Category Archives: Books

Reading makes you think

In my last post I meant to include a bit of what I’ve been reading lately. I’m not the world’s quickest reader by any means (mainly for lack of time I dedicate to it) but recently I’ve been on a bit of a geeky brain-food book kick.

  • Interaction Design – This is basically a text book and pretty dry at times, but was a great primer on Interaction Design and the concepts that go into it. Task models, concept models, metaphors, patterns, usability, research, metrics… Sounds thrilling, I know, but I needed it.
  • Founders at Work – This book was much more engrossing and inspiring than I expected. Most all of the stories from the early tech startups to some of the modern-day winners were fascinating. There were only a couple times I found myself uninterested, mainly when I couldn’t relate to a given founder. “I retired from Company A at 30 years-old and took my millions to found XYZ.com with these three other rich guys…”. But overall it was a great book and I’d highly recommend it.
  • Designing Interactions – Unlike the first book which was more instruction/reference, this book is chock full of real world examples, case-studies and interviews with pioneers in the wide world of “interaction”. I’m poking through it slowly, but the stories are a great compliment to the practical how/what that’s fresh in my mind. You can watch a number of interview video snippets on the website here. The book also came with a DVD containing them all.
  • Everything is Miscellaneous – Lasty, I’m a little over halfway through this book. I have very mixed feelings about it so far and will reserve judgement until I’m finished. At times it’s a fascinating look at the history and evolution of information organization (in the current style of “pop non-fiction” ala Gladwell, [fill-in-the-blank]-onomics, etc.), and relates it all to everyday examples of classification such as sorting the silverware in your kitchen drawer, or Staples stores. This is where the book shines. But at other times Weinberger jumps to some strange conclusions which seem under-researched and mis-understood. I’ll be finished shortly and will follow up with more in-depth thoughts.

Next on my plate are two books by Chucks. For a shift in direction from the somewhat tech/design-heavy above, I picked up the new Chuck Klosterman book, and the new new Chuck Palahniuk novel.

Edward Rondthaler: One Old but Cool Relative

UPDATE – To see the Centenarian ad from Genworth Financial featuring Ed Rondthaler, follow the directions here.

It seems every year during the family gatherings around the holidays I learn something new, or rediscover some interesting tidbit about my family. This year my father mentioned our eldest relative, a cousin of my grandmother’s (I think), and also my father’s godfather, Edward Rondthaler. I remembered him most from family gatherings on the Connecticut shore almost every summer while growing up. As a little kid I thought he was a fascinating old man who told really great stories and jokes. When I was a bit older I visited him again with my family, at his home, and was amazed at how many books filled his old house, and was impressed that at his age he knew his way around a computer (in the days before Windows). I always thought he was an interesting man, but at the time I never learned much about his history.
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The Tipping Point… Minus the Point

The Tipping PointIf this book is anything, it fits in this new genre of pop-science backed up by anecdotal evidence, written for pseudo-intellectual yuppies (myself included). It’s hard not to compare The Tipping Point to Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics because it or Gladwell’s other book, Blink, are almost always shelved near each other, recommended in the same places on Amazon, and they deal with some of the same issues. Where Freakonomics succeeded with some actual academic credentials, and clearly explained statistics, Gladwell’s book read like… well, a book written by a New Yorker writer. Anecdote followed by case-study, followed by personal experience. But…

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Designing Emotional, Everyday Things

Design of Everyday Things Originally published in 1988 as The Psychology of Everyday Things, Donald Norman’s book is still every bit as relevant today. Technology has come a long way in 17 years, but we’re still struggling with many of the same fundamental design and interaction challenges (plus a ton more). This book is still considered a “Bible” to many people in fields that even remotely border on design. It was especially interesting reading many of his thoughts on early computers. He predicted almost every challenge in human-computer interaction that designers wrestled (and still wrestle) with, even as computers and software have now become “everyday” things to most people. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has some interest in design, psychology, human behavior, or door handles. Trust me, after reading this book, you’ll never look at a door handle (or water faucet, or telephone) the same again.

Emotional Design The unofficial “sequel” to The Design of Everyday Things, this book, published in 2004, answers many of the questions left over from before. The most prominent of these is simply, “Do aesthetics matter?” They certainly do, and there are many other aspects of everyday things that can greatly affect our perceptions of them. Norman dives into a number of different types of emotional responses that people have to objects. How do we connect with the things we use, and why do we take pleasure in using certain things? I actually started this book before I finished the other (I tend to do that a lot), and in this case it worked quite nice. It was almost as if present-day Norman was having a conversation with his 16-year-ago self, discussing what he had learned, and extrapolating on the strict “usability” subject of his older book. In addition to the case studies and examples in Emotional Design, there is a lot more theorizing and predicting than in Everyday Things. In my opinion, this didn’t work quite so well, and the book jumps around quite a bit between things such as bottled water, teapots, videogames and robots. In particular, I think his videogame section really missed the mark. There was a great opportunity to explore the psychology of “play” and the different emotional investment involved in games. In a lot of ways, my problems with this book were the same as with Freakonomics. There are so many different case studies, and examples, and ideas that are explored around the loose theme of “emotional design” that they rarely went as in-depth as I would have liked. Norman, still has a lot of interesting thoughts, and maybe the ideas that seem far-fetched or off-base in this book, are how his predictions in Everyday Things would have seemed to the audience at that time. I would still heartily recommend this book, especially to anyone who enjoyed The Design of Everyday Things. Donald Norman also has an excellent website full of essays and articles he’s written, and a fun section titled In Praise of Good Design listing products he’s found with memorable and useful designs.

Freakonomics

FreakonomicsThis is the fastest book I’ve finished in at least 5 years. And sadly, the first book I’ve finished in about a year. My ratio of starting to finishing isn’t that great, but I was certainly happy to find this book such an interesting and quick read. For a book about economics and basically what amounts to statistical analysis, the language stayed easy to understand and every new chapter kept my interest. I think part of the reason it was so engrossing, was because each chapter tackles an entirely new subject. This is both a pro and a con. It keeps the material fresh, but it does really limit the depth of analysis that each new topic receives.

This brings me to the one main bone I have to pick with the authors and the book. Numerous times throughout the text they repeat that there is no unifying theme, or that this “new way of thinking” is the theme. I can buy that, and they pick plenty of interesting examples to demonstrate their ideas, but they never take it that next step. A professor of mine often asked a seemingly silly question after long discussions and debates in class, and I’ve come to realize it’s an important question to ask. What’s at stake? The authors tackle some very large issues, such as crime, abortion, and poverty, and numerous smaller issues such as real estate, sumo wrestling, standardized testing and baby names. They gingerly dance around some of the results of the heavy-hitting issues, for fear of offending, or coming across as emotionless. Why not take it that next step? Why not ask what’s at stake? I guess I can respect their attempt to bring this economic thinking down to a common level and get a book out to mass audiences, but is it enough? Or is this just the latest contribution to the fad of pseudo-science, watered-down non-fiction for the bestseller lists?

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it. It has certainly gotten me thinking about things in new ways, but I do wonder how long that will last. In the end, I think a more appropriate title might be Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Shows You A Hidden Side of A Few Things.