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  Usability : recommended reading
Recommended usability design books
Usability design is all about making products, in our case, applications, usable by the intended users. It is about making a piece of software a usable product, rather than a clever one that demonstrates the abilities of the developer or the features of the programming environment. A classic case of the latter influencing design is the misuse of Flash graphics in web design. An indication of its inappropriateness is the often seen 'Skip intro' hot spot.
 
"Software for use" L Constantine, L Lockwood ISBN 0 201 92478 1
Sub-titled "A practical guide to the models and methods of usage-centered design", this book is the result of many years of hard earned software usability experience.
 
It is written in a justifiably authoritative manner, and can be treated both as a tutorial and subsequently as a reference. In the light of the preaching's it contains, most pages contain a small grey block that summarises the key point being raised on that page.
 
This is a brilliant, comprehensive book covering all phases of software development. It explains how usability design and considerations are a wrapper around all stages of the software design. Each aspect of usability is described with tremendous depth and detail, these gleaned from years of design consultancy and teachings.
 
By formalising models of user types, their tasks, the environment they work in, and so on, the reader will gradually gain a firm grasp of their importance. By the end of the book, the reader will likely wonder why such a book had not been written before, and why usability is so sorely neglected in most product design. (It personally grieves the writer that 'Design museums' and 'Design books' very, very rarely cover functional design. Aesthetics seem to universally dominate design thinking).
 
There are some shortcomings with the book, but these are easy to live with when so much is offered in the 582 pages. Some of the formalisations are unnecessarily terse, and some discussions could benefit from some precising. It is a relatively hard going read, that took the writer many sittings to complete. However, this is in itself a good thing - allowing the ideas time to be properly assimilated.
 
Highly recommended to software development teams.
 
"The Art of Innovation" Tom Kelley ISBN 0 385 49984 1
Your first take might be to question the inclusion of a book about creativity in a list of usability books. The point here is that it is sometimes far from easy to generate usable product features. Usability often takes a spark of imagination.
 
This book is all about cultivating a work place environment that creates these sparks on a daily basis. It is enthusiastically written, explaining the pivotal role of brainstorming in the creative process. Emphasis is placed on a physical office environment, and Management attitude that allows adhoc discussions to expand on ideas.
 
The author, Tom Kelley, is general manager at IDEO, one of the World's leading design companies. Their portfolio ranges from heart defribulaters to railway carriageways. A full sized mock-up of the latter became a coffee lounge at their premises. It also enabled them to truly experience day-to-day life in such a carriage.
 
Good design often breaks old habits - Mr Dyson is famous for this with his vacuum cleaners and washing machines - and this book explains how everyone can have a shot at truly creative design. It is an enjoyable in the process.
 
"The design of everyday things" Donald A Norman ISBN 0 262 64037 6
This is the classical primer on usability. Norman steps right back to fundamentals, looking at everyday objects in a clinical way, questioning their usability.
 
He describes how the lack of spatial relationship between cooker rings and their controls continually creates problems, even after years of use. Even building doors do not escape his questioning mind, as he describes how visual design so often rules over usage design - even though form should follow function.
 
Although the book should be vital viewing for all designers, it does tend to labour at times. My personal view was to forgive such inefficiencies in the light of the change of mind set the book brought about.
 
"The inmates are running the asylum" Alan Cooper ISBN 0 672 31649 8
Sub-titled "Why High-Tech products drive us crazy and how to restore the sanity", this book takes a hard, sometimes controversial, look at the design of electronic appliances and software.
 
Computer programmers should be coerced into reading this book to learn the true effect of the isolated, user-ignorant traditional software development practices. Cooper spares no-one's blushes as he exposes a blatant disregard for the real needs of the end-user of software, and firmware.
 
Cooper explains that the root of the problem is that the implementers are given the conflicting role of designer. The mind of the implementer is focussed on, and absorbed on the internal, technical aspects of the product. These priorities that this creates are mostly at the opposite end of the spectrum to those of the ultimate end users.
 
It is critical that design for users is an integral part of the design process. Often, user interaction is only observed in the beta test stage, which is way too late to effect major design changes.
 
Cooper sums up his suggestions with a succinct concept - that coding should be analogous to pouring cement in the construction industry - the coding should follow a blueprint that has been designed to suit the users needs.
 
The book is highly recommended. The only caveat is a tendency to belittle the cost of some of the more esoteric usability ideas.
 
Highly recommended reading for all programmers, and for their managers. Only then will they understand the value of designers who stay as designers.
 
 
 

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