An in-depth look at why some products can be used with ease, and others leave you frustrated.
Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction
by Yvonne Rogers, Helen Sharp, Jenny Preece (John Wiley & Sons, 492 pages)
As the world fills up with ever more complex machines that have to be "interacted with" to make them work, and as our lives depend more and more on interacting with such machines, it becomes ever more consequential just how easy interacting with these machines is becoming. Over the past 40 years, the design of those interactions has grown along with the machines. The experience of the last decade with the Web has made this particularly clear, because if users can't use a Website, they have the option of walking away; failure to take this into account has meant the demise of many startups, even before the meltdown. However, the Web is only a very clear case of something that we all feel everyday; even though we may not always be able to walk away, we often wish we could, and fault the makers for the pain they cause us.
Interaction design is the theory and practice of designing interactive products that are usable. This is a massive subject, involving expertise from many disciplines, many subject matters including those of the human activities that the machines support, many processes from observation to design to evaluation to working in cross-functional multi-disciplinary teams. By now there are many people employed doing interaction design and most companies have at least some activity in the area; some design firms do nothing else.
"Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction" is an omnibus textbook that seeks to provide a broad introduction to these many aspects of interaction design. Authors Yvonne Rogers, Helen Sharp and Jenny Preece write from solid grounding: as respected academics in the theory of the many fields that contribute to interaction design, as consultants in the practice of making products, and as teachers in the art of conveying the material in an entertaining and compelling way. They succeed in addressing the vast array of material composing interaction design and its practice by keeping a clear focus: "Interaction design is designing interactive products to support people in their everyday and working lives."
However, to make the job harder, the book is intended for multiple audiences: students (in computer science, information systems, psychology and cognitive science), Web designers, Internet designers, usability professionals, e-commerce entrepreneurs, and even the general public: "reflective users who want to understand why certain products can be used with ease while others are unpredictable and frustrating." This range of audiences is served by breaking the subject matter into 15 chapters that deal with the various aspects of interaction design, and then providing maps to guide their audiences to places right for them (e.g., there is a map from the ACM-IEEE computer science curriculum to the chapters). It is also served by providing a range of material suitable for different interests and learning styles, including instructive text, examples, cases, and interviews with practitioners.
Despite its broad intended audience, the book is first and foremost a textbook: it provides aims at the beginning of chapters, and key-points at the end, activities to check the student's understanding, assignments to be done by individuals or groups, further reading and references to the literature of many fields. More importantly, at its core it talks in abstractions, laying out principles, listing issues, mapping and diagramming spaces. This provides a wealth of structure for the vast subject matter. While a wealth of examples grounds these abstractions, the authors are committed to providing frameworks and concepts for the reader to think with.
However, this textbook reads like -- and can even be thought of as -- a storybook, providing rich views into the practices of interaction design. These views are broken out as separate streams (sometimes as side-bars, sometimes as recurring figures; the design keeps these separate, although the typographic consistency is sometimes a little rough). It has boxes that take practical topics (e.g., "Usable usability: what terms do I use?") and explores them. It has dilemmas, the open questions that the field is struggling with in the laboratory and in the trenches. And it has interviews with leaders in the field, both from research and from industry. This provides historical background from those who were there, a sense of what it is like to be there now, and a glimpse of where the field may be going. Over time, these features will probably cause the book to feel dated much more quickly than an "established knowledge only" tome. However, that seems a fair price to pay for providing the reader with a sense not only of the content of the field but also of the people who do the work and of the experience of doing it.
While novel, this mixture of text and story is not surprising: Interaction design is not about technology, but rather about people interacting with technology. Similarly, the book is not only about the content of interaction design, it is about the processes and practices of doing it. As the authors say (page 12), "Interaction design involves four activities: 1. identifying needs and establishing requirements 2. developing alternative designs that meet those requirements 3. building an interactive version of the design so that it can be communicated and assessed. 4. evaluating what is being built throughout the process. These activities are intended to inform one another and to be repeated."
Indeed, the book, like interaction design itself, is mostly about people. For example, someone attempting to look into "user-centered design" finds a whole chapter devoted to it. However they also find it in many other places, because the user is implicitly at the center of so many of the concerns the book addresses, and the processes it advocates.
As a result, the book does not feel as "cleanly" architected as many textbooks. Many topics seem to come up repeatedly in their different aspects. This can be a little confusing, raising for the reader the question of how material is different from what you have seen elsewhere (where?). However, I found myself willing to pay this price for being able to dive without preamble into the middle to get the scoop on something (e.g., indirect observation, or pluralistic walkthroughs, or The GOMS model).
I do find myself quibbling a bit with the subtitle of the book ("Beyond Human-Computer Interaction"). The phrase "human-computer interaction" can be taken to point fairly narrowly at the design of the user interface; however, its meaning, particularly as applied to the discipline ("HCI"), has broadened over the years, and now addresses most of the material covered by the book. So I see the book going beyond user interface, but not beyond HCI. But as I say, an insider's quibble.
Now as if creating such an overarching book was not enough, the authors have actually created a "Book - Web site". The authors have undertaken to provide a growing space for cases and examples, for online hands-on exercises, for discussion. Because it is on the Web, the readers can join the authors in extending and telling the story. So the book will continue to grow.
Which in the end means that it may be best not to think of this as a book (whether textbook or storybook) at all. Rather as a broad introductory map of an immense territory, it may be seen as the seed crystal of an online community of those engaging in the grounded discussion of interaction design. I hope it works out that way.
Austin Henderson, principal, Rivendel Consulting & Design, Inc., has been in the field of human-computer interaction since 1964.