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Subject to Change

Peter Merholz, Brandon Shauer, David Verba and Todd Wilkins
Published by O'Reilly Media
ISBN: 978-0-596-51683-3
186 pages
£ 15.50
Published: 15th April 2008
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the December 2008 issue (pdf), (html)

Attentive readers of this Newsletter will know that I like to review some of the books we receive that are marginally “off-topic”, but still relevant to the concerns of our community. In the case of O'Reilly books, the fact that Tim O'Reilly thinks that the subject matter is interesting and relevant is a fairly good recommendation for me in itself.

This book is written by the people behind Adaptive Path, which is a US company that specialises in helping others to think about how to design products and services intelligently:

Adaptive Path's “big idea” is to understand the “user experience” that customers take from a product. One of the examples the book uses is the first Kodak camera that used roll film and how the “user experience” of photography was transformed by that innovation. There are various other examples in the book both of failed and successful products together with an analysis of what it was about the user experience that contributed to success or failure.

So the book is about good and bad design, but not design purely in the sense that an artist might understand it. One of the failing examples that is cited is Apple's G4 Cube computer, which could have won (and probably did) multiple awards for its looks, but did not work in the market. Another interesting example is Boeing's proposed “Sonic Cruiser” which constituted a radical re-think of how aeroplane design could be done. One of the effects of the plane's radical shape was that passengers had to sit in a large open cabin with few visible windows. The reactions that Boeing observed from ordinary people just sitting in mockups of the cabin on the ground was one of the reasons why the project was cancelled.

There are software-related examples in the book. Some of these are discussions of user interfaces in desktop applications and web sites, but equally interesting are the references to the entire user experience with the success of Flikr cited as one example. In the case of Flikr, as with other examples in the book, the authors identify a strategy that goes beyond simply having a well designed user interface. Previous web photo sites had simply adopted the “album” metaphor as the basic way of collecting photos together. Flikr's use of tagging, photo sets, groups and maps broadened the usefulness of a photo site dramatically, and provided an experience that users could understand and enjoy.

The authors seem to have thought long and hard about the combination of design and user experience. Given that they make their living by consulting on these matters, that's not surprising. This book is an interesting and thought-provoking introduction to their ideas.

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