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Book review: About Face 3.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Book review: About Face 3.0: the essentials of interaction design. Technical Communication 55(2):199–200.

Alan Cooper is that rara avis, a respected programmer who also writes eloquently about the importance of focusing on users rather than technology. For decades, he’s been as concerned about how people interact with software as he is about creating reliable software. In the original About Face (IDG Books Worldwide, 1995; reviewed in the November 1996 issue of Technical Communication), Cooper established his now-familiar design manifesto: design to support user goals rather than technical specs. Is this approach important to documentation designers too? Very much so. Understanding how people interact with the products we document helps us focus on their needs rather than merely on documenting a product’s features. By describing how users think about products and how designers can accommodate these thoughts, the book also reveals how we can translate between the designer’s implementation model and the user’s world.

Users actively interact with and interpret both texts and products to accomplish something meaningful to them, not to read our documentation or use a product’s features. About Face begins with a detailed description of how these interactions occur and presents a coherent design process designed to support these interactions. In this part of the book, the authors succeed brilliantly. Moreover, though they evangelize the importance and effectiveness of their method, they caution us to avoid rote application of stereotypical solutions, and to always tailor our approach to the unique needs of each new group of users. The authors note that the book is a design guide, not a "rulebook".

The book is packed with insights and practical advice. For example, the authors remind us to avoid crystallizing designs too early in the process, since it’s easy to avoid developing emotional attachments to crude interface sketches, but harder to abandon beloved designs that prove ineffective. Another example is their simple test for whether touchscreen designs work: print a copy, ink your finger with an inkpad, and test whether your fingerprints fit on the printed buttons. The descriptions of how user interfaces succeed—or fail—is detailed and fascinating. They also include a welcome discussion of the ethics of design, reminding us that no design is ethically neutral.

Unfortunately, the text often stops at too high a level, leaving readers to infer the details. For example, the descriptions of ethnographic interviews and persona development provide a good overall understanding, but insufficient detail for someone who must actually do these jobs. No example is provided to show the data used to create a persona or what a good persona looks like. In contrast, the description of scenarios is sufficiently thorough that the high-level concepts are concrete and easy to visualize. Each chapter could be profitably expanded into a book, so this isn’t a condemnation; indeed, the book provides a great high-level overview of goal-centered design. But you’ll find the links to more detailed information scanty and will want more supplemental reading material than the bibliography provides.

The book emphasizes the authors’ real-world experience. Practitioners will appreciate this, but the literature review is shallow; for example, you won’t see Ginny Redish, Karen Schriver, or Bill Horton (other than his icon book) cited. This lack of awareness of our field’s research produces misleading statements such as “Users generally don’t believe, or at least don’t want to believe, that they make mistakes” (p. 336). On the contrary, Karen Schriver documented back in 1997 that up to 63% of users in one study routinely blamed themselves, not software or its documentation, for errors. The authors’ larger point remains valid: errors often result from how we explore and learn, and designers should support this process rather than treating such exploration as “error.” But there’s no mention of John Carroll’s seminal work on minimalism in this context. There are useful tips about online help, such as the suggestion to always add a shortcuts topic to the Help menu, but oddly, no mention of embedded help.

The recommendations in later chapters are sensible and appealing, but unproven, and lose credibility through unsupported normative statements about how software design should change. Unfortunately, the real world often treats sensible ideas harshly. For example, the authors discuss how changing the cursor’s shape indicates that a new function has been selected, but they don’t warn us of the downside: users often fail to notice such cues. Word’s Customize function, which changes the cursor into a large – sign, is a classic example: many users miss the cursor change and delete several toolbar icons or menu choices before they notice a problem. (Earlier in the book, the authors note that we should protect users from such "ejection seat" functions, but the warning should have been repeated here.) Similarly, the discussion of customizing how software works is important but ignores the implications for technical support departments, who often struggle to cope with the consequences of software that has been customized beyond all recognition.

The new edition refines and polishes the material presented in the previous version based on an additional four years of experience applying the Cooper design methodology. I found the layout of the new book cleaner, more attractive, and easier to read. The bibliography is not lavish, but has been expanded from 65 to 90 entries, evidence that interaction design has not stood still. Despite its occasional flaws, the book is an essential addition to the library of anyone interested in interaction design and in how goal-centered design can help us improve our documentation too.

Cooper, A; Reimann, R.; Cronin, D. 2007. About Face 3.0: the essentials of interaction design. Wiley Publishing, Inc., Indianapolis, IN. [ISBN 978-0-470-08411-3. 610 p., including index. $45.00 USD (softcover).]

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