Designing Interfaces

Jennifer Tidwell’s new O’Reilly book, Designing Interfaces, is a superb complement to Steve Krug’s web usabilty classic Don’t Make Me Think Focused on the design of websites for large constituencies, Krug emphasizes the relentless pursuite of simplicity for users who probably aren’t giving your website their full attention. Tidwell’s book addresses the continuum from mobile phones and streetside kiosks, requiring no little familiarity and partial attention, to scientific and technical analytics tools that assume expert knowledge and full attention.
Tidwell’s day job is the design of user interfaces for MatLab, a mathematics software tool for researchers, engineers and statisticians . Some of the most intriguing chapters deal with techniques for analyzing and exploring data sets. A benefit of the recent publishing date is that the book covers desktop, mobile, and web examples, with some interesting insights on how web design practices have affected conventions of desktop application design.
The book uses “pattern language” format effectively, starting with high-level patterns such as safe exploration and incremental construction, continuing to medium-levels of navigation abstraction such as the hub and spoke and pyramid matterns, and finishing with granular detail such as the choice of widgets and visual design effects. The pattern format makes the book helpful for teams searching for shared words for design effects. Another strength of the pattern language format is its focus on describing the context in which each design solution can be used to good effect. Instead of posing glib magazine cover-style cure-alls — the 50 mistakes to avoid, the 21 secrets to design success, the pattern format presumes that readers are creative pros who can work with their user base to make good decisions in context.
Tidwell’s background as a practicing ui designer gives the book a pleasing practicality and humility. She cites academic work in relevant places, such as so and so’s work on x, and such and such on why. But the citations are used to explain design practices, instead of arguing for or against a theoretical position. As an in-house designer, Tidwell is missing the arrogance of consulting gurus such as Alan Cooper and Don Norman, whose writing is designed to convey the necessity of hiring high-priced consultants in order to access the secret wisdom and power of ui design.
For Peter Merholz: the book has enough periodic insights to be appealing to experts, while helping to build shared language among teams with different vocabularies. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

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