#3 – The essential bookshelf for UI design

#3 – The essential bookshelf for UI design

By Scott Berkun, July 1999

(note: There is now an updated annotated design resources page.)

Let’s quickly review the key points from last issue’s discussion of a good UI development process: Base the design on real problems your users have, not guesswork; sketch out many ideas to identify the best ones before writing any code; and prototype the best ideas to recognize design problems before it’s too late to change them. To follow is my short list of recommended books and resources to use as a starter kit for anyone who wants to make useful products or Web sites. These books provide greater depth to the steps I talked about last time.

The Short List

  1. The Windows® Interface Guidelines for Software Design (Microsoft Press, 1995; ISBN 1-55615-679-0). If you develop Microsoft® Windows applications and don’t want to reinvent wheels, this is a great reference. It explains all of the key UI rules to follow, with lots of examples for how to lay out dialog boxes, wizards, toolbars, and context menus. It makes for a handy reference when working on Windows applications, and should be on every Windows developer’s bookshelf.
  2. Usability Engineering by Jakob Nielsen (AP Professional, 1994; ISBN 0125184069). There are many books dedicated to techniques for usability testing of software and Web sites, but this is my essential resource. This book is not focused on design generation-it’s focused on the techniques for effectively measuring the usability of an interface. It explains many different testing techniques for comparing different design ideas, including suggestions for keeping the costs of usability testing down. This book covers analysis techniques that can be applied to Web sites, Web pages, or any kind of software. It’s great for the initial phases of learning about users, and the middle phases of iteration and usability testing. A copy of the design heuristics listed in this book hangs over my desk-I refer to them to help me brainstorm or to help critique sketches I’ve made.
  3. Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman (Currency/Doubleday, 1988; ISBN: 0385267746). In my first column I wrote about how bad many non-software interfaces are. This book discusses in detail why that’s the case, and defines the psychological principles at work that make these interfaces so hard to use. This is a classic text that I recommend to anyone who is just starting to think about UI and wants a broad understanding of the issues involved. Examples include kitchen appliances, office doors, and vending machines.
  4. About Face by Alan Cooper (IDG Books Worldwide, 1995; ISBN 1568843224). It’s hard to find a better book about the pragmatics of real Windows UI development than About Face. This is a deep book, documenting thoughts on the uses and abuses of Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 UI. The philosophy of putting the user first is applied with specific commentary on the misuse of error messages, toolbars, and other common elements. Some of his conclusions are debatable, and his approach strays at times to pure opinion or to invention of new names for relatively common types of elements-so apply to your own products with care. Overall, though, the discussion and arguments are insightful and inspiring. When thinking about solutions, a quick flip through this book should help get ideas flowing.
  5. Web Style Guide: Basic Design Principles for Creating Web Sites by Patrick Lynch (Yale Press, 1999; ISBN 0-300-076575-4). This is the print version of one of the best online Web design guides I’ve seen. If I could recommend just one book to Web site designers, this would be it (Nielsen’s Usability Engineering would be an excellent companion). It provides the philosophy and rules of thumb for effective Web page and site design. It’s highly readable, despite the style guide title. The Web version is at http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/contents.html, but it’s much faster to read it on paper than on the Web, and the pictures are better, too.
  6. The Elements of Friendly Software Design by Paul Heckel (SYBEX, 1991; ISBN 0-89588-768-1). A true gem for programmers and designers, this book was first published in the early 1980s and remains a landmark summation of problems and solution approaches for interface design. It is broader in scope than About Face, and shows a deeper understanding of design as a discipline across industries. It includes a comparison of the Wright brothers’ inventions to the development of software interfaces. Some of the examples and pictures are dated, but the text is brilliant and the broad perspective enlightening. This book is currently out of print, but I’ve seen copies recently at the local used bookstore.

Annotated Design / Usability References

I keep an updated annotated list of books, websites and other resources on usability, web/software design and UI project management. If you know of exceptional items that I should add, let me know.


Scott’s first book, the art of project management, will be published by O’Reilly in April of 2005.

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