XVI.6 November + December 2009
Page: 52
Digital Citation

(P)REVIEWFrom interface to experience

Marc Rettig, Alex Wright

back to top 

You remember how it all started, right? People who were designing interfaces said, "Our scope is bigger than the interface. This stuff is dynamic. It's conversational. We are Interaction Designers!" A few years went by, and the industry started to internalize this perspective. Older terms like "interface design" and "usability" gave way to terms like "user experience" and "experience design." Around the same time, some people started calling for integrated design, an approach recognizing the interdependency of business, technology, interface, interaction, content, and so on—all legitimate targets of a design approach, all necessary for making good things.

As our field has evolved—through an ongoing cross-pollination of disciplines and practices—so too has our literature. But sometimes design rhetoric has soared a little too far above the day-to-day lives of many designers. Hyperbolic theories of design often leave designers ill-equipped to translate those theories into tactical decisions. Perhaps sensing this gap, several authors have issued new books in recent months that try to bridge the gap between modern design theory and practice.

Shneiderman and Plaisant's Designing the User Interface, now in its fifth edition, aspires to be an authoritative textbook on the practice of interface design. That term may sound outmoded, but as the conversation about how to do good work has progressed over the years, the practical challenges of hands-on interface design have not gone away. In fact, interface design has only gotten more difficult. And today's self-described experience designers would probably do well to reacquaint themselves with the foundational work of decades past. Fortunately, the authors of this seminal text have seen fit to update the book over the years, working to give us an evolving picture of these core practices.

Over the course of 500 pages, Designing the User Interface provides readers with a comprehensive survey of the subject, divided into four sections:

Section one provides a sound introduction to usability, with a fundamental set of guidelines and principles. This short, 50-page section documents guidelines such as "minimize memory load on the user," "use up to four standard colors," and "the format of data-entry information should be linked closely to the format of displayed information." Section two covers development processes, with two chapters on managing design processes and evaluating interface designs. Section three addresses interaction styles, with separate chapters for direct manipulation and virtual environments, menus and forms, command and natural languages, interaction devices (mice, keyboards, game controllers, etc.), and collaboration and social media. Finally, section four addresses design issues, with chapters on quality of service (e.g., response time), balancing function and fashion, documentation and help, information search, and information visualization.

The book succeeds as a thorough survey of the field but nonetheless feels incomplete as an instructional text. It's great if you want to ingest a lot of knowledge about software interfaces, but it does not equip you to do interface design. This is not a how-to book, nor was it seemingly intended to be one. Professors preparing an HCI course would be wise to refer to Designing the User Interface, and may choose to assign relevant chapters as readings. But without supplemental material from other sources, no section on its own provides enough material to prepare a student to do the work of interface design. The writing hovers in the middle ground, providing neither the real details necessary for practice, nor an integrating high-level framework. (A set of online materials for both readers and instructors is available through the book's companion website: This includes PowerPoint presentations for use in class, and answers to discussion questions.)

This is not so much a criticism of the book or its authors, but rather a comment on the book's overall objective. Think of Designing the User Interface as a snapshot of issues in (mostly) graphical user interface design as it currently exists—a catalog of topics and ideas related to software interfaces. It provides a springboard for discussion and serves as a reminder to readers about what they need to learn.

For example, in a section on usability testing we discover that testing can be conducted in a lab or not, that we may need to run our test design by an Institutional Review Board, that there is something called the think-aloud technique, that there are lots of kinds of usability testing, and that there is a NIST standard for what usability reports look like. There are also references to lots of other published material. In either a course or an industry situation, this would be helpful as an overview, but would certainly not prepare us to plan and complete a test. We expect that experienced practitioners will find this broad but shallow approach more frustrating than useful.

The fifth edition of Designing the User Interface appears at a time when our community's body of learning and practice reflect a long conversation about what is meant by the word "design," and what knowledge and skills are necessary for its practice. The past few decades have seen a marriage between the worlds of design, technology, business, social research, and (for lack of a better term) content creation. That marriage has born children: bodies of knowledge and practice that draw from their parents but seem to be something new in the world (as one example, the way that network technologies mingle with social dynamics and markets).

Through all this marrying and childbearing, we still need to design good interfaces, and we still need good texts to help us learn. While reading the updated Designing the User Interface, one comes away with the sense of having been a guest at a wedding who never got to dance at the reception.

There has long been a hole in the literature for a how-to book that mixes rigor with practicality, offers process without prescribing an artificially narrow path, speaks from a sophisticated understanding of the work of design, describes ways to integrate multiple disciplines, and embraces the fact that design practice is a social practice. Bill Buxton's fun and useful book, Sketching User Interfaces, qualifies on most points but does not cover all of the territory between product concept and product launch. Kim Goodwin does, however, in Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services. In trying to live up to her subtitle, Goodwin has given us the closest thing so far to a book you could use to teach and guide the practice of professional product design.

Goodwin writes from a practitioner's perspective, having worked at the interaction design consultancy Cooper for 11 years. The book is thoroughly influenced by the practices and point of view at Cooper. While it showcases a strong sense of Cooper's approach, the book also presents the recommendations and examples of the weight of seasoned credibility. They are drawn from real experience, repeated across many projects in many domains, executed by many teams. This stuff works, at least at Cooper, which means it is likely that readers will be able to adapt its recommendations to their own practice.

Experienced professionals are likely to substitute their favorite method or approach here and there, preferring to do some aspects of the work in their own way. Goodwin's tone is confident but not dogmatic—just right for guiding young professionals and providing a useful kit for seasoned people to draw from.

Designing for the Digital Age is ambitious in its broad and thorough coverage of the work of interactive product design. It begins with "assembling the team," then covers an integrated sequence of activities and working deliverables that move the team from first steps to production and launch. Each step along the way, the text provides clear and authoritative instruction in a pleasantly professional tone, with plentiful figures that don't just illustrate, they help.

Goodwin recognizes the multidisciplinary nature of product and service design. It is one of a very few books that suggests how to coordinate the work of interaction designers, industrial designers, developers, team leadership, and project stakeholders. She also recognizes that the work of design and product creation is fundamentally social. To be successful, it is not enough to "be a good designer," to know a lot about interfaces, or to have a multidisciplinary approach. The work requires explicit attention to the social dynamics of the team, as well as the wider organization that supports the work. A book that covers such aspects is refreshing.

Designing for the Digital Age offers the best integration of trustworthy voice, practical content, clear communication, and integrated point of view we've seen to date. Quite simply, it is useful.

When Nathan Shedroff wrote the first edition of his Experience Design in 2001, he staked out a position as a thought leader in an emerging field. The book got a mixed response, the most common criticism being that while the point of view and table of contents are valuable, the actual content of the book is shallow and compromised by a book design that fragments the narrative and camouflages the text. So when Shedroff decided to release a new edition to mark the original book's eighth anniversary, one might have hoped he would address these short-comings and try to deepen the book's perspective.

Shedroff's updated book argues that attending to the many facets and layers of human experience is foundational for the work of design. He builds on this by presenting 50 topics organized into six sections: experience design, information design, interface design, interaction design, the senses, and sensorial design. Within those sections, the topics are each structured in the same way: a description or point of view in a single two-page spread, followed by one online example and one offline example, each with their own two-page spread.

For example, the section on information design holds 12 topics. Among them: data, information, knowledge, wisdom, multiplicity, subjectivity, consistency, and metaphors. Examples in this section include traffic signs, cooking class, COLORS magazine, Google Translator,, and a Burmese tea party. The fact that each topic includes examples from life in the real world as well as systems in the virtual world does a lot to support and amplify Shedroff's theme: Human experience is rich, varied, deep, and difficult to quantify. And so is design for experience.

The new edition updates the collection of examples. And it's these examples that make the book a resource for a good Web-surfing session, or teaching reference, or even a guide for vacation ideas!

Unfortunately, the accompanying narrative often fails to add insight, or to connect the parts into a larger whole. While the book articulates a valuable point of view, it fails to build a sustained argument. Since the first edition of the book, the set of ideas and approaches that are touched upon in Experience Design have become more widely accepted, and much more deeply explored. The world is ready for a deeper, more sophisticated treatment of those ideas. Alas, the world will have to keep waiting.

Some readers will find valuable ideas in the text, and we expect that some professors may find a way to incorporate pieces of the book into readings or exercises. We recommend browsing the book before buying to find out if you are one of those people.

Shedroff recently shared a set of course materials on the Web based on the material in the Experience Design 1.1—including a syllabus, presentation, and a set of templates. These should be valuable to professors and practitioners alike as they provide a strong complement to the material in the book. The course is called Experience Studio, and can be downloaded from

Each of these books has an audience among the growing crowd of people who are preparing themselves to shape the ways in which technology affects our society, our organizations, and our planet. And each has its place on the expanding landscape of what we know about that work. To better the world through design requires a degree of knowledge and craft at all these levels: the detailed and technical aspects of creating interfaces between people and technology, the organically complex qualities of human experience, and the skills required to marshal teams through the difficult and uncertain work of creation. These books may or may not be the right resources for what you need in your growth as a professional. But it is an encouraging sign of progress to note that these books reflect a growing maturity of design thinking and practice in the overlapping bundle of fields we call interaction design.

back to top  Authors

Marc Rettig is principal of Fit Associates, LLC, a transformation design firm in Pittsburgh, PA. Fit integrates ethnographic research, design methods, process coaching, and lessons from social change into a practice of helping organizations change to make products better for people. Rettig's 29-year career has been guided by an interest in people, systems, communication, anthropology and the power of design. After an initial career in software systems, he has spent 15 years as a designer of interactions, products, services, experiences, and transformations. He has taught both lecture and studio courses at Carnegie Mellon's Graduate School of Design and the Institute of Design, IIT in Chicago.

Alex Wright is the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. He has led user experience design initiatives for the New York Times, Yahoo!, Microsoft, IBM, Harvard University, and the Long Now Foundation, among others. His writing has appeared in, the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He writes regularly about technology and design at

back to top  Footnotes


back to top  Figures

UF1Figure. Desgning the User Interface, Fifth Edition, Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant, Addison-Wesley, 2009 / $98.00

UF2Figure. Experience Design 1.1, Nathan Shedroff, 2009 / $25.00

UF3Figure. Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services, Kim Goodwin, Wiley, 2009 / $69.99

back to top 

©2009 ACM  1072-5220/09/1100  $10.00

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2009 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found