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The Classy Classic: Designing the User Interface (Book Review)

book cover

Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Fifth Edition

By Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant, with contributing authors Maxine S. Cohen and Steven M. Jacobs

(Addison Wesley, 2009)

Reviewing Ben Shneiderman’s and Catherine Plaisant’s most recent version of the classic text about designing user-interfaces is a daunting, but rewarding challenge. Usually, it takes about three times to get anything complex right. I have in my library at least two or three versions of the book now. In comparison to the second edition (1992), the latest incarnation uses many more color photos, much more visual enhancement of chapters, summary tables of contents (in addition to the longer, completed table of contents), and other techniques of modern book design to convey a contemporary feel. The book also comes with a pre-paid, six-month access to the book’s companion website. The book is also contemporary in evolving a web-based solution to new content and to readers’ continuing service fees to obtain additional information.

Looking through two editions separated by more than eighteen years, one is struck by the evolution of user-interface planning, research, analysis, evaluation, documentation, implementation, training, and maintenance—as well as design—in the past two decades. The book itself is a thorough time-capsule of the field, incorporating the latest philosophies, principals, methods, and techniques as best the authors and we understand them. Gone are references to video disks and specification methods like user-action notation. For this new generation of readers, the book references blogs, the iPhone, social networks, tag clouds, Twitter, and YouTube.

At the beginning of the book, the authors offer eight ways of using the book, and specific chapter sequences for readers coming from such disciplines as computer science (its core audience), psychology and sociology, business and information systems, technical writing, and graphic design.

In almost every topic that it tackles, the text summarizes the issues effectively and provides specific details that are often found in more narrow-focus guidebooks.

In later chapters, the authors treat more generally large-scope topics, like information visualization. Here it becomes impossible to provide extensive detailed design guidelines; however, intriguing examples illustrate different approaches. Again, it becomes impossible in a printed book to constantly update the images. Nevertheless, the images are succinct, appropriate, well-selected supplements to the clear descriptions and explanations.

The references have been updated, but to their credit, the authors actually retain a few choice morsels reaching back as far as the late 1980s, suggesting that they recognize the other levels of readership: the Baby Boomers, GenXers, and the Millennials who will all be looking at this text, seeking solutions for the widest and wildest challenges of user-interface design in the coming decade.

In keeping with the user-centered design approach promoted by the book, I asked two younger (by thirty or forty years) associates what they thought of the new book. They represent the newcomers to the field, who may not be aware of the full range and depth of user-interface development, practice, and theory over the past sixty years throughout the world.

One remarked: “Upon reading through the contents, what I found striking was the language in which the book was written. Right from the start, it was very clear, concise, and easy to read. As a novice of user-interface design, I expected to be bombarded with technical jargon that I wouldn’t understand, but, surprisingly, the authors had none of that. Also, the visuals played a significant part in furthering my understanding of the already readable content.”

The other commented, “Overall, the book was a good introduction to the meaning and importance of user-interface design. However, I would like to have seen some definitions of terms, such as ‘user experience,’ ‘user interface,’ and perhaps a brief history of user-experience design.”

Of note is the sparse reference to user-experience (UX) concepts, although they are covered as usability engineering and user-interface architecture concepts and are mentioned explicitly a few times.

Clearly, one cannot be all things to all people; the second comment touched on one or two items that, in my opinion, might have been given a little more space. However, these are quibbles. The book maintains its legendary value as an indispensable, readable, comprehensive, high-quality treatment of a still bustling, fast-growing, worldwide field bursting with enthusiasm, energy, and innovation. This book presents both a bird’s eye view and a ground-level view of the terrain.