A year ago

A year ago, I stumbled upon a large green book by Alan Cooper and some of his friends. I was browsing for some material on Interaction Design, and this book provided a very sound basis for implementing software unlike any of the software development books I have read.

The book was called About Face.

It was first published in 1995, and the book I had in my hands was in its third revision.

This was the book that ultimately changed my life. A textbook no doubt, but it was so practical yet poignant that I could no longer implement software the way I had been doing in the past.

There have been many, many other books written on the subject. Why this one?

Well, I believe it was because Alan himself had once been a software person himself. After many years of pioneering software systems, he came to realize the paradox that software doesn’t always make users more productive. In his seminal book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, he described how software is often written for software people, not normal people, and this ultimately causes a lot of problems.

… I ceased all programming to devote one hundred percent of my time to helping other development firms make their products easier to use. – Alan Cooper, The Inmates are Running the Asylum

In a way, his perspective of interaction design often considers the possibility that his audience may include software people. This isn’t obvious to non-software people, who read this book just like any other text, but it is written in the style of common software textbooks (e.g. Java Network Programming published by O’Reilly).

Unlike Sharp, Rogers, and Preece’s more common academic text, “Interaction Design“, Alan’s book cuts to heart about effectively resolving software’s most dangerous problem so far.

This wasn’t just useful to me as a software developer. It is a fundamental shift in the way software is being developed. It begins with users, rather than schematics and requirements. It tests on user goals, rather than functional specifications. It makes users the center of everything, and how software should be designed for users, and not the other way around.

It offers a pragmatic framework for building software towards the one thing that makes it truly successful – that it brings the most good to the largest amount of users who use it. It’s so prescriptive that it was quite hard to ignore.

If you are committed to improving the world by improving the behavior of digital
products and services, then I welcome you to the world of About Face. – Alan Cooper, About Face 3

That was a year ago.

Now, I am writing this article in my rented room in North London, waiting for the weekend to arrive. I’ve got a stack of books on Cognitive Psychology, Ergonomics, and Research Methods on HCI on the table. My green tea is getting cold, but I’m excited about the possibilities ahead of me.

I’m about a month into UCLIC’s HCI MSc, and really getting to grips that this field which dawned upon me in the past year isn’t just plain common sense.

I was talking to a CEO of a fairly new startup. He was interested in recruiting me as part of his mobile software development team, and I was reasoning to him why this MSc was more important than a shot at software success.

It went something like this:

“Of course our objective is to make software usable”

“Users are very important to us”

“We wouldn’t sell it if users found it hard to use”

But the more I investigated, the more I realized that their setup was as common as any other software development firms. Their whiteboards were filled with class diagrams, possible feature lists, a development team roster. The cubicles were very open-plan, very developer friendly. I wouldn’t doubt that this team could pull off a very decent software package in a very short time.

Still, I still hadn’t the slightest clue who the intended user was.

“Mobile users”, I was told, “who have friends,… and family”.

I would have bought it two years ago, but I’ve already gone through the Matrix experience. I was having to choose between the red pill or the blue pill.

Swallowing the red pill wasn’t easy, but I still believe I’m doing the software industry a big favor. I love software, and I want to see it succeed. But it can’t be at the expense of users. So, in a way, I’m starting again from scratch.

So, thanks to Alan Cooper, I’m now officially part of the world of About Face.

The New Whitehouse.gov

Change has come to America… and to the Whitehouse website too. It’s been, er, Web 2.0ized. Clean, frugal lines, punchy and concise content, navigatable – I like it. And of course, it has a blog. If this was a branding exercise, it’d definitely be on the ball (or “spot on”, as the Brits like to say).

Interestingly, the “main” navigation isn’t along sidebars, but at the top menu bar and bottom footer – keeping the body fairly open for content – divided mostly into a 3-column layout or 2-column layout (with a right sidebar). Even content on the whitehouse blog is kept terse. The first post gets an average readability score of 11.3, which is slightly above what a teenager would be comfortable reading. Firefox showed up multiple RSS feeds, which was a bit confusing, but the blog does have an RSS feed.

Comments are closed for now, but it would be interesting to see how the site will evolve.

Accessibility could be improved, I guess. There’s a link for “Accessibility” in super tiny font at the bottom. This opens a page that explains the government’s stand on accessibility, but it doesn’t have the common characteristics of a page designed for accessibility (large fonts, condensed text).

Navigational fonts could be a little bigger, at the bottom.