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Most important thing to learn: You’ll never go broke writing books that state the obvious.  OK – that’s a vastly over simplistic analysis of this book, but there is some truth to it.  However the book does offer real value in a surprising place.  Let’s take a look.

Quick Summary

The book presents all kinds of different ways to present information (that is, “visual design patterns”) and has these sections for each pattern: 1) what is the pattern, 2) when you should use it, 3) why you should use it, and 4) how to implement it.  The patterns are largely for web interfaces, but also cover desktop applications and phone interfaces.  The author shows examples of how to do things correctly, but unlike Don’t Make Me Think, it does not offer examples of poor construction.  Sometimes the information pertains to how information should flow from display to display, but usually it pertains to how a single display should look and behave.

Major Weakness:

The book really does belabor the obvious.  Turn to a random pattern and read the page.  I’ll do it right now.  Hang on a sec.  OK – “Progress Indicator”.  Apparently I should use that when an operation takes a long time.  Hmmmm.  The indicator should show what’s going on, how much of the operation is complete, how much time remains, and should give me a cancel button if possible.  There.  Now you no longer need to purchase page 147. 

Don’t get me wrong – there are real insights in the book and plenty of interesting sentences.  But at least half of the sentences could be eliminated.  That’s a lot of chaff.

Major Weakness:

Every pattern has weaknesses as well as strengths.  Those aren’t covered.  It’s as important to know the disadvantages of a pattern as it is to know its advantages.  Design trade-offs aren’t highlighted in the book.  Moreover, if two patterns conflict, there’s no guidance on which to use.  Tips like that require much more thought.

Minor Weakness:

Many people on Amazon point out how the book is hard to read.  The font is small and they say the pictures are hard to make out.  I had no problem, but I have to admit some text is pretty small in some parts.

So what’s the real value of this book?

The real value of this book is in the table of contents.  Each entry in the table of contents has the pattern title, the page number, and a summary sentence.  That’s inspired.  This summary style means the table of contents can actually serve meaningful purposes:

  • It can serve as a checklist for looking at existing applications to find places to improve.
  • It serves as a list of options for constructing completely new applications.  (For example, should our new application present information in various panels on the same display, or should the user have to drill down in successive pages for more detailed information?)
  • Project Managers might use the table of contents to ensure they’ve thought of all the user interface tasks that need to be performed for a given project.
  • Chief architects might use it to assemble corporate standards.

Spend your time in the table of contents finding what you care about.  Then rapidly skim only the sections that survive your filter.  Then you’ll have to think for yourself about the trade-offs of the design your considering since the downsides won't be discussed.

Is the book really worth fifty bucks? 

Only if you know exactly what sections you need and what you are going to use those sections for. Don't get it to simply "get better at designing interfaces".

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