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Review: User Interface Design for Mere Mortals

By Kat Tanaka Okopnik

UID.RVW 20071129
%A   Eric Butow
%C	 Boston, San Francisco, New York
%D	 2007   
%G   978-0-321-44773-9
%I   Addison Wesley Pearson Education
%O   http://www.awprofessional.com/safarienabled http://www.formeremortals.com
%P   286 pages
%T   "User Interface Design for Mere Mortals: A Hands-On Guide to User Interface Design Software Independent Approach!" 
%S	 For Mere Mortals


I approached this book with high expectations. I've thought for a long time that User Interface Design has been an under-appreciated part of software development, especially in the Open Source community: code geeks abound, but documentation and interfaces have lagged behind until recently. Could this book be the gateway to a new enthusiasm for the red-headed stepchild of the development process?


Ironically, the book suffers from a number of the very flaws that good user interface design should avoid. The back cover starts with the quotation, "The key to any successful application lies in providing an interface users not only enjoy interacting with but which also saves time, eliminates frustration, and gets the job done with minimal effort."

Considering that this was a book on usability, I found the design of the book somewhat disappointing. In the introduction, page xxiii features an overview of the chapters and their contents - but by choosing to bold the chapter numbers and set the chapter titles off only with quotation marks, the information of most interest to the user is buried in the same block of text as the chapter content. Given this beginning, I was dubious about the usability of this book. Shouldn't a book on user interface design have a good user interface, itself?

Brief Histories
Concepts and Issues
Making the Business Case
Good Design
How User Behave [sic]
Analyzing Your Users
Designing a User Interface
Designing a Web Site

As you can see from the chapter headings, there's an inconsistency in the naming scheme for the chapters, as well as a typo/grammatical error ("How User Behave"). It's also hard to predict at a glance what is covered in "Good Design" vs. "Concepts and Issues". Why is there a chapter at the end called "Usability"? Is it an overall summmary? It would be better to have more explicit chapter names, such as "Elements of Good Design" (goals, constraints, documentation) and "Testing Usability".

"Mere Mortals"

I checked the Web site for the "Mere Mortals" series, and found that the home page was titled "Home Page". "Mere Mortals" indeed! The site could be used as a textbook case study of inadequate design. The image names for the navigation elements are uninformative, and the bulk of the page is taken up by a large picture labelled "Book Circle" - which of course is a simply an image and not significant content or a navigational image map. I hoped this was only a splash page issue, but discovered that the site's contents are also images devoid of any text as well. Truly disappointing for a site devoted to an educational series.

(Is anyone surprised to learn that the site was created in Front Page?)

Author Eric Butow explains in the preface that this book owes its origins to a usability course he redesigned in 2005 for California State University Sacramento. It certainly reads like a textbook - and that is not a compliment. It has a somewhat pedantic, almost boring tone, and chapter-end quizzes (there is an answer key in the back.) I found myself becoming annoyed with the continual "tell 'em what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them" - especially when the word 'important' was repeated three times within two pages. Each chapter begins with a meticulous explanation of the content to be covered, and ends with a wordy summary that reminded me of elementary school book reports. I would have preferred a bullet-point list.

This is evidently a feature and not a bug in the "For Mere Mortals" series, which purports as part of its philosophy to "respect the reader's intellect and capacity for learning". I conclude that I may not be the sort of Mere Mortal they're aiming for.

Software Independence?

The book promises a "software independent approach". Perhaps it delivers on that promise by not suggesting specific applications for the UI designer, but some combination of the author's main experience with Wind0ws environments (his author bio contains mainly Wind0ws titles) or the preponderance of Micr0s0ft exposure in the expected readership leads to many more examples drawn from that realm.


Despite the plodding tone, the book does fulfill its promise to be a primer, a grounding, and a beginning to the field. I suspect most readers will find it far more useful after a careful pass with a highlighter marker. This will get you to a passing familiarity with the terms and concepts of UI Design, but it lacks the stellar design and execution essential to a classic. Don't expect to learn how to design well from it; do expect to learn why good design is necessary, and how to sell the need for good design.

[ Editor's note: It is a truism on Usenet that any spelling or grammar flame inevitably contains a spelling or grammatical error. I await, in relative comfort and reasonable certainty, gleeful email from our readers pointing out LG's many design faults - especially any in this specific article. :) -- Ben ]

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Bio picture

Kat likes to tell people she's one of the youngest people to have learned to program using punchcards on a mainframe (back in '83); but the truth is that since then, despite many hours in front of various computer screens, she's a computer user rather than a computer programmer.

When away from the keyboard, her hands have been found full of knitting needles, various pens, henna, red-hot welding tools, upholsterer's shears, and a pneumatic scaler.

Copyright © 2007, Kat Tanaka Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 145 of Linux Gazette, December 2007