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Book review: Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2010. Book review: Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services. Technical Communication 57(1):112–113.

Kim Goodwin. 2009. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc. [ISBN 978-0-470-22910-1. 739 pages, including index. $69.99 USD (softcover).]

The problem with modern consumer and office products is that most are still designed based primarily on marketing or engineering considerations, and only secondarily, if at all, on human needs. This leads to products that are at best uncomfortable and, at worst, actively user-hostile.

The solution? Human-centered design. In Designing for the Digital Age, Kim Goodwin guides us from initial preparation and developing an understanding of the design context, through research, user modeling, defining product requirements, and developing design frameworks, to finalizing the design details while constantly testing to be sure we got it right. The goal of research is to identify what problems we must solve, greatly reducing the risk of surprises towards the end of the design process, and Goodwin provides a superb overview of the research process—and, for the first time, offers a detailed description of how to create and use personas that integrates details that were scattered through her previous writings and those of her colleagues.

She begins with a telling definition: “Design is the craft of visualizing concrete solutions that serve human needs and goals within certain constraints” (p. 3). The spirit of this quote is honored throughout the book, with an emphasis on ongoing formal and informal communication to ensure that both stakeholder needs and user needs continuously inform the design, yet without ignoring the real-world constraints we all face. Equally refreshing is her repeated reminder that business goals cannot be neglected in any design process. Goodwin emphasizes ongoing collaboration, revealing a clear role for technical communicators; her ideal designer serves as the translator, arbitrator, and negotiator of consensus among the many stakeholders in any design, which is something we do well.

Goodwin’s approach is based on more than a decade of practical experience, and is packed with real-world examples and tips. But theoretical aspects aren’t forgotten, and she cites several key books and research papers. The full design process may be prohibitively detailed and time-consuming (potentially many months) for organizations in which design isn’t a recognized priority and when the ship date can’t be delayed just so we can do the job right—a familiar situation for many technical communicators—but she provides shortcuts that let us achieve acceptable results when the full approach isn’t possible. Goodwin concludes with chapters on how to build our own design expertise and gradually create a design-focused corporate culture that will provide more scope for doing the job right.

Her approach emphasizes structured methods that support creativity and ensure we won’t miss anything crucial, but that are never rote methods or straightjackets. She devotes more than half the book to ensuring that we understand what we’re trying to accomplish and who we’re trying to accomplish it for (the carpenter’s “measure twice, cut once”). Though she provides many examples of successful designs and design principles, her goal is to teach us to discover the best approach for any situation, not to recommend prescriptive and inflexible rules. Frequent exercises encourage us to think through and apply what we’ve learned, but sadly, no sample solutions demonstrate whether our answers show that we’re on the right path. Copious and detailed examples mostly compensate for that lack.

If you have room for only one more design book, make it this one. The scope and depth of detail are stunning, and the advice is both profound and profoundly practical, showing a subtle and nuanced understanding both of humans and of the corporate environment. (The book itself was designed based on the Goodwin approach, elegantly proving that technical communicators can also use this approach.) Despite occasional lapses into jargon, the book is clearly and elegantly written, and an outstanding contribution to the field.

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