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Review: Designing from Both Sides of the Screen
by John S.
Overall Value 4
I just read Designing
from Both Sides of the Screen: How Designers and Engineers Can Collaborate
to Build Cooperative Technology (Amazon
link) by Ellen Isaacs and Alan Walendowski. Isaacs is a
technology design leader at AT&T Labs and has expertise in usability.
Walendowski is a software engineer at AT&T Labs and has expertise in
programming and software development.
This is a book
that describes the principles and process of user interface design. It
is broken up into two parts. The first part (The Goal) consumes about 25% of
the pages; it includes chapters 1-4. The second part (The Process) consumes
about 70% of the pages; it includes chapters 5-11. The last 5% of the book
is Appendixes (Guidelines and Recommended Readings).
In this review,
I'll explain why I did not like the book but I will pull out some of the
more useful information. Who knows, based on what I write, you might decide
that you need it. Yet, the way I see it, with limited time and money, it
does not make sense to buy this book since other books provide
much more value.
The First 89 Pages (Part One Overview)
The first part of
the book introduces the idea of usability. More importantly, the authors
provide several examples of usability problems. The problems range
from a Xerox copy machine interface to Pacific Bell's customer service
center to AOL's instant messenger. Isaacs and Walendowski balance things out
with several good examples too. For example, they talk about how some
Corvette key remotes automatically lock and unlock the car doors when you
get close to the car. You don't even have to push a button on the remote yet
the doors still lock and unlock for you. They also talk about how several
software applications, such as Quicken, perform type-ahead (i.e., as you
type, previously used words that match what you are starting to type
automatically fill the box).
The first part 89
pages of the book are generally useful. The authors provide good examples;
the color pictures are useful and tasteful. They also point out several
useful guidelines in the context of the real world. For designers and
developers unfamiliar with usability and user-centered design, the first
part of the book might be useful.
The Rest of the Book
On page 90, the
book suddenly takes a radical turn. I was literally jolted upright. Instead
of diving into more usability issues, the book transforms into a book
about Hubbub. Hubbub is an instant messenger that runs on wireless Palms
and Windows PCs. Isaacs and Walendowski, with a little bit of help, actually
built Hubbub at AT&T. It is an ongoing research project into instant
messengers and related collaborative technologies. If you are interested in
the project, you can visit the Hubbub web
The rest of the
book is devoted to explaining how Isaacs and Walendowski applied usability
and user-centered design to Hubbub. They explain why they generated task
lists and how those lists relate to developing functional requirements. They
discuss the development of user interface specifications, system
architecture, and iterative development. They also devote some pages on how
to run usability tests.
The first appendix
is literally a list of general guidelines. The second appendix is a list of
recommended readings. The book concludes with a healthy index. It was one of
the best parts of the book; well organized and proper level of detail
(indexes are too often neglected, in my opinion).
Based on what I
wrote above, you might think that I liked the book. While it is true that I
liked the first part of the book, it is not as good as other books
that cover the same kind of material. For example, if you really want to
learn about usability problems in the real world, you should read The
Design of Everyday Things (Amazon
link) by Don Norman. It is still probably the best book to get
you thinking about all the various types of the usability problems in the
world. There is also the Interface
Hall of Shame, which is a good collection of interface design problems.
So, although the first part of Designing from Both Sides of the Screen
is not too bad, there are equal or better resources available.
The second part of
the book simply doesn't make sense to me. I understand that the authors
wanted to use a "real" example by using Hubbub. That is, they
wanted to provide people with a concrete and detailed review of how they
built usability into the Hubbub tool. I admire the effort but it falls flat.
It seems too academic and at other times much too simplistic. While
Hubbub might be easier to use than AOL IM or ICQ, it doesn't really have to
compete against them since it is subsidized by AT&T. Stated another way,
I never heard of Hubbub before I read this book.
If Hubbub is so
easy to use and if it is a model of instant messenger usability, why hasn't
it gained any market share? That might not be the point of the book, and
perhaps I am being a bit harsh, but idealized usability is no better
than just whipping up a software product and releasing it without any
usability. I haven't downloaded and used Hubbub, but I don't feel that I
should. I don't need it and I don't think I will learn much about usability
by using it. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the world needs another instant
Both Sides of the Screen would have been a good book about instant
messenger usability. The authors tried to treat the book like it was about
the process of usability. They tried to treat Hubbub as an example. What a
shame. It fell flat for me in large part because I thought Hubbub was a
really boring product. Another instant messenger, and built in a
pseudo-academic environment (AT&T Labs) -- yawn.
The book could
have been much, much better if it was only about instant messenger
usability. That would have been the perfect niche to fill. Instead, the
authors get so caught up in Hubbub itself that they lose the bigger picture
of instant messenger usability, for all instant messenger products. That is
definitely a hot area of investigation, especially when you start thinking
about how Microsoft plans on using its IM platform as part of their overall
web services infrastructure (read
more...). The instant messenger usability niche would be perfect
because it has not been properly addressed yet. Too bad, it is a missed
If you are
interested in the process of usability and usability engineering, you should
problem just pick up a copy of Usability Engineering (Amazon
link) by Jakob Nielsen. Or, if you want something a bit less dry,
perhaps you should read Alan Cooper's The Inmates Are Running the Asylum (Amazon
link). Cooper's book is a lot like Don Norman's in that it gets
you really thinking about usability and why it is important. If you are
interested in how to actually do usability (i.e., perform usability tests),
you should read Jeffrey Rubin's Handbook of Usability Testing (Amazon
link) or User and Task Analysis for Interface Design (Amazon
link) by Hackos and Redish. I could go on and on with
recommendations for other books you should read, but I think I have made my
Both Sides of the Screen doesn't do a great job introducing usability
and it doesn't do a great job explaining usability testing. Also, it is too
focused on Hubbub to the exclusion of reviewing other instant messengers. As
I stated above, I would have loved almost any book that talked about instant
messenger usability in general.
While there are
several useful books about web usability, there are currently no good books
on the usability of instant messengers and email programs. While web
usability has been given proper treatment, other areas have been neglected.
Indeed, I challenge you to find good information on the topic of instant
messenger usability! The authors are so in love with Hubbub that they
neglect other instant messengers. It would have been awesome to see a
full-blown comparison of AOL IM, MSN Messenger, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and
Hubbub. Imagine looking at the usability of these various products. That
would have been wonderful! For all we know, the usability engineering
process is a failure because the authors only describe and measure the
usability of Hubbub. Argh!
money. Don't buy this book.
Important Note: If
you are interested in learning more, I recommend that you visit UI
Designs, which is the companion web site for this book.