Book review: User Interface Design for Programmers (Joel Spolsky)

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Introduction

This will be a brief review. It’s a short book, after all – a mere 134 pages for the main body of the book. That’s not a bad thing at all, mind – quite the opposite. This book is a quick read, and it’s easy to read the whole thing without skimming over anything.

I’m not good at UI design, either on the web or for rich client apps. My applications tend to be functional but not pretty – and even in “functional” terms I strongly suspect users don’t always find my choices intuitive. Fortunately, so far in my professional career I haven’t actually had to work on many front ends – but should that time come, this book will prove a good starting point for me.

The Good

If you want to know all the latest and greatest technical tricks for user interfaces, this isn’t the book for you. If you’ve taken a course in usability or HCI, this probably isn’t the book for you. It really is just introductory material – but it certainly seems to be a good way of starting to think in the right way when designing user interfaces. It tries to educate in terms of an approach to take rather than the details of what to do.

There are 18 bitesize chapters, almost all of which contain many illustrations and screenshots. The production quality of the book is fabulous – it’s full colour on glossy paper, and the screenshots are all large enough to easily illustrate the point being made. It must have cost APress a fortune to print, but the results are well worth it, in my view. It’s not often that production is of such a high quality as to really make an impression (for me, anyway) but it really does grab attention. Oh, and I only spotted a single typo in the single book. I didn’t find technical errors at all, but then the material isn’t really directly technical to start with – and I’m not an expert on the topic.

The tone is conversational throughout, which may not be to everyone’s taste but is absolutely fine by me. It’s lighthearted without ever being patronising, and it’s clear that Joel is deadly serious about the subject matter itself. There are lots of examples of what works and what doesn’t – but always with clear, purposeful commentary rather than just as a UI hall of shame.

Joel describes how best to consider users, and how they’re likely to think. He focuses on the limitations of the user, in terms of how they’re unlikely to read documentation or even on-screen instructions; how requiring users to aim a mouse accurately is basically cruel; how the user’s model of your program probably isn’t the same as yours – and more. None of this is actually belittling towards the user – it’s just a case of different perspectives. He makes it crystal clear that the user has launched an application to accomplish a task, rather than for the joy of the application itself – so it’s understandable that if the user can’t accomplish their task simply (without excessive training), it’s generally the application’s fault rather than the user’s.

Although that summarises the basic message of the book, it doesn’t do justice to the close attention paid to exactly how those ideas manifest themselves in real world situations. I’m afraid it’s one of those books where just talking about which areas are covered doesn’t really give much of a feeling of the book itself. However, the writing is very similar to Joel’s blog posts – so if you enjoy those, I’d say you’re likely to enjoy the book. (I don’t agree with all of what Joel says on his blog, I should say – but whether or not I agree with his point, his writing style generally appeals to me.) 

The Bad

Okay, it’s not perfect – but my main gripe isn’t really the book’s fault. It was written in 2001, and has certainly dated when it comes to web access. I would love to see a second edition written right now, touching on the pros and cons (from a user perspective instead of a technical one) of more modern web applications. One topic which should have had more attention paid to it even back in 2001 is accessibility

Finally, I do wish Joel would be slightly kinder towards the programmers behind the interfaces he disparages. This may seem a little odd coming from someone who has made a point of being brutally honest when it comes to low opinions of books, products, articles etc – but occasionally this book goes too far, in my view. Negativity can form constructive criticism, and when it’s directed at the user interfaces themselves, everything’s fine – but when it’s aimed at the developers it just doesn’t feel right.

Conclusion

If you’re in the target market for the book, it really is excellent. Just don’t get it expecting technical tricks or detailed discussion about each individual control.

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