Laudable Audible

Another of my favorite sessions from Interaction 13 was Trip ODell’s If UX Can Kill it Probably Will: Designing for the 70 MPH Interface. And what interface might that be? I had the fortune of making Trip’s acquaintance a couple days before his talk and learned that he has worked for both Microsoft and Adobe, but he wasn’t speaking of work he did at either company. He is currently at Audible, a company that I have a lot of respect for. He convinced the company that, even though their customers had a very high satisfaction rating with the existing Audible app for mobile phones, it had to be redesigned. That, in and of itself, is impressive, and the fact that the company put the time and money into the effort shows that they really do care about their customers.

What was so bad about the Audible app that it had to be redesigned?

This is what the old app looked like with all of the controls exposed. All the icons and the progress bar at the top could be shown and hidden with a tap on the screen. The volume slider and the row of buttons above it could be displayed or put away by dragging the ribbed tab. But let’s think about the use of audiobooks. As Trip pointed out, you almost always listen to them start to finish. You don’t skip parts, and you certainly don’t jump back to re-listen to a previous chapter. That entire row of rewind/forward controls, while useful when listening to music, are not only useless for audiobooks, but a source of extreme frustration. If someone is driving, or even walking, and they attempt to pause the book, but accidentally jump back to the beginning of the chapter, there is no good way to recover from the mistake.

Trip’s focus was use while driving, and he said that they determined that the play/pause button was the most important, followed by the 30-second rewind and bookmark buttons. Everything else could be minimized for non-driving use. The new design, which released this week, is a brilliant example of simplification done right.

There are a number of other laudable improvements to the app, and it’s getting rave reviews. I want to congratulate Trip and his team on some outstanding work. They should submit it to the IxDA Interaction Awards next year.

Rosenfeld, now with more stuff

About a week ago, Lou Rosenfeld, famed Information Architect and founder of Rosenfeld Media, announced that they are now “more than a publishing company”. They have a nice little library of books, each about a very specific subject within the field of design. One of my personal favorites, and not just because I contributed to it, is Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design. I’m in possession of two others that are on my reading list, and I’m looking forward to picking up Make It So, by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel. In the process of publishing these books, Rosenfeld has collected an A-List of design thinkers. It makes a lot of sense to leverage that body of knowledge in multiple ways, so they are introducing consulting and on-site training as new lines of business.

Consulting: High-value, short bursts of “teach a man to fish” consulting on dozens of UX-related topics. Bring in a guru for a couple days of advising, coaching, facilitating, showing, and mentoring, rather than extensive, long-term deliverables-based gigs. Think “brain shop” rather than “body shop”.

On-site training: Our experts teach, at the moment, 42 full-day UX courses; it’s really an incredible catalog. Remember that great class you sat in on at the such-and-such conference? Now you can have it taught to your whole team—at your own location.

And what a list of experts they have—49 at last count. Many of them are authors, like Nathan Shedroff, while others are well-known for their appearances at conferences, on podcasts, etc. You’ve got Mark Rettig, Dirk Knemeyer; you’ve likely heard of every one of them. The list of courses is also impressive, ranging from theory, to techniques, to down and dirty implementation.

I’m really interested to see how this works out, both in terms of business for Rosenfeld and the end results for the clients. I hope Lou will be sharing some case studies with us in the future.

My Intent to Break the Law

Thanks to a fictional article from a British tabloid, people are thinking about what happens to our digital media when we die. I’ve spent quite a lot of money on music, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, ebooks, games, and applications. The typical service agreement states that you haven’t purchased a copy of the file, as you do when you buy physical media, but a license to use it. This license expires when you do. So, it is unlawful to give your digital media to somebody else, regardless of whether or not you are in a position to use it. I have a problem with this.

First of all, the fact that a song or book is a digital file on my hard drive, rather than ink on paper or even a file on a CD, should make no difference whatsoever. I can pass my printed books, CDs, and DVDs on to my children; why shouldn’t I do the same with the digital versions? The distinction is nonsensical.

Furthermore, my digital media is now a conglomeration of purchases from iTunes and Amazon mixed with ripped CDs. And, since I’ve subscribed to iCloud Music Match, many of the ripped tracks have been replaced with Apple’s files.

So, I have every intention of leaving my media library, physical and digital, to my family members. Given that most of those files have no DRM, I don’t believe there will be any way for said companies to know. That said, I fully believe that by the time I die, digital rights and service agreements will advance to treat digital media more like we currently treat physical media. So, don’t sue me just yet.

IxD Reading List

Those new to Interaction Design are hungry for books on the topic, as is evidenced by the number of threads you may find on asking for reading material. I’ve taken the trouble to do some tagging, so you can hit this link to get a lot of suggestions spanning the past six years.

I suppose I could leave it at that and let you do your own filtering, but the point of this series is to make things easier. There are already a number of great reading lists online, so one way to get started is to peruse the following:

  • The IxD Library is a collection of books, articles, and presentations curated by Dan Saffer. Entries are well-categorized, and you can be notified of new additions by RSS or Twitter.
  • The Designer’s Review of Books is a fantastic blog by Andy Polaine that has been publishing reviews since 2008. It isn’t specific to Interaction Design, by neither should you be.
  • LibraryThing has an Interaction Design bookshelf created by Jonas Lowgren that includes a brief review of each book.
  • Smashing Magazine is always good for a list.
  • HCI Bibliography ain’t pretty, but it allows you to search over 64,000 publications about Human-Computer Interaction.
  • For books on very specific topics within and around Interaction Design, Rosenfeld Media has you covered.
  • Dan Saffer lists his Top Ten Essential Interaction Design Books.

While all of those are excellent resources, what an IxD n00b really wants is a short list of the very best books on Interaction Design. For that, look no further than Dave Malouf’s assigned readings for his class, Introduction to the Theory of Interaction Design.

Finally, to make this as simple as possible, the one book that I recommend you start with is Dan Saffer’s Designing for Interaction. It is the one book that was written specifically as an introduction to the field, and its second edition was published in August of 2009.


I had some extra time on my hands yesterday afternoon, thanks to Hurricane Irene. A co-worker and I kicked around Colonial Williamsburg, which, while without power, was able to function much the same. We were given a lengthy demonstration in the book bindery. It took me back a few years.

During my senior year in the Graphic Design program at WVU, I took a one-semester course on letterpress and bookbinding. It wasn’t a required class—I took it because I wanted to learn the physical craft that was so important in the history of design. It gave me a better appreciation for the attention to detail that was required and a better understanding of the digital equivalents that we control now through software. The concepts of kerning and leading, for example, became clearer. I don’t remember today how to assemble folios with a herringbone stitch, but I do have a relatively clear memory of the process we went through to create the cover out of cardboard, linen, marbled paper, and glue. I remember well the difficulty of getting the cover sized correctly. It took a lot of time and patience. It took care. The result was something beautiful that one could be proud of.

Too often, designers find themselves in situations where they can’t invest a lot of time. They’re asked to be more efficient, or to do lower-quality work. They’re told that it doesn’t have to be great, just good enough. It’s drive-thru design.

How much better would software be if we approached it more as the book binder? Then again, who would pay for it?

Lulu and iPad Too

A few months ago, I theorized about the future of publishing. In that post, I suggested that the iBookstore has the potential to remove the middleman—the publisher—allowing authors to easily sell their work directly. Lulu, arguably the most prominent self-publishing service, is staying on top of things. They recently announced that they are an “Apple approved aggregator.” This means that they can get your book listed in Apple’s iBookstore. They’ll convert your book to ePub format, submit it to Apple, give it an ISBN, and provide sales reports. Of course, this all comes to the tune of 20% of the sales after Apple takes its cut. They’re also providing the service to other publishers, allowing them to get their entire catalog onto the store without having to do the work themselves.

It’s a brilliant move and a promising business model. Considering that Apple has not yet detailed how indie authors can self-publish to the store, I expect Lulu’s service will be enticing.

The Future of Publishing

There have been a number of key historical events that have given the masses the ability to publish. The invention of the printing press was a huge advance. The advent of the web was another. Since then, we’ve had some smaller impacts such as self-publishing through sites like Lulu, blogging, YouTube, and podcasting. In each of these cases, technology has leveled the playing field, allowing hobbyists and enthusiasts to play in a space formerly dominated by professionals and those with deep pockets.

Apple now has three stores tied to their mobile devices. The iTunes Store sells audio and video content, including music, audio books, podcasts, television shows, and movies. The App Store sells applications for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The newly announced iBook Store sells books.

You’ve likely heard stories about developers that have had successful applications on the App store and left their jobs to develop iPhone apps full time. There is a strong movement of independent developers on the Mac that have leveraged the web, word of mouth, and events such as MacHeist to get the word out about their products. Many of them do quite well. The App Store has made it relatively easy for a developer to get an app in front of millions of potential customers. Joe Dev is on an equal footing with big name software shops and even has a chance of showing off his work on stage at a Stevenote, or it might be displayed for a few seconds in a television commercial.

The iTunes store allows independent artists to apply to sell their music on the store. No publisher is required. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about this, but I think it is fairly significant. In the past, artists were dependent on signing a contract with a label to make it. The label had the money to produce and market an album. This included the manufacture of the physical media, the packaging, and the distribution. This model is changing—digital music will replace physical media altogether, and digital distribution will make shipping and stocking obsolete. The largest costs of producing music are going away. So, why should an artist allow a label to take a huge cut of the sales of their artistic expression? It is entirely possible for an artist to record their music and sell it through iTunes (and other web-based outlets) without help from a label, just as developers are doing on the App Store.

And now we have iBooks. Once again, the store will be open to independent authors. Amazon claims that they sold more digital books than paper ones over the holiday season. I have no doubt that we will see digital books grow in popularity over the coming years, relegating bound books to fine art and collectibles. It will likely take a long time, but it is inevitable. As this happens, publishers will become less relevant. The costs of printing, binding, shipping, and stocking books will melt away leaving the author, her story, and her audience. Digital storefronts such as Apple’s will take their small cuts, and the author will receive her due majority of the profits. The ultimate result is that it will be easier for new writers to get their first work published.

Democratization of content production is a powerful force, and I’m excited by the potential found in Apple’s expanding model.


I had been planning on posting about another interesting product design, but that will have to wait. I’ve just been overawed by the work of Brian Dettmer, a truly inspired artist. Brian creates sculptures from old books, revealing their contents by cutting into them one page at a time. Brian describes his process of book dissection:

In this work I begin with an existing book and seal its edges, creating an enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential. I cut into the cover of the book and dissect through it from the front. I work with knives, tweezers and other surgical tools to carve one page at a time, exposing each page while cutting around ideas and images of interest. Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed. Images and ideas are revealed to expose a book’s hidden, fragmented memory. The completed pieces expose new relationships of a book’s internal elements exactly where they have been since their original conception.

This is one of those brilliant concepts that I wish I had thought of. See more of his work posted at Centripetal Notion, and read about the artist on Wikipedia. Thanks to Jason Fried at 37signals for bringing it to my attention.