User-Centered Design Stories

Edited by Carol Righi and Janice James

Reviewed by Steve Kersten for ClickStart

ISBN: 0123706084 Righi and James recent collection of case studies provides one of the most practical, readable, and engaging methods of teaching the value and practice of user-centered design in the real world. This book of stories sits comfortably next to the volumes in our libraries that present process and best practices/standards in a more traditional manner, laying out the steps, the reasons behind the steps, with guidance for holding conversations with your peers and colleagues to get those ideas incorporated into the cultures we all work in. (For example, the standout works in this style that belong on any UX professional’s book shelf include among many others Deborah Mayhew’s comprehensive The Usability Engineering Lifecycle, Jeff Johnson’s recently updated GUI Bloopers 2.0, and Kelly Goto’s sublime Web Redesign 2.0: Workflow That Works). These are superb tomes that repay even a quick glance.)

Taking a completely different approach, User-centered Design Stories uses the narrative case study approach, and thus it provides realistic, dramatic, and effective stories. If you’ve designed products that folks use as they attempt to reach a goal, you’ve experienced most, if not all, of the plots these essays explore. Depending on how the story maps to your current situation, even if you’re new to the field and don’t have (m)any experiences under your belt, you become a partner with someone going through the same issue.

In the roles of mentors, colleagues, friends, and teachers, Righi and James intersperse questions several times within each essay. One of the strengths of the book is that these questions apply both to the first time you’ve read the study and subsequent readings. (The studies are extremely well written and are very re-readable.) These questions also work for beginners and experienced professionals. In addition to being an impressive act of editing and “curriculum development,” these questions also work as you are acquiring more experiences under your belt and return to these studies. The book lives long after your first (second, even third) readings: you will always benefit from the pauses in the stories and the questions where you internalize what you’ve read, comparing it to your current experiences and what would work now, knowing both you and your organization change continually.

The readings are delightfully engrossing, participatory, and refreshing. In addition to the interspersed questions, each study ends with a summary and suggestions for further reading (where you’ll find reference to the classic volumes that also help your company make the transition from what Alan Cooper (About Face 3) eloquently refers to as the move from the Mechanical Age to the Digital Age). The book is divided into two main parts: “Promoting, Establishing, and Administering a User-centered Design Program” and “Research, Evaluation, and Design.” Topics addressed include:

  • Change Management
  • Politics
  • Promoting UCD
  • Incremental Institutionalization
  • Benefits of UCD
  • What Not Do
  • Estimating
  • Card Sorting
  • Requirements Gathering
  • Integrating Business Analysis and User-centered Design
  • Personas
  • Heuristic Evaluation
  • Interaction Design
  • Information Architecture
  • Web Accessiblity
  • Internationalization
  • Project Management
  • Usability Testing (Remote and Summative)

Contributors include names you might not have encountered before as well as gurus in the field (Rosensweig, Mayhew, Bias, Barlow-Bush, and others). Carolyn Snyder (of Paper Prototyping fame) contributes the book’s foreword that, combined with James’ preface, form and important pair of essays explaining the book’s approach and where the idea behind the book came from. Don’t skip these! Luckily, they’re available on line in PDF form along with chapter 1.

Righi and James have also made the answers to all the questions they’ve posed available (as a PDF) on the Web. The book is so engaging, so well written and edited, that you will love having them to review but see them less as answers and more as the other half of the conversation you’re having with the editors and authors. By virtue of the fact that your experiences will always be different than those of the protagonists in the stories gathered here, you’ll even get value if all you do is read the story and its questions and then read the answers and figure out why the answers do or don’t work for your situation.