The underrated design book that transformed the way I work
Imagine a book that, if you were to directly put its contents into your brain (The Matrix-style), you would level-up to a wizard-like expertise of UX design. Yes, this book exists, and no, you’ve probably never heard of it. It rarely comes up in the “best of UX books” lists. And the only mention of it I found during a cursory search was buried in a Reddit thread.
I discovered About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design while thumbing some newly returned books at the library some years into my career. Behind its green cover was not just a reference book on UX design, but a compendium that completely changed the way I work. First published in 1995 and written by a collection of authors —including Alan Cooper, a founder of Cooper, one of the first interaction design firms—this book really connects the principles, patterns, and processes of designing great software. It covers the basics of a goal-oriented design process, which focuses on the user’s goals, instead of the product’s. (This seems like common sense now, but it was an entirely new concept back in 1995). It also explains research, details the right way to create a user persona, and delves into architecting workflows and orchestrating interactions and dives deep into metaphors and interface patterns. In my first read, I was shocked at how many terms were used that I had not heard of before, like an application’s types of “posture” and why it matters when designing a product.
And, unlike other design books I’ve read, it takes these principles and places them into a historical context, too.
The main conceit of the book is that our shift from mechanical (industrial age) to digital is the reason that (interaction) design is so important today and why it’s been such a fast growing field over the past few decades. We are replacing products that previously had simple, expected behaviors with products with much more complex behaviors. For example have use industrial age tools with physically working parts, but now have computers as the interface to control them. For example, a car isn’t a car anymore: It’s a computer that moves you.
This information gave me an extremely-needed fundamental context and background of my craft. All throughout my career as a UX consultant, as well as when I worked as an editor and contributor for design publications, I always had this book next to me.
While I can try to come up with my own eloquent explanation of this book’s impact on me, I’ll borrow a story Robin Williams tells in The Non-Designer’s Type Book:
“Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, ‘Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.’
So I took my book and went outside. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes – at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before. Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.”
I love that story because it speaks to why About Face stands out to me: Its detailing of principles, patterns, and processes allowed me to articulate and clearly see things that I felt in my gut were true based on my experience, but never had the words or context to explain.
My “Joshua Tree” moment came when I was consulting with a client out of Boston on a complex product in a relatively new space. They would continually argue about how they were targeting a “power-user,” and used that as a catch-all for adding everything and the kitchen sink to the interface. Every time we would get into a working session around certain feature sets and workflows I would try to push back on how involved and confusing it was getting.
Before reading About Face, I would have allowed the design solution to do the talking, essentially stating that we should do so-and-so because it’s the “right” way. But the book made me realize that I had been defining “right” based solely on some basic graphic design rules I learned in college and my feelings. However, About Face taught me this wasn’t enough: When you’re trying to advise a stakeholder or consult on a product, your words and communication of why something is important is, in actuality, many times more important than the solution itself. I recognized this friction as an opportunity to explain the cognitive load that they were placing on the user and what I understood their motivations to be, based on personas we had researched and created. Ultimately, I had the right conceptual language to create a pivotal connection with my client. I articulated not only how it looked but why it worked.
I did not realize how limited I was in my craft without About Face. It was both my gateway to seeking out more UX design knowledge and my best defense against horribly informed (or uninformed) opinions. Though it did not always allow me to walk away with the outcome I wanted from a meeting or presentation, it did give me the satisfaction that I provided the best case and rationale for taking the recommended approach.
Now on its fourth major version, About Face continues to stand the test of time. While there are outdated references and examples, the content remains solidly based on decades of experience and research. Reading it and having it as a reference will add to your arsenal of words, tools, and breadth of knowledge and help you become a more effective designer. It certainly has helped me in my career, and I hope it can do the same in yours.