Zen and the Art of IA

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New Web 2.0 interaction design can offer a lot of new suggestions for easier interactions, good use of white space and other glaring design solutions to the typically very busy space of information architecture. But, if you practice IA well, including some new Web 2.0 techniques, you can begin to create mental space as well as white space. Designing the Obvious: A Common Sense Approach to Web Application Design, a new New Riders book by Robert Hoekman, Jr., is a great place to find out how much mental space can be offered by your systems.

We, the people, as users of these architectures, experience the downside of not having enough peace in the process of interacting with a poorly designed system. With almost a billion computers on earth and millions of unsatisfying interactions every minute, we are looking at massive amount of unintuitive interactions. Continue reading Zen and the Art of IA

Everything and the Kitchen Sink:

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I’ve used personas for years (though some might regard my process as a slightly heretical perversion of the method). I always think about the big picture, and I was just thinking BIG about personas at work when The Persona Lifecycle landed on my desk.

I’d recently redone the standard review of persona articles on the web. I breezed back over the chapters in About Face 2.0 and Christina Wodtke’s Blueprints for the Web. A colleague even loaned me Steve Mulder’s new book, The User is Always Right, which I kind of thumbed through.

Given my review of what’s out there, The Persona Lifecycle is the most comprehensive book on personas I’ve come across. If you’re so inclined, it can taking you from novice to expert. The authors, Jonathan Pruit and Tamara Adlin, take advantage of extensive teaching experience and punctuate their discussion with lots of real-world examples, case studies, anecdotes, bright ideas and handy guidelines.

That being said, it’s not an easy read, and it’s not for everybody.

Persona school

Pruit and Adlin use the lifecycle as a metaphor to frame the different stages personas go through, from birth to retirement. To highlight their process, a fictional case study runs throughout the book tying everything together. Because design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the authors talk about how to ease the adoption and communication of personas at different levels of your organization. In fact, the book covers the two most important facets of personas: making them and getting them used.

Overall, the book is very rigorous and thorough. Chapter one is the best overview and history of, introduction to, and case for personas I’ve ever seen; it should be required reading for everyone.

Though the writing aims at being straightforward, the authors tend towards the academic. That is, they use big words to make things clear. Pruit and Adlin developed the lifecycle as a way to teach personas, and at some point in chapter two, my hazy school days came flooding back to me: The Persona Lifecycle is a textbook.

Information overload

Todd Warfel was disappointed with the book. Todd’s a smart guy: passionate, extremely knowledgeable, creative and driven to perfect his UX game. Like a kid waiting for Christmas, he eagerly awaited for his copy to arrive. When someone like Warfel says they didn’t like the book, it should make you wonder.

In Warfel’s words, the authors included everything but the kitchen sink. Don Norman’s cover blurb hints in a similar fashion: “–it truly is for everyone: the practitioner, the researcher, and the teacher.” Warfel and Norman are right. The book has everything. It’s like reading an encyclopedia, and after a short while, the stories, guidelines and examples start to blur together.

Doesn’t work as a reference

I was torn between reading the book cover-to-cover and flipping to the sections where I needed some perspective for my current project.

As a flip-through reference, the PLC is hit and miss. There’s no comprehensive table of contents, and it’d be great if there was some sort of index for the numerous stories from the field. I’d like to reference a couple, but I can’t remember where I read them or who wrote them. Similarly, many of their useful broad guidelines are lost to time and the pages of the book, because I can’t find them on a second pass.

Creating personas

There are two ways of creating personas: a short way, and a long way. The book mentions the short way, but mostly, Pruit and Adlin focus on creating personas the long way with lots and lots of research and lots and lots of analysis.

They present all the steps so you have them in your toolbox, not so you’ll use all of them on every project. Still, I found myself breezing through or skipping over sections on topics I was already familiar with. Even though the authors may intend the book to present the entirety of the toolbox, they end up presenting the toolbox as a temple of rigor.

Using personas

There were a couple of sections I liked. In chapter two, they digress for a moment to look at how the persona lifecycle might fit in to your current design process, and in chapter three, “Family Planning (Planning a Persona Effort),” they spend a lot of time helping you position your persona effort for maximum acceptance throughout your company. I don’t agree with everything they recommend, but the perspective is interesting and educational.

“Birth and Maturation” (chapter five) focuses on communicating personas to the different levels of the organization and getting personas used. The fact that they even use a phrase like “communication strategy” when talking about deliverables wins them big points, but I found myself having to strip the good bits out of the background noise of the super-bureaucratic enterprise for which we’re apparently working.

Recommended, but with caveats

Despite all this bitching, I do recommend the book.

Some readers will appreciate how the authors painstakingly dissect and analyze every part of the persona process. If you’re one of those people–and you know who you are–you’ll love this book. It’s a bible, a handbook, an encyclopedia of wisdom about personas. And you like reading textbooks and encyclopedias.

If you’re a guru looking to become a “superhero,” reading The Performance Lifecycle, front-to-back is probably like adding two to three years solid experience under your belt. You’re guaranteed to level up. Maybe twice.

However, if you’re like me, a busy practitioner balancing the need to learn with the need for help with current projects, The Persona Lifecycle is less than useful. In the end, though the lifecycle is a great way to teach personas it may not be the best way to present them in book form. Had the authors written two books–one on creating personas and another on using personas–I think the added focus would have been fantastic.

If it sounds like just the book for you, buy “The Persona Life Cycle”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20 now.

*About the book*
“The Persona Lifecycle : Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Paperback)”:http://www.amazon.com/Persona-Lifecycle-Throughout-Interactive-Technologies/dp/0125662513/ref=sr_1_1/104-5610083-7341514?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178609076&sr=8-1/boxesandarrows-20
by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin
Paperback, 744 pages
Publisher: Morgan Kaufmann (April 24, 2006)
ISBN: 0125662513

Oldies and Goodies: A Book List of Holiday Pairs

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“The source I always go to when in doubt about word usage, sentence structure, or those niggling little language problems that exist—whatever the medium.”

Still need a holiday gift for your favorite designer or writer? Current and former Boxes and Arrows staff talk about books that have thrilled them recently, as well as books they continue to go back to year after year. Holiday pairs give you something old and something new to choose from.

Jorge Arango



Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidDouglas Hofstadter
January 1999 (20th Anniversary edition)
A brilliant, challenging, witty study of the nature and structure of thought—human and otherwise—that draws on formal systems, zen, artificial intelligence, music, paradox, recursion, and other fascinating topics.



Universal Principles of Design
William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler
October 2003
100 design principles—concepts such as affordance, constraints, figure-ground, etc.—clearly explained. Includes many examples and illustrations. (As you’d expect, it’s also beautifully designed.)

Pat Barford



The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr., E. B. White
July 1999 (4th edition)
Best book ever about writing well. The source I always go to when in doubt about word usage, sentence structure, or those niggling little language problems that exist—whatever the medium. Readable, compact, and jam-packed with valuable information There’s also a killer online version.
Editorial note: the online version is only half the story; it’s all Strunk and no White. Spend a couple bucks and enjoy it in print!

Liz Danzico



The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
Erving Goffman
May 1959
Like Henry Dreyfuss who used his background in theater design to define the field of ergonomics, Goffman relies on the metaphor of theater to reveal elements of human behavior—elements key to interaction designers. Pointing out that an interaction is not just about the performer, but about the audience as well, Goffman presents us with a text critical to any interaction designer. Although written in 1959, this book still brings new evidence about how to build coherency in interactive models today.



Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (9th Edition)
Joseph M. Williams
December 2006
You write. You write all the time: stacks of email messages, instant messages, text messages, reports, rants, and reviews. And you follow rules. You follow rules you learned in high school: don’t begin a sentence with “But,” don’t end a sentence with a preposition, and never use fragments. In a time where writing happens more often than not and where the rules no longer apply, we need a book to tell us how to break the rules elegantly. Truth is, they were never meant to be followed in the first place. Williams, in this 9th edition, presents a stunning set of guidelines on how to break the rules, and how to diagnose the problems with your own writing.

Alecia Kozbial



The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman
September 2002 (Reprint)
Norman looks at the design problems that occur in our everyday lives. This book is an excellent introduction to usability and smart design.



Designing Interfaces
Jenifer Tidwell
November 2005
I have found Designing Interfaces to be an invaluable resource. It is a collection of well-organized UI design patterns for a wide selection of platforms, desktop, web, mobile, and other digital devices.

George Olsen



Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques
Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano
December 1994
Graphic designers have had five centuries of beta testing to figure out communicate effectively. While written for designing applications (in the pre-Internet era), Mullet and Sano show (in a visual manner rather than theorizing) how to apply graphic design principles to interface design.



What Management Is: How It Works and Why It’s Everyone’s Business
Joan Magretta
June 2003
A jargon-free primer on how business (and not-for-profit) organizations work from the perspective of management. More of a comprehensive exploration than traditional how-to, it’s a good way to see the bigger picture and understand the point of view of the “business side of the equation.”

Lars Pind



Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques
Kevin Mullet, Darrell Sano
(Editor’s Note: So good, that it’s on the list twice.)
I’m an engineer, not a designer, but this book has given me the vocabulary and tools and theory I need to understand and make decisions about design, not as decoration, but as an integrated part of the communication between software and people. I love it.



Against the Odds: An Autobiography
James Dyson
April 2003
A beautiful entrepreneur story. I’m a big believer in the renaissance, in the combination of art and engineering in one individual, in engineering and design being fundamentally inseparable, a belief I share with James Dyson. On top of that, the 13 years of meticulous iterations and the suffering of setbacks before the final breakthrough is just a plain old good story.

Javier Velasco



The Tree of Knowledge
Mumberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
March 1992
What is life? What is a human? How does our perception work? These are some of the questions that this brilliant team of neurobiologists confront in this book. It’s had an impact in many areas of current knowledge.



Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld
November 2006
I just got my copy of the Third Edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Morville & Rosenfeld. The previous editions have always been favorites and a must-have for all of us. This is a book that has been critical for the development of our field. It seems like the book has been thoroughly revised; I see new screenshots and new subtitles everywhere. It has been updated to include social classification and navigation concepts, and all those other things we’ve been discussing since the last edition. Some advanced findability notions are also considered, as well as more depth on user needs, enterprise IA, and strategy. There’s also more on deliverables than ever before. While sticking to roughly the same amount of pages as the Second Edition, this book seems completely refreshed. I look forward to have a chance to sit down and read it cover to cover.

Emily Wilska



Chicago Manual of Style
University of Chicago Press
August 2003
So it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’d curl up with on a Sunday afternoon. It is the place to look to find the answer to any style-related writing question you’ll ever have (such as whether to hyphenate style-related).



I know, I know: it’s not technically a book. But it’s the perfect example of the power of good, thoughtful design, and of the value of making common tasks (like connecting to a network) as simple as possible. Plus, it’s stunningly pretty.

Christina Wodtke



Managing The Professional Service Firm
David H. Maister
June 1997
Should be required reading for anyone in a service profession, including in-house service teams. Teaches you how to (among other things) navigate the treacherous waters of being paid to give advice.



Making Comics
Scott McCloud
September 2006
A strangely compelling combination of “how to”, and “philosophy of” words and pictures working together. If you loved Understanding Comics, it’s worth the perusal. It’s not quite the concise masterpiece that Understanding Comics is, but it’s so chockfull of insight, you forgive the meandering moments.

The Art of Project Management

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“Examining all ideas—even bad ones—is essential to creativity. Design is about exploration.”

Project management involves more than just what a project manager does. All team members engage in some level of project management, whether meeting deadlines, communicating with others, or estimating task durations. Ultimately, everyone on a project contributes to its success.

Scott Berkun’s book, The Art of Project Management, is not about any one specific project management methodology, but about fundamental aspects of all projects. This makes it engaging to project managers and non-project managers alike. The author recounts personal experiences while managing projects at Microsoft to provide insight into the not-so-transparent aspects of project management-the art of project management. If you don’t care for the standard, dry project management textbooks on the market, then this is for you.

The book is divided into three large sections: “Plans,” “Skills,” and “Management.” This organization provides a logical flow overall and lets topics to build on another. However, the chapters are relatively self-contained, allowing for random access, as the author recommends.

To begin, a brief history of project management exposes elements common to all projects: processes, design, constraints, dilemmas, and roles. The point here is to learn from the past and avoid repeating common errors.

Berkun then moves quickly to the basics of project management with topics such as project plans, requirements, and creating a vision. In the chapter “Figuring Out What To Do,” Berkun outlines three basic perspectives to approaching plans: The business perspective, the technology perspective and the customer perspective. About the latter, he states, “This is the most important of all three perspectives,” but also recognizes that “sadly, the customer perspective is the weakest in many organizations” (p. 63). Berkun’s insight into bringing users into the design process is comprehensive and genuine: he gets it.

Of particular interest to IAs and designers are discussions about creativity. For instance, in the chapter “Where Ideas Come From,” Berkun offers this sobering perspective on thinking outside of the box:

“Do whatever you want with the box. Think in the box, out of the box, on the box under the box, tear apart and make a fire out of the box, whatever, as long as you manage to solve the problems identified as the goals for the projects.”

He also suggests that examining all ideas—even bad ones—is essential to creativity. Design is about exploration.

In “What To Do with Ideas Once You Have Them,” Berkun recognizes a key issue in creative work: making ideas actionable. The author advocates such tactics as formally tracking ideas, using affinity diagrams to consolidate ideas, and employing iterative prototyping. Regarding prototyping he says, “Because there are so many details and perspectives, it’s impossible to predict which paths will work and which ones won’t. And that’s precisely what prototypes and iterations are for: making mistakes, learning, revising, and moving forward” (p. 157). How true.

Given the author’s active involvement in HCI communities, it is not surprising that he supports usability and design so strongly. It is unique, however, to see heavy doses of design-related topics and user-oriented thought in a book on project management.

The middle section of the book, “Skills,” gives hard advice on a range of practical topics: from how to write good specifications to making decisions to writing appropriate emails. The chapter “How Not To Annoy People: Process, Email, and Meeting” offers down-to-earth recommendations through witty anecdotes. Berkun sees five key annoying behaviors– when others:

  • when others assume you’re an idiot,
  • don’t trust you,
  • waste you time,
  • manage you without respect, and
  • make you listen to or read stupid things.
“Leaders must develop enough trust that people will bring issues to them during crises instead of hiding them. Trust, then, is at the core of leadership.”The final section of the book deals with more general, overarching issues of management. With such chapters as “Why Leadership Is Based On Trust” the author once again touches on the softer side of project management. Trust is built through commitment but lost through inconsistent behavior, he believes. Leaders must develop enough trust that people will bring issues to them during crises instead of hiding them. Trust, then, is at the core of leadership.

Another chapter interest is “Power and Politics.” Here, the author dissects that ever-frustrating political game underlying many projects. He puts the abuse of power in plain words: “The misuse of power occurs when an individual is working toward his own interests … Much of his energy will be spent doing what is best for him, instead of what is best for the project as a whole” (p. 427). Berkun also details various strategies to navigate political problems. This involves knowing the political playing field: who has the power, how is it obtained and applied, and how can individuals get what then need for the project. Ultimately, the amount and type of politics in a given project comes from the top down.

The tone of this book is personal and from the heart, with tough and direct statements. The unfortunate side effect of his chatty writing style, however, is a long book. Weighing in at 488 pages, it is long-winded. Berkun could have covered the same ground in half the space. Ironically, the author stresses concise writing in project documentation (see p. 99). Luckily his causal presentation is fast-paced and the reading goes quickly.

The excellent annotated bibliography not only shows that Berkun has done his homework, it also provides a very helpful guide to identifying additional key sources on the topic. The index at the back of the book is also quite good and allows the book to function as a quasi-reference book.

This is a comprehensive, how-to book devoid of jargon and theory. The author gives direct advice from his own experience. The real value of this book, though, is that it is not about a single methodology for project management, nor is it just for project managers. Instead, Berkun is able to speak about project management at its highest-level without filtering it through a given approach. It is deep enough to keep seasoned project managers reading, but also appealing to non-project managers. I’d recommend this book to anyone looking to improve general project skills.

Random, yet selected, quotations of interest

“Note that because design skill is distributed in the universe independent of political power, people granted design authority might not be people with much design talent” (p. 55)

“There are many different ways to abuse information about customers. Simply claiming that customers are important doesn’t signify much” (p. 75)

“When ideas aren’t accessible or kept in the light, the fade away” (p. 107)

“I do not know where the phrase ‘there are no bad ideas’ came from, but I’m certain it’s wrong…I have incontrovertible evidence that there are an infinite number of awful, horrible, useless, comically stupid, and embarrassingly bad ideas” (pp. 119-120)

“The most common mistake is to treat the design process as if it were a big light switch – you can just turn it on and off whenever you like” (p. 144)

“Don’t fall in love with Visio or flowcharts. Maintain platonic relationships with all tools. Usually, diagrams are interesting only to the person who made them, and they are often not as effective in helping the project as their creator things. Sometimes, a good paragraph or a sloppy, hand-drawn sketch is better than a 500-element UML diagram. (Just because a diagram is the only way for the author to understand something doesn’t guarantee it’s the best way to explain it to someone else).” (p. 179)

“When you spend hours pounding away at the same issues, you eventually lose perspective. When all the choices start looking the same, it’s time to get away.” (p. 210)

“The funny thing about childhood development is that we all get hand-me-down belief and emotional systems. Most of the behaviors we follow are by and large learned from our parents…Until someone stops and examines the value of their behaviors and emotional responses, independent of where they learned them from, it’s difficult to grow in emotional maturity – or even to know how emotionally mature and healthy we are.” (p. 298)

“Calling ‘bullshit’ makes things happen. If people expect you will ask them tough questions, and not hesitate to push them hard until you get answers, they will prepare for them before they meet with you. They will not waste your or your teams’ time.” (p. 343)

About the book

The Art of Project Management, Scott Berkun
O’Reilly Media Inc.
ISBN 0-596-007868

View book site, including a sample chapter

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • A brief history of project management
  • Part I: Plans
    • The truth about schedules
    • How to figure out what to do
    • Writing the good vision
    • Where ideas come from
    • What to do with ideas once you have them
  • Part II: Skills
    • Writing good specifications
    • How to make good decisions
    • Communication and relationships
    • How not to annoy people: process, email, and meetings
    • What to do when things go wrong
  • Part III: Management
    • Why leadership is based on trust
    • How to make things happen
    • Middle-game strategy
    • End-game strategy
    • Power and politics
  • Notes
  • Annotated bibliography
  • Acknowledgements
  • Photo credits
  • Index
    James Kalbach, assistant editor for Boxes and Arrows, holds a degree in library science from Rutgers University, as well as a masters in music theory and composition. He is currently a Human Factors Engineer with LexisNexis and previously served as head of information architecture with Razorfish Germany. He is an active speaker and author on information architecture and usability in Germany, where he helped cofound an IA community.