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Customer Review

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Advice so obvious you never would have thought of it, May 29, 2007
This review is from: Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design (Paperback)
The danger in reading a book that tells you to do obvious things is that you may find yourself thinking that since you could have thought of each piece of advice on your own, you would have. Alas, unless you have the depth of experience that someone like Robert Hoekman has acquired by working on dozens of projects, chances are there is at least one obvious thing in this book that you have missed in your last project.

If you're like me there is probably considerably more than one thing.

Hoekman lays out the basic principles of web application design clearly and succinctly. He starts by describing some of the practices that designers should adopt in order to understand how their users actually behave and what they really need. These practices are meant to cure readers of the habit of asking users what they want, which frequently results in honest but inaccurate answers. Hoekman's tools of choice for generating understanding are various forms of shadowing users while they do the tasks your application will perform, and his preferred method of documentation is the use case. No one who has worked in software development for any period of time will be surprised at the use case rules he lays out, but the example he gives is a rare glimpse into how the mind of an expert polishes a basic use case into something truly professional.

He next tackles the question of what features to put into your design and which to leave out. Here Hoekman is firmly in the minimalist camp exemplified by 37 Signals. He advocates ruthlessly stripping out "nice to have" features, and simplifying the rest. Although I had previously read much the same argument in "Getting Real", ([...]) once again I found that the example at the end of the chapter gave greater practical insight into how to actually select features to remove.

I found the chapter titled "Support the User's Mental Model" to be the most valuable in the book. As someone who is more often on the project management than the implementation side of web applications, I have often had an engineer propose a feature or refinement that makes perfect logical sense, but for some reason doesn't feel right. After reading this chapter, all of those vague feelings snapped into focus for me. Engineers are so deeply immersed in how the application works, and the possibilities that are available, that they sometimes want to structure interactions in ways that reflect the logic of the code rather than the logic of the activity. Previously I had been attributing most of these errors to the desire to provide more options to the user. Being able to distinguish between the two should help me in approaching these proposals better in the future.

The chapters on helping first time visitors become intermediate users quickly and on handling errors were also valuable, mostly because they focused on the introductory experience. There are dozens of books on design and interactions, but I have yet to see one that focuses exclusively on the crucial first visit of a user to a new site. Since this is where most of our products either succeed or fail, it's great to get some practical advice on how to gently guide a neophyte while still preserving the power a more experienced user will demand. Once again the blow by blow examples that tackle specific interaction problems and solve them are worth their weight in gold.

The rest of the book emphasizes the value of uniformity and novelty, and seemed less useful to me. It's possible that at my intermediate level of knowledge, those were the obvious things I HAVE thought of!

I only had one quibble with the book. Hoekman includes lots and lots of references to web sites and online articles that could be helpful, but each one is buried in the text. A page at the back that simply listed each of these sites would have been very helpful. Or better yet, list them on the author's web site and keep them up to date! What better way to promote yourself as an author long after the original book is dogeared and falling apart?

But this book is an invaluable resource, and one I expect will still be on my shelf long after all the sites it references have gone offline.
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Location: Brookline, MA United States

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