Addison-Wesley sent us in the fourth edition of one of the most highly acclaimed user interface & usability books ever published: “Designing the User Interface“, by Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant. Read more for a quick review.In the fourth edition we find new information when designing user interfaces for new kinds of hardware or diverse users with special needs e.g. cellphones. It also takes the Web into account discussing e-commerse and search web sites.
The books starts discussing about universal usability and how the designer must design mostly about the general public’s needs, but also take into account children and users with accessibility needs. This book tries to be a guide to the actual profession of usability and UI design rather than simply teach a few things to newcomers. Hence, it makes special mention on which are the clear goals of a UI designer and why it is such an important service to the users.
I believe that the most important chapter in the book is chapter 2. There, integration, standardization, organization, consistency, flexibility, interaction styles, the “8 golden rules of UI design” and theories are all discussed. Think of this chapter as a very generic HIG. The book goes on to discuss UI software tools, usability testing by experts and of course, documents and specs of the UI that is to be developed. Later, we have a more in-depth discussion over direct manipulation, menus and forms, which are the 3 ways of user’s input on a modern computer interface. Unfortunately, there are not many real-life examples accompanied in these chapters, but instead, a lot of academic blah-blah. I would have loved to see instead real-life case studies and yes, some pixel pushing discussion (e.g. having a 10-pixel spacing between the window and your widgets help psychologically the user to feel more comfortable in this new and uknown application to him). But there’s no such discussion. And pie-menu discussion only takes 3-4 lines of text…
After that stage, the book moves on to different kinds of user interfaces: 3D, virtual worlds, games, cellphones, pdas etc. Later on we get a chapter about command line, speech and natural languages and the captchas that surround these two ways of interfacing. Input devices of course have a lot to do with the resulted user interfaces and so a number of these are discussed in the “Interaction devices” chapter. Later on, interfaces for visualization, searching and “collaboration” are discussed (e.g. message boards, IM). Finally, the book discusses manuals, testing, quality assurance, online help and tutorials.
What I was mostly looking for in this book was partially found in the “Balancing Function and Fashion” chapter. But I can’t say there was a lot of info in there either. And their “before” and “after” mockup of MacOS-7’s “save” dialog was a disaster. Both as a user and as someone who has worked as a UI deisgner, I much prefer the Apple original rather than the suggested one illustrated in the book.
The writing in the book is not very pleasant. It is extremely academic and I guess only the authors of the book can understand their flow-charts… What’s missing from this book is a good UI case to put all these 600 pages of blah-blah into action. For example, if they had taken the challenge to completely redesign OSX or Windows’s UI in a way that would prove/explain their points in plain english, it would teach students much more than it currently does. In conclusion, this is not a bad book, but ultimately it is not as practical as it should have been to modern application developers. I find Apple’s or Gnome’s HIG more useful and direct than this book.
Overall rating: 6/10
Buy “Designing the User Interface“
I am a poor user with some experience of delivering information as an information profesional, with a passing interest in cognitive science, on which the lead to the following is based. In other words, please forgive the undoubted ignorance, just my own small candle lit in darkness of same…
Palo Alto has done some stuff on “cutting up” (a la William Burroughs, perhaps?) information and its presentation and re-presentation to users, called sensemaking:
Would it in fact make sense to incorporatre some of these ideas into the design of the way the UI interacts with the computer user? I am as much just interested to get a reaction as to make a statement here.