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Book Review: About Face 3 - The Essentials of Interaction Design, by… - The Titfield Thunderbolt
Heisenberg might have stayed here
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Book Review: About Face 3 - The Essentials of Interaction Design, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, and David Cronin
I was impressed by the common-sense straight talking of Alan Cooper's original About Face, published in 1995, and by the time I'd heard there was a second edition, in fact there was a third. In some ways it's disappointingly unchanged - there are hat-tips to the Web (and "Web 2.0"), and to other environments such as handheld devices, embedded appliances and information kiosks, but the focus is still on desktop applications.

The first part of the book is new: a rather dry series of chapters that focus on Cooper's Goal-Directed Design methodology. It's refreshingly un-agile, but seems soberingly impractical for all but those with money to burn, as it requires investment of time in analysis and design that few companies are prepared to make these days.

The second part of the book outlines high-level principles: application posture (an unfortunate typo refers to four postures, of which only three are listed - the "parasitic" posture from the original edition seems to have been dropped), excise, metaphors and idioms. Cooper cautions against overextending metaphors, and generally prefers idioms that have to be learned instead. The difficulty is that he gives no advice on distinguishing good and bad idioms.

The third part focuses at a lower level of detail, outlining uses and abuses of certain user interface elements: controls, text fields, menus, tooltips, etc. There are changes from the first edition here, but they are subtle, and there is a feeling that we haven't moved on all that much in terms of good interaction design, judging from the number of poor examples Cooper is able to cite. And it's true: the most depressing thing about reading this book is the number of references it triggers to the applications we write at work, and their poor usability (management ususally prefer the word "intuitive", which to my mind serves mainly to confirm their "unique" insight and value).

At one level it's all good and worthy stuff, but at another, you have to wonder that the person complaining that it's too easy for programmers to just throw up a message box (a disruptive and mostly unnecessary behaviour for the user to deal with) is one of the guys who wrote the original Visual Basic. The tool creator is not responsible for the way his tools are used, but he cannot completely absolve himself of responsibility either. (An irritation in the book is that, presumably in an attempt to be politically correct, Cooper's users are forever undergoing gender realignment between paragraphs). The sometimes polemic style is effective at questioning assumptions, but the gap between theory and practice seems very wide to bridge at present.

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