Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Top Three User Interface Books

As far as I know there is still no course or university program to become a user interface designer. Part of me thinks this is a shame because I think there's a lot of things you can teach someone who wants to design user interfaces for computer programs or websites. Another part of me is happy because I can claim to know a thing or two about user interfaces without the bother of getting another degree.

I've been doing computer programming for a while now (that's an Imperial "while" you'll note. Multiply by 1.6 to get the more typical metric "while".) And just about all of that programming has involved some sort of GUI work on a desktop application. In my opinion there are many great books that can help you become better at this sort of thing. However, if you want to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible then I recommend three books.

The first book tells you how to know what to build. This is surprisingly difficult because you often aren't building a program for yourself you're building it for someone else and you don't know what they need. If you're a programmer this is even harder because programmers think in a very peculiar way with respect to computers. If you're a developer and you're building a user interface what you end up with an interface that doesn't do what it needs to and does it in a very strange and round about way.

The Inmates are Running the Asylum is a book by Alan Cooper. This is a book for programmers who want to write user interfaces. In the book he explains how developers think differently than your average man on the street. Specifically he points out how certain practices that work well if you're developing software get in the way if you're trying to write a user interface. For example, one of the easiest traps to fall into is to write a user interface that can deal with every single possible edge case that the user might ever have. Trying to deal with every single case is essential if you're writing computer software.In fact, if you don't do this your computer software will break. When writing user interfaces it's counter productive. Trying to do everything means you're not doing anything well. One warning, don't let your pointy haired manager get hold of this book or you might never be asked to program a UI again. This book is is written for developers and there's a lot of hyperbolic developer bashing. As a developer, it gets your attention, but may get miss-understood by others. Developers can code good interfaces.

If you're not a developer you should read About Face. About Face is also by Alan Cooper and contains the same material as the inmates are running the asylum but also contained additional chapters and give more detail on constructing processes in an organization to formalize interface development. This is useful if you have to convince the organization or even the developers on your team that's something you're suggesting make sense. Believe me you'll need to do this at some point. Probably before you actually get any real work done.

In both these books, Alan Cooper explains several methods you can use in order to figure out exactly what your software is supposed to do. Newcomers to the field often think that the way you figure out what your software should do is you ask the user. In practice this doesn't work very well unless the person you're asking is a user interface designer. Users are extremely bad at expressing what they want. For it to have any hope of working you'll need a tight feedback loop and lots of prototyping/trial and error. The tight feedback loop is almost never possible in practice and even when it is the results are still... average. To do better to do better you'll need to read the book.

Book 2 is GUI Bloopers. Actually, this book is a stand-in for simply knowing user interface guidelines and standards for the platforms and GUI widgets you be using. It's funny because Alan Cooper downplays the importance of sticking to interface guidelines and standards. In my opinion you absolutely have to know all the standards and interface guidelines for your platform. There are no excuses. You don't have to be totally pedantic about it but you really need to know the rules before you break them. It's important to know this stuff if you're a developer because UI designers don't always design to this level of detail.

Most people have been exposed to computer interfaces before and have an intuitive grasp of how buttons panels menu bars and the like should all work. GUI Bloopers is about the things that user interface designers often get wrong when they try and transfer this intuitive knowledge into an explicit design. The book is also extremely fun to read. It brings up examples of bloopers in real-life and often well-known applications with often funny results. Sometimes I read it as a form of therapy.

The end result of having an application that obeys platform conventions is that it feels very familiar and natural. The user can start using the application right from the start without feeling disoriented or having to think about what he's doing. In the past there were many people who had never used a computer before. These days most people interact with a computer every day. If you build an application in such a way that it works very similarly to other applications you will have drastically reduced the learning time and people will have a very warm fuzzy feeling of familiarity with your application right from the start. On the other hand if your application works in a completely weird and unexpected way it will make the user feel as if they're starting over from scratch again. It will be disorientating and confusing and that's not a a good first impression to make. Let's not be bush-league.

If you've mastered the other two books it's time to move on to the advanced stuff. The last book is all about flow. Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface is an extremely detailed and often formal look at flow. Flow is the feeling you get when you're concentrating on what you're doing rather than how you're doing it. When you're in flow the computer disappears. Your mind melds with a computer and everything you want to do just suddenly and effortlessly just happens. You're still using a computer but it has become an extension of your being. In the same way that a painter's brush becomes an extension of the painter or a hockey players stick becomes an extension of the hockey player. It's where an idea or desire effortlessly flows into a series of actions to accomplish it. Jef Raskin's book is all about writing computer interfaces that encourage this feeling. I'll give you an example of what I mean: Dialog boxes suck for flow.

So those are my three books in roughly the order of importance. I think I'll end my post here. I'm sure you got a lot of reading to do.


Philippe et Isabelle said...

Maverick, reporting !
I am reading your blog from a remote city in the mountains in the Philippines (Banaue). Your blog is great source of information with some Britishly humor ! :) I love it.

Wow, you really nailed down the UI development topic in a short and concise way. I miss our discussions ! :)

If I could add to your list a book that you know well, it would be "The Design of every day things" by Donald Norman. As you know, it is so high level that I think it would fit well in your list because anyone can read it.

Keep on posting dude!
See ya

Andrew said...

Yes, Donald Norman's book is also a classic and I highly recommend it.