in UX Practice

Taking the UX Book Club to the edge

This last Thursday, we had the first NYC edition of the UX Book Club.  I attend a lot of UX-related events, but this one had a palpable energy and excitement that I haven’t seen in some time.  At the beginning of the event, some of us offered mini-reviews of our book choice, Bill Buxton’s Sketching the User Experience.  Peter March gave such an impassioned review, I kept expecting him to whip out a bible and start waving it.

And that sort of set the tone for the rest of the event: high-energy, engaged conversation, a fertile middle ground between events where there is a single speaker with everyone else semi-passively engaged, and free-for-all cocktail hours, which are fun and great for networking, but lighter on substance.

Now, with a couple days hindsight, I have both great hopes for the potential for where this budding movement might take us, but also a creeping fear, concern, trepidation, whatever, that we will only read the books we’re already talking about, only the books written by people in our midst, only the books matching a search for “User Experience.”  Our reading choice for the event, Sketching UX, is a great book, dare I say an important book in the UX canon. We should of course keep reading books like this, book club or no book club.

But if we only read Books Written By People Like Us, I fear the UX Book Clubs will become navel-gazing, inward-looking, gatherings, where we mostly are drawing on ideas coming from within our practice. One way to prevent that from happening is to mix up our book choices a bit, and also include voices at the edge (or outside) of our practice, which I think would enrich our practice by looking at it from the outside in.

These are two books I think exemplify that edge, that are written by authors at the edges or outside our practice, and books I would strongly recommend as a reading choice for the UX Book Club.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards Though it will teach you how to draw, this is less a book about drawing, and more a book about seeing and thinking about drawing and illustration.  Too often, the focus when talking about sketching and wireframes is on the what (nomenclature, hierarchy, flow, etc.), which of course is important.

But just as important is the how.  A brilliant design concept presented by way of a crappy-looking sketch or wireframe is likely to be far less persuasive than one produced by a skilled illustrator.  And I’m not talking about whether or not an early idea looks sketch-like to invite feedback. Even that, attention to fidelity, is part of the illustrator’s craft.

And that is what Edwards teaches in this fantastic work, not only how to draw, which is important, but how to make drawing something you just do without thinking, like riding a bike. In fact, I think this book should be required reading as part of the core curriculum in an Interaction Design program.

Crystal Clear, by Alistair Cockburn

Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams Moving to the opposite edge of our practice, this is a book by one of the leading progressive thinkers in agile software development, and one of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto.   In my opinion, it is one of the best books on the agile and iterative development methodology.

But more importantly, from the vantage point of a UX Book Club choice, it takes the developer’s vantage point: a crisp, unvarnished, and unforgiving take on what it means to design something that ultimately will need to take the form of ones and zeroes.  (Getting back on my what-should-be-in-a-ixd-curriculum-bandwagon, this is also a book that I think should be part of such a curriculum, but as part of an advanced course.)

Let’s not forget who are the ultimate users of our work.  After business stakeholders have hemmed and hawed about (often irrelevant) details on our wireframes and prototypes, after visual designers have enhanced and enriched our designs with elements both beautiful and beautifully useful (well, ideally anyway), the buck will ultimately stop with the technologists.   And Cockburn is one of the technologists and thinkers who is part of forging the path many many of the developers you likely work with or will work with are following.

These are just two books at the edge of UX.  For me, I would really enjoy attending a UX Book Club event discussing books like this, which I think will broaden and enrich our practice by helping us see our practice from the outside.

  1. Great write-up Anders! You were fairly impassioned yourself, you know. It was all good. I totally agree about looking to relevant texts from outside the discipline and look forward to the arc of the coming months’ books…

  2. I’ve been thinking of putting some fiction into the mix too – like reading Neuromancer by Gibson, or accelerando by Stross as a way to mix things up..

    We have our first meetup tonight (in about 10 minutes) so I’ll see how it flies.. :)

  3. Andrew – yes, I think the stepping-outside-the-echo-chamber issue needs to be stated far and wide in UX Book Club circles. Tho’ I’m wondering if the statement currently on the UX Book Club site, in regard to what type of books are read in UX Book Club gatherings, that

    [t]he book would be within the practice of user experience…

    seems inconsistent with that idea. Perhaps edit that to reflect an openness to a broader array of books?

  4. Hi Gabby – the Twyla Tharp book looks like a great choice – a dancer/choreographer’s perspective – definitely UX thinking from the edge!

  5. Hey Anders,

    great article :) It sounds like NY was a model UX Book Club session – people were excited :)

    And the point about stepping outside the echo chamber is an important one – this thought occurred to other people in the past (but we didn’t write it down and talk about it, so it wasn’t shared).

    For myself, reading Cockburn’s use case book changed my life when I first read it years ago – I should read what he has written since (apart from anything else, I’d like to be able to point people toward “Agile-done-properly”).

    PS Gabby: well done on getting the Chicago group up and running :) One of the things that a few people are working on at the moment is a way of sharing what happens after the meetings – how to share author notes and book reviews. We probably need a mailing list or blog or something to discuss it in a way that is collaborative yet hits people’s email inboxes.

    Best regards, Andrew

  6. Anders, you’re spot on. My goal for the Chicago UX Book Club is to branch out beyond the usual suspects reading list. Though we kicked it off with ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ for January, in February we’ll be reading Twyla Tharp’s incredible “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life”.

    Our work is reliant on context and I think we need exposure to variable contexts in order to kick ass in our work.

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