Designing the Moment

Robert Hoekman Jr’s sequel to Designing the Obvious, Designing the Moment presents more insight into the steps that Hoekman uses to evolve designs from something difficult and obtuse to something that is foolproof (Poke yoke) and a pleasure to use.

The examples used are different to Designing the Obvious, and the justification is different. In this case creating a consistent sense of the application being pleasurable to use complementing his previous observations about obvious systems being more productive and making more money.

Despite these differences we have two books that could easily have been one. The style of writing is the same, the publishing is identical and the techniques overlap substantially. Despite that both books are well worth reading. Mainly because the value comes mostly from the examples and practical application of techniques such as tabs, concertina interfaces and progressive disclosure.

This is firmly a practitioners book, as is its predecessor. The techniques are explained in ways that you could take and apply to what you’re doing right now. What helps that is Hoekman’s clear evidence-based engineering approach to this. While there is some creativity in the visual aspects, he applies various interaction design techniques as a science, not an art. This is key to it being repeatably successful.

For those working in Libraries, especially anyone developing public search interfaces, there’s a great chapter on advanced search in which Hoekman explains both what is wrong with current approaches to advanced search and also the thinking he went through to produce an alternative – it takes all of 4 pages to explain, including several large pictures, so there’s really no excuse for still having poor advanced search functionality.

Don’t buy this book expecting something different to the first, it’s more of the same – but still very worth reading.

You may think this is boring but…

About a year ago I stole a book. Stole is definitely the right word as I took without asking. In fact the owner probably still doesn’t know I’ve got it. I’ll return it today – with an apology.

I shan’t name the owner as the book in question, and others like it, carry a certain stigma. A stigma that the reader might be someone not terribly interesting; the kind of person who might, in a different context, show his collection of stamps or dead butterflies.

The book in question is Simon Stokes’ Digital Copyright Law and Practice.

Not everyone wants or needs to know why A & M Records Inc v Napster Inc was an important case, or how Feist Publications v Rural Telephone Service Co has a day-to-day impact on what they can do on the web. For those publishing on the web and/or consuming things others have published some knowledge is a useful thing.

This book, however, is not a useful summary for those wanting a quick insight into the rights and wrongs of what they, or their users, may be doing. This book is a quite in-depth discussion of the state of protection offered to data and creative works in different jurisdictions along with explanations of the relevant precedent setting cases.

While Lessig et al talk about how Copyright reform is so desperately needed Stokes simply summarises the protections currently available in an objective and non-judgemental fashion, covering Copyright, Compilation Rights and Database Rights. Yes, he does talk about why Copyright is broken in an internet era, but he does not present his own preferred alternative, choosing instead to describe what he sees as the crossroads Copyright currently stands at.

The licenses that we use everyday – GPL, LGPL, Apache Licenses, Creative Commons and Open Data Commons – all rely on the law to underpin them. A sound understanding of those laws can really help in understanding which license really meets your needs. That sound understanding can be acquired by reading Stokes’ book. If you can keep your eyes open long enough…

Disrupting Class

If ever there was a title that took me straight back to my time at school, this is it. It’s not that I was unruly, naughty or deliberately disruptive. Somehow I just always seemed to be the one asking “why?” and “How?” and often being told “That’s all you need to know for the test”.

Christensen et al are not writing about those pupils who make life difficult for teacher, though, at least not directly and not with the word disruptive. They’re talking about the application of Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation to the American education sector, with a focus mostly on K-12.

Christensen’s theories do get covered briefly in the first few chapters, but a previous reading of The Innovator’s Dilemma and ideally The Innovator’s Solution as well will hold the reader in better stead.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma Christensen explains how large companies such as DEC and GM were disrupted and ultimately destroyed by companies like Sony and Honda. His theory comes down to one important point – where the barrier to consuming a product (cost, availability, size, running expense) is too high there is room for a product to undercut it, even if that product is massively inferior to what the incumbents provide. Christensen terms this competing with non-consumption – something is better than nothing.

Valve radios were disrupted this way by the transistor radio, the mini computer by the PC and big-engined pickups by the Nissans and Toyotas. In order for the disruption to be successful the incoming product is being measure against different criteria to the incumbent – the valve radio measured on its quality of sound, the transistor measured on a teens ability to listen away from their parents; the mini-computer on its processing power, the PC on its potential in the home.

The solution, posited by Christensen in The Innovators Solution is to recognise the factors of a successful disruption as it occurs and to accept that the disruption is inevitable – then set up independent efforts to take advantage of the new market, unencumbered by your existing priorities, culture and markets. These new efforts will ultimately disrupt and destroy your existing business, but better that you do that yourself than someone else does it for you.

So what does that have to do with education? Surely with the many regulations about compulsory schooling, no child left behind and other initiatives there cannot be a large number of non-consumers. Where is the large group of children not currently getting an education, yet sufficiently motivated to want something sub-standard?

Christensen et al analyse several opportunities, from those children wanting to learn subjects off the main curriculum, or take more advanced courses early to those who have failed courses and would otherwise not have the foundations on which to learn in future subjects. The disruptive technology is student-centric learning.

Student-centric learning offers the opportunity for students to learn using different pedagogical styles, those appropriate to their individual learning style and at a pace that suits them. Something that simply isn’t possible with a single teacher lecturing to a passive class of thirty students. The facilitator for student-centric learning is, of course, the computer.

Christensen et al explain how the computer remains predominantly a topic of study in schools today, rather than a tool of study. Students use them as tools to write, to research and to communicate – but the established system of education does not make substantial use of the computer as a teaching and learning tool. The reason for this is not hard to find, quite simply most of the computer-based courses that we have seen so far are rubbish. The shining light held-up by Disrupting Class as the beacon is Virtual ChemLab, a computer-based chemistry lab that allows students to learn through experiments without having access to a real-world lab.

The ‘et al’ with Christensen are Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, you can hear them talking through the book and the implications of the theories for the likes of Harvard and MIT on one of Talis’ recent podcasts: Talis talks with Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson about ‘Disrupting Class’, and the application of Disruptive Innovation to Higher Education

Decidedly obvious

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Just finished reading Designing the Obvious by Robert Hoekman Jr. It turns out to be quite a simple book, an easy read, bringing together Hoekman’s own ideas and thoughts with plenty of anecdotal lessons.

Hoekman references all the usual usability heavyweights, Nielsen, Cooper, Krug and so on sometimes agreeing and sometimes offering alternatives views. Personas? Well, maybe, says Hoekman going on to explain that great software comes not from a deep understanding of the users, but from a deep understanding of the activities.

Under what Hoekman calls Interface Surgery he covers the redesign of a form to make it obvious, introducing well thought out approaches to form validation and form layout. The things he suggest are, inline with the books title, obvious – but given that every form you ever use on the web gets this stuff wrong it can hardly be considered common sense.

Usefully I stumbled across bits and pieces that are of immediate use. We’re designing some stuff at work right now that requires interaction with a tree structure. We’ve been struggling a bit with this, with me advocating a fairly standard tree control yet all of us feeling that it doesn’t quite work.

Hoekman provides a great explanation of why tree controls don’t work. He rightly points out that while they are present in Windows Explorer they are not the default, and as most users don’t change the defaults most users will not have come across the tree view regularly. He also decomposes the interactions used in a typical tree view and shows how complex they are. In short, don’t use tree views – ever.

Hoekman doesn’t leave us high and dry with navigation of these structures though. He describes the as Columns view provided by OS X’s Finder and contrasts the interactions of that view with those of the tree view. I’m sold on his explanations and will be looking to try that with the application we’re working on.

Overall, good book, easy read, nicely packed with useful ideas.

Asshole.

No, not you. At least I hope not.

Like Robert Sutton, I am a self-confessed asshole. That is, from time to time, I have the potential to act like an asshole to the people around me.

Also like Robert Sutton I neither want to be considered an asshole nor do I want to work with people I consider to be assholes. So when I read (some time ago) that Bob Sutton had walked away from a publishing deal with Harvard Business School Press because they wouldn’t let him use the word ‘asshole’ in his title I thought "assholes".

It’s taken the best part of eighteen months for The No Asshole Rule to filter to the top of the pile of books next to my bed, so last week I finally read it. I should have read it eighteen months ago, when I found it 🙁

The book covers a great amount of research into asshole statistics as well as anecdotal stories of assholedom. Sutton gives simple, highly loaded, tests to self-assess your own asshole score (I scored only moderately) and describes techniques to help you survive asshole encounters. The thrust throughout all the chapters of the book, though, is that nobody should have to put up with assholes, not at home, not at work, not anywhere. And I agree.

He quotes a good few people, Lars Dalgaard CEO of SuccessFactors amongst them:

respect for the individual, no assholes – it’s okay to have one, just don’t be one … because … assholes stifle performance

Sutton even includes a chapter on the virtues of being an asshole, albeit with a significant bias as he shows that the virtues are perceived rather than actual. He wraps that chapter up with:

[life is] too short and too precious to spend our days surrounded by jerks. And despite my failures in this regard, I feel obligated to avoid inflicting my inner jerk on others. I wonder why so many assholes completely miss the fact that all we have on this earth are the days of our lives … We all die in the end, and despite whatever ‘rational’ virtues assholes may enjoy, I prefer to avoid spending my days working with mean-spirited jerks and will continue to question why so many of us tolerate, justify, and glorify so much demeaning behaviour from so many people.

Now that’s a sentiment I can get behind.

Fortunately, working at Talis, we have a very good culture overall. People are supportive of each other and enjoy sharing knowledge, learning and getting better at what we do, together. In particular we have people in leadership positions who are (almost) never jerks let alone assholes. And that’s a great example to set.

So, to all those who have tolerated me when I have not kept my inner-jerk under control, thank you.

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers

I’ve been interested in how to recruit really good people for a long time. I started helping in interviews and assessments in my first job after graduating and have been involved heavily in most of my roles since. So this book has been on my reading list for a while and finally made it to the top this holidays – I confess I was looking for some puzzles to counteract the alcohol intake…

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The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master

I was introduced to this book several years ago by some Thoughtworkers I had the luck to be working with. After a bit of a dip in my passion for writing software this book really brought back my interest in being professional about writing great stuff.

I was chuffed when the Geek Book Club I started a few months ago decided on it as the first book we should read as a group. It was a second reading for me and I can say that it’s just as good second time around. The book is full of sensible explanations of practical tips. Many of them are things that we all know we should do, but somehow don’t like “The Cat Ate My Source Code”. But other aspects challenge our thinking about some stuff more deeply; like the discussion that ensued around Domain Specific Languages and their good (and bad) uses that our group had while reading Chapter 2.

So much of this book is the foundation of individual agile practices (if there are such things) that it makes sense for everyone to read it. Interestingly it’s also on Joel Spolsky’s Software Management Reading List which is aimed at those wishing to manage software development rather than those wishing to do software development.

“The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master” by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas, Addison-Wesley Oct 1999, ISBN: 020161622X