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Reviews of Books Assigned for Class

February 20, 2014

The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman
Basic Books, 2002

We were assigned the first three chapters for an upcoming class reading. I got so engrossed, I wound up reading the whole thing. I really like the way Morgan explains concepts of usability such as knowledge in the head versus knowledge in the world, affordances and constraints. Some terms he uses, like mental mapping and schemas were already familiar, applied to a design perspective. The emphasis is on understandability and usefulness, rather than simplicity. I enjoyed how often Norman scoffed at something sleek that “probably won a design award” but is difficult to understand or use correctly.
I flagged something as interesting, or underlined, on nearly every page.

Norman’s tone of writing has a kindness to it, and is forthright. Over and over, he returns to the idea that, if you find yourself frustrated with a site or an interface, or confused how to proceed that signals bad design, not your own fault or shortcoming. Given the number of fumbles, mistakes and frustrations I’ve encountered and then scolded myself for, reading this perspective is lovely and freeing. More people should read this book.
Later chapters struck me as a touch quaint, as we were assigned to read a book that has since been updated. The text we were reading relies on describing and discussing technology that predates smartphones. There’s a later edition, updated to include social and mobile technology. I think I would like to read it.

The Soul of a New Machine
Tracy Kidder
Back Bay Books, 1981

I was expecting and hoping to like this book, but I feel like it was fighting with itself between telling the story of the technology and telling a story about the people involved as characters. it’s so crowded to keep track of. While it was interesting, if a little opaque, to read about the development of microcomputers, and to realize how much I take for granted about the inner workings of the laptop where I’m presently typing these words… I wound up feeling grumpy, as the book dragged along, crowded with all the personalities at Data General. I also had the odd thought that it resembled a sports team biography, or a rock band biography, very much told in that story arc. Band of oddballs and misfits get together, with just a little backstory about each as he appears on the screen. The merry band has a project that sounds too crazy to work, and the arc of the story is them trying to realize their big dream. The pattern of early hopes and setbacks, and then the sudden climactic tension of, in this case, the approaching project launch and debugging deadline, made me think of the pacing of a band getting ready for its first big gig, or the underdog sports team trying to get to the championship.
Also, I got the sense, repeatedly, that Kidder found the workings of the technology almost as opaque as I did, and, for all the time he spent working with the staff of Data General, he observed as a journalist with a humanities background, and missed some opportunities to tell the story of the tech in better context.

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