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Tech Book Face Off: Don't Make Me Think Revisited Vs. The Non-Designer's Design Book

I read a lot of technical books about programming languages, development methods, and coding techniques. Those books help enhance my skills in what I do most of the time, which is embedded firmware development, and what I'm interested in, which is learning new programming languages and new ways of solving problems with software. Every once in a while I feel like I should dip my toes into the design side of the pond so I can get a better sense of how to design features that will make the stuff I build easier to use, and so I can better understand the reasons behind what makes a particular design good or bad. For this dip in the pond, I chose Don't Make Me Think Revisited by Steve Krug, a safe book considering that I've already read and loved the previous version of the book. I also picked up a book I've been meaning to read for a while: The Non-Designer's Design Book by Robin Williams, off of a reading list from Joel Spolsky's blog. These books were both quick, enjoyable reads, but let's break it down a little more.

Don't Make Me Think Revisited front coverVS.The Non-Designer's Design Book front cover

Don't Make Me Think Revisited

I did read this book before, but it has been quite a while. From what I remember of the original, this version is not too different, and that is not at all a bad thing. The most noticeable change was the addition of the chapter on mobile usability, but otherwise most of the material was immediately recognizable. It is definitely true what Krug says in the preface, good usability design is timeless because the main subject, humans, don't change much year-to-year or decade-to-decade. The technology may be changing rapidly, but the principles remain the same. All he really had to do in this edition was freshen up the examples, give a nod to the new kid on the block, and ship it.

You would expect a web usability expert to deliver the goods on a book about usability, and Krug does so in spades. The book is superbly organized and formatted. Examples are clear and relevant. Explanations are concise and direct. This book is such a quick and easy read, it would probably be worth giving it a run through once a year. It'll only take a couple hours, and the benefits of a refresher on good design principles would pay that time back easily.

Krug starts off with his big idea, printed in bold right on the cover. Design for the web (and for anything that humans would use, really) should make things as easy as possible for the user. Don't put up roadblocks. Don't make things obscure. Be consistent. He tries to throw as much common sense at you as he can think of, and it all sounds so reasonable and obvious as you're reading it, you'll wonder why you didn't already know it. I could quote him all day, but I'll just pick out a few gems, like:
The point is that every question mark adds to our cognitive workload, distracting our attention from the task at hand. The distractions may be slight but they add up, especially if it's something we do all the time like deciding what to click on.
Make things easy on the user because if you don't, you're chipping away at their mental energy and patience. Frustrated users will not stay users for long. The next few chapters get into how we use the web, how to think about designing for that type of use, and how to simplify choices and writing for the web. This advice is all about building things in a way that users expect them to work, and using conventions whenever and wherever possible.

The next couple chapters cover the two main areas that need to be right when designing for the web: navigation and the home page. Navigation can be accomplished in a variety of ways from menus to sidebars to breadcrumbs, but it should always be obvious and present. The home page needs to clearly state the site's and company's purpose, otherwise things can go south quickly for the user:
If their first assumptions are wrong ("This is a site for ___"), they begin to try to force-fit that explanation on to everything they encounter. And if it's wrong, they'll end up creating more misinterpretations. If people are lost when they start out, they usually just keep getting…loster.
We certainly don't want that. After laying out all of these concepts and principles, Krug moves on to advising us to stay out of usability debates because they're irrelevant. We're not going to figure out what's best for users by arguing. We're going to do it by…<drum roll>…usability testing! Also, don't get too caught up in testing methodologies, because this is not a science:
Do-it-yourself tests are a qualitative method whose purpose is to improve what you're building by identifying and fixing usability problems. The process isn't rigorous at all: You give them tasks to do, you observe, and you learn. The result is actionable insights, not proof.
The reason we're not trying to definitively prove things is because it takes too much effort, and the goal is to do quick, frequent usability testing, like once a month for half a day at a time. Making the testing more complicated just means it will get put off and not be done when it needs to be to actually make an impact on the project.

At this point we reach the chapter on mobile design. In many ways it's similar to what we've already learned, but smaller. The principles of simplicity and ease of use become even more important. Following that, we get into how good usability design is about thinking of the user's best interests and being as helpful as possible. Be nice to your users in any and every way you can think of. That includes all types of users, so be sure to make your sites accessible to people with disabilities. The final chapter covers how to practice good usability design where you work and how to bring these principles into a place where the culture may not currently be in alignment with them.

This book is packed full of great advice, and it's such a quick and engaging read that there's no excuse to not have already read it. I highly recommend it, and be sure to get a paper copy for the full, beautiful experience.

The Non-Designer's Design Book

This design book is on the other end of the spectrum from Don't Make Me Think Revisited. Whereas that book was all about how to make a website as easy to use as possible using visual elements, this book is purely about how to make it look good. It's not even about designing websites at all, with the majority of the focus being on print, even though the same principles will apply to websites as well. Thankfully, The Non-Designer's Design Book is geared specifically for beginners like me, so it starts off gentle, direct, and simple and stays that way throughout.

The book is organized into three main parts, starting with the basic design principles. These principles are contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity, which makes a nice, memorable acronym.
  • Contrast is the idea that similar things in a design should be made the same, and things that are different should be made very different. The contrast will draw the eye, so the differences should be for important things that the designer wants the reader to pay attention to. 
  • Repetition is pretty straightforward. Having consistency in a design through repeated elements improves organization and makes it feel as though care was put into the piece instead of it just being thrown together.
  • Alignment is how different elements line up in a piece. Things that are aligned along the same edge will be visually connected, and it's important to not have too many different alignments (left, centered, right) or the piece looks busy and disorganized. Also, stay away from centered alignment most of the time. It's overdone and lazy.
  • Proximity refers to the fact that related elements should be grouped together, and unrelated elements should be spaced apart. This advice includes headers, which should be spaced closer to the text that they introduce.
These four principles seem simple, and once you fully understand them, they are. Williams does a great job of getting the reader to that understanding through plenty of excellent examples. They serve to bring out each of the concepts that she's discussing, and the variety and appropriateness of the examples keeps the reader interested and engaged. As you work through the book, some examples are brought up more frequently, with slight or even major changes done to illustrate points, explore closely related concepts, and contrast opposing design ideas. This use of examples was by far the best part of the book, creating a terrific, visual learning experience that really brought home the ideas she was trying to get across.

On the other hand, she is not the best writer. Explanations are terse, disjointed, and abrupt with a lot of redundancy and that unique designer-y language that only experienced designers seem to fully understand. Her reasoning on alignment is one of her better discussions, but still shows some of that flowery designer wording:
Lack of alignment is probably the biggest cause of unappealing documents. Our eyes like to see order; it creates a calm secure feeling in its clarity. Plus it helps to communicate the information.
While this argument is mostly understandable, it does tend toward hand-wavy subjectivity. There is plenty of talk throughout the rest of the book about "energy" and "sophistication" and other design subtleties. But in the end, the designerese matters not at all because the examples are the focus of the book. They carry the weight of the ideas with the explanations serving a minor supporting role. 

The second part of the book discusses how to design with color, and how colors are organized into primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Williams discusses complementary colors, shades, tints, and print vs. screen color models. Then she has a chapter on advice for all of the different kinds of print works like flyers, newsletters, and postcards. The first design type is business cards, believe it or not. This was not the most interesting part of the book, to be sure.

The last section brought me back to attention with a detailed discussion of typography. She has some good, definitive rules to follow on using various punctuation marks, capital letters, and not using underlining. Then she gets into the different ways to choose typefaces so that they are in concord, conflict, or contrast. Concord and contrast are desirable, but that no-man's land in the middle should be avoided:
Most designers tend to wing it when combining more than one typeface on a page. You might have a sense that one face needs to be larger or an element needs to be bolder. However, when you can recognize and name the contrasts, you have power over them—you can then get to the root of the conflicting problem faster and find more interesting solutions.
The idea of naming things to gain an understanding and control over them is a major theme in the book, and it certainly seems to work well in design. Once you can identify what's good or bad about a design, it's much easier to see how to change it or make it better.

The last couple main chapters are about the categories of different type faces and a more detailed look at contrast in typography. Both chapters are excellent with plenty of good examples and even more variety in typefaces to generate ideas. The book then wraps up with some exercises, quiz answers, and a typeface index.

It's quite difficult to do this book justice in a written explanation. The design is, of course, beautifully done with some of the best visual examples I've seen in any book I've read. They're right up there with HTML & CSS: Design and Build Websites. Williams sticks to a few main themes including the one just mentioned about control through naming. She also repeatedly beats you over the head with not being a wimp when using a design concept. Go big. Go bold. Another theme is to not make anything look like a mistake by making two things too similar but slightly different. Either take the time to make them exactly the same or make them very different. These are all good pieces of advice that will help improve our designs.

I can't think of any good reason not to read both of these books. They're each excellent books on their own sub-topic of design. Don't Make Me Think Revisited is the epitome of a great design book on usability, and The Non-Designer's Design Book is likewise for the difficult-to-understand world of visual design. Combined, these two books make a nice design book set for anyone looking to get a handle on the scary, impenetrable task of creating something to put in front of users, and hopefully survive the experience.

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