Lou Rosenfeld Eats his own Dog Food

Book Publishing as a Design Challenge

“We implore our clients and employers to make use of UX methods to inform their design decisions; why should a publisher be any different? A publisher of UX books should eat its own dog food.”

Louis Rosenfeld, one of the founding fathers of information architecture, has a new project up his sleeve. Growing restless after co-founding one of the most renowned information architecture firms of all time, co-authoring one of the best-known IA books, helping to start both the Information Architecture Institute and the User Experience Network, and running his own IA consulting practice, Lou is setting his sights on a new endeavor. He’s using his knowledge of user experience methods to launch a UX publishing house.

Boxes & Arrows: Lou, is it true? We’ve read that you’ve become a publisher.

Louis Rosenfeld: It’s true. Rosenfeld Media will publish short and practical books on user experience (UX) design, starting with four or five in 2006. I emphasize short and practical because I’m convinced we’ve moved past the era of 500 page what-and-why doorstop books; we’re now ready for how books that we can read on our next airplane trip.

B&A: Amen to that. Tell us more.

LR: Despite what some have claimed, UX is real and here to stay. But it’s still unclear just what UX is: a field, a community, a set of practices, a movement, or a shared realization that interdisciplinary design is a Good Thing. Nor are we certain who its practitioners are, or what kinds of tools and information they need. Not surprisingly, established publishers, being somewhat deliberate and risk-averse, aren’t rushing to embrace something as amorphous as UX. So the market will remain underserved until an entrepreneurial company that truly believes in the promise of UX takes the plunge.

In personal terms, I’ve been greatly enjoying life as an independent consultant since Argus shut down. But consulting doesn’t afford many opportunities to build things and dig deeply into thorny problems. (And let’s face it: other people’s problems are never as interesting as your own.) So I decided it was time to build something new. That’s why I’m jumping into publishing: a sickly, difficult, and horrible industry.

B&A: Sickly? Difficult? Horrible?

LR: Yes, it’s pretty frightening. Most publishers are reliant on a complicated chain of middlemen—wholesalers, distributors, and retail outlets—which puts terrible pressure on the bottom line. Even worse, retailers sell on consignment, and don’t hesitate to return your books if they’re not selling quickly enough. And retail shelf space is increasingly tight, meaning a publisher’s titles compete with each other as well as with those of competitors. (Don’t believe me? Visit your local bookstore and notice how much smaller the computer and web design sections are compared with five years ago.)

This traditional business model makes it hard for publishers—and, by extension, authors—to earn much for their efforts. Tight margins also reduce risk-taking and, subsequently, innovation. Naturally, I plan to employ a different business model with fantastically huge margins that will allow Rosenfeld Media to innovate wildly.

B&A: We suspected you might. How will your model be different?

LR: As you might guess, Rosenfeld Media will forgo the retail channel and focus on direct sales via the internet. UX people are likely connected to the internet throughout their work day, and it’s while they’re connected that they’ll realize a need for a book to help them do their work. They’ll search Google, Amazon, or the blogosphere, and that’s where they’ll encounter—and, I hope, purchase—Rosenfeld Media’s books (which will be available both in print and digitally for immediate download).

It makes sense to bypass bricks-and-mortar retailers, as I don’t think people make impulse purchases of UX books while browsing the increasingly meager offerings on the shelves at Borders or Barnes & Noble. And Rosenfeld Media books will be quite easy to find via the web—or Amazon.

B&A: What else will be different about your model?

The internet makes it possible to combine marketing with market research in powerful, inexpensive ways. Rosenfeld Media is crafting a new service—a kind of marriage of Web 2.0 thinking with book publishing—that will generate a communal library for UX practitioners while identifying UX book topics that need to be published. How? Simply by asking practitioners which books they enjoy and which ones they need. I’m hoping that this idea will be a first step toward some other interesting services, such as a futures market for UX memes.

Really, it comes down to this: designing books, choosing their topics, and building a company around them are ultimately design decisions like any other. We implore our clients and employers to make use of UX methods to inform their design decisions; why should a publisher be any different? A publisher of UX books should eat its own dog food.

B&A: Wow. So the model is wildly different; what about the books? How might they be different from what we’re seeing from O’Reilly or Peachpit?

LR: O’Reilly and Peachpit are great role models for me. They produce generally wonderful books—no complaints here. In fact, don’t be surprised to see a third Polar Bear book shamble down the O’Reilly tundra sometime in 2006.

But the traditional paradigm has been for books to function as monologues. And in 2006, reading a book does not have to be analogous to sitting through a really, really long presentation where the speaker reads his slides. Rosenfeld Media’s books are intended to exist as conversations that take place in multiple times and spaces—web and print—where authors facilitate as well as create, and readers can participate and contribute to the product.

The key to creating dialogues is to see readers—including potential readers and past ones—as stakeholders in each book. If you ask yourself how each audience segment might have a stake in a book, you begin to uncover wonderful opportunities to transform them from passive audiences to active participants. We function in what could increasingly be described as a participation economy; it’s time to acknowledge that and build our products and companies—publishers included—around this realization.

I should make clear that I’m by no means suggesting authoring by committee. There’s no substitute for the perspective, experience, and craft of a good writer. But when it comes to practical books, good writing can become great writing when the author embraces input and involvement from readers.

B&A: In the UX community, there has always been a lot of discussion about naming things. How did you come to “Rosenfeld Media?”

LR: Heh.

I painstakingly developed a dozen candidate names. Then I painstakingly developed a survey to evaluate the names along a variety of criteria, and asked a bunch of UX professionals and other colleagues to take the survey. They painstakingly rated the names from bad to worse. Then I came up with another dozen names. These were even more disliked than the first batch.

I chose the least offensive name of the two dozen. Its domain was owned by a rapscallion who makes his living selling domain names at exorbitant rates to people like me (but not me). Then I chose the second least offensive name. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office disapproved—too close to another company’s name.

Then I went with Rosenfeld Media, which I [had] offhandedly dismissed when Peter Morville suggested it to me many, many months earlier. Moral: don’t bother with UX methods; just listen to Mr. Ambient Findability.

I’m not crazy about the name. But you ultimately need to pick one and move on to the more important stuff, like building the company and publishing books.

B&A: You’re developing a company from the ground up. One might say you’re building a product—something you’re pretty familiar with. What are the similarities between building a company and building a product?

LR: There are so many similarities, but the one I keep coming back to is the issue of confidence.

It doesn’t really matter what you’re developing, as long as you have the right kind of confidence. Self-confidence is wonderful, but it’s far less important than confidence in the idea. Honestly, I’ve never been the most self-assured person. But I’ve always been unwavering in my confidence that every concept I’ve helped launch—standalone IA consulting services, the Polar Bear book, enterprise IA seminars, the IAI, UXnet, and now Rosenfeld Media—made absolute sense, despite how I might have felt about myself at the time.

I bring up this obvious point because it’s not always so obvious. Anytime you float your big new idea, you make yourself incredibly vulnerable. You’ll find that smart people often won’t understand your concept, and others will find ways to pick it apart just because. Will you be prepared to deal with criticism from both the people you respect and, perhaps, from those who you don’t? Yes, if you have the right kind of confidence.

How will you know if you have it? See how you feel about your Big Idea on your absolutely worst day in recent memory, the day you stepped on the cat’s tail, dozed off during your daughter’s recital, forgot your mother’s birthday, and lost out on your dream job. You may feel like a worthless piece of garbage, but if you still think your idea is a winner, then it probably is.

B&A: Let’s talk about content. Which UX book has influenced you most of all?

LR: Like everyone else, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things. It was probably the first nonfiction book that my mom and I both enjoyed (I bought her a copy). It helped her to stop feeling stupid for being confounded by stupid machines, and made her feel better about herself.

We may not think of it as a practical book, but Don really has taught tens of thousands of readers how to relate to technology. That’s pretty darned practical. (Don, Mom says thanks.)

B&A: It seems that there is a fine line between selling it and “giving it away.” Some, like the Pragmatic Programmer’s Guide and Joel Spolsky have been successful at striking a balance between the two. How will you navigate this challenge?

LR: Fortunately, there are some really smart, innovative small publishers out there like Pragmatic, Joel, aPress, and Take Control that I plan to rip off, er, learn from. But Rosenfeld Media’s books and audiences will be different enough to merit market research to determine what makes the most sense in our context. Ask me this question again in six months, and I’ll have a real answer for you.

B&A: How will you determine if a book is right for Rosenfeld Media?

LR: Over time and through the services mentioned above, we’ll learn quite a bit about readers’ needs, and we’ll sign the books that best address those needs. In the near term, we’ll have to go on intuition, but fortunately that intuition will be collective: I have an incredible board to help me make these choices.

Also, we’ll select proposals from authors who share our philosophy of books as dialogues, and realize that these dialogues require authors to see themselves as facilitators as much as writers. Our authors must also demonstrate that they can write short books on practical topics. Life is short, and we all have too much work to do. Our books should make life easier, not busier.

It will be quite a challenge to find ideal RM authors—crack facilitators who write concisely and well. But I’m optimistic they’re out there.

B&A: Why is it important to do this now?

LR: Because I’m sick and tired of discussions about defining UX (and, for that matter, IA and all the other related, new-ish fields). Definitions have their place, but endless arguments over definitions ultimately turn people off to the important ideas, concepts, and practices that lie behind those definitions.

It’s far more productive to engage in activities that define UX as a byproduct. For example, the DUX conferences have implicitly defined UX. Just look at the program and the presenter list, and you’ll get one good picture of what UX is. The same is true of individual efforts to create UX resources, like Dey Alexander’s (http://deyalexander.com/resources/) and Mark Vanderbeeken’s. These all implicitly define UX, even if they don’t offer actual definitions. And they’re ultimately more useful than actual definitions.

I’m hopeful that Rosenfeld Media’s books and related resources will present another useful and compelling picture of just what UX is. And that efforts to develop intellectual content around UX (like Rosenfeld Media’s) will move interdisciplinary design practices forward for the betterment of all humanity.

Seriously.

B&A: Who will write the next great UX book?

LR: Obviously I wish I knew, and obviously I’d love for them to write it for Rosenfeld Media. But it really doesn’t matter who publishes the book, as long as it comes out. I only hope my little foray into publishing will make it that much easier for authors to write both great and good UX books.

B&A: Lou, best of luck with this. Thanks for talking with us.

LR: Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk about Rosenfeld Media!

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