentioned. One of the best book learning experiences I have had was put together with case studies. Actually showing the methods in practice on the websites we recognize holds alot of value. On a side note, maybe a book about UX designer communicating with the business people we have to explain our methods to would be a possibility.

Comment: Brenda Janish (Jan 4, 2006)

two words: case studies

okay, one more: templates

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Jan 5, 2006)

As long as you're collecting reasons not to listen to users, I'd add: there's a big gap between what people buy and what people actually read.

Tech books are like dieting books, many purchased in the hope that just owning the book will change the buyer's life.

For most publishers, of course, that's good enough.

Comment: Brian (Jan 6, 2006)

I have a question that may be a little off topic. I'm new here so maybe I need to learn how to start a new subject.

Anyway, I was wondering, as I read these notes, how you would design a book store, or how you would decide what books to buy and what not to buy. What would the decision process be like? Do you think most book buyers are flying by the seat of their pants? If not, I'd like to know how it works.

Comment: christina (Jan 9, 2006)

I wish somebody would make books that fit in jean back pockets.

Comment: Brenda (Jan 10, 2006)

My current project has spurred another idea...

I would love to see side-by-side reccommendations on methods, one for the ideal situation (enough time/people/money) and the typical situation (not enough time and/or people and/or money). Where's the best place to shortcut any given process and still get good results?

Comment: James Craig (Jan 10, 2006)

Christina, the O'Reilly pocket references fit nicely in my jeans back pockets.

Lou, Thomas mentioned the Ruby on Rails book (pragmaticprogrammer.com/titles/rails) which is sold as a print and PDF bundle. This is handy for the searchability of the PDF and readability of the printed book. Even the best printed indexes could benefit from a searchable version. Good luck.

Comment: J. Michelle (Jan 12, 2006)

- case studies
- examples of real deliverables
more how-to's, less theory, too much theory already
- web ui app specific info
- show real ui designers and their process
- lots and lots of examples, with pictures.. I need visuals to "get" it, not a lot of text.
- I for one can't stand cheap paper or grainy bw images. I want a beautifully designed book that is a pleasure to read and touch - lovely glossy paper brings joy... ;)

Comment: asm (Jan 17, 2006)

I found your book on Information Architecture good, but as a person who manages and organizes content, responsible for creating navigation and page design, I could have used more practical ideas and guidelines for organizing information for the web. There's really not alot out there on content organization, though when it comes to usability, this is a really huge issue. I especially something concrete to share with others. I loved the compact yet complete presentation of Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think. Lots of examples and interactive components.

Comment: George Girton (Jan 18, 2006)

I agree with all of Todd Warfel's comments and every one of Austin Govela's comments except for number 13 -- I wouldn't make that restriction.

Please be very careful about the editing culture you establish. With the exception of CJ date's book Database in Depth I have found the life and spark edited out of every O'Reilly book I've purchased even (sorry, but I'm blaming them not you) your own. When I have a choice I don't buy O'Reilly for that reason alone.

The book on design which has influenced me the most, and which I think is the best, is Paula Scher's 'Make it Bigger'. The reason, aside from the valuable stories of design projects which really end up pointing up what Design Really Is: There are *strange* things in there. Things I've never seen. Ways to solve or involve that had never occurred to me. And the book is occasionally funny as hell, too.

I thought the book wasn't very usable because of the small point size on the type. I thought it was just a graphic design book. I must have been wrong though, because before I knew it I had read 'Make it Bigger' straight through and it's not all that short. You know, now that I mention it, I think I'm going to go back and read that puppy again.

p.s. Please lose the 'UX' acronym. It's just plain dumb.

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