book review

by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

This book covers reserch on how to make your ideas stick. They start off with several very compelling urban legends, and then analyse several of them to see what succesful stories have in comon. And with succesful, one means ideas/lectures/stories that stick and people remember for some time. In a nutshell, these are the important ingredients for anything to stick:

1. Simplicity: get to the core, don’t forget about the curse of knowledge (commander’s intent).

2. Unexpectedness: get people’s attention, maybe through a surprise element, hold people’s attentions by creating interest. Create a gap in people’s knowledge, or at least awareness of the gap.

3. Concreteness: talk about people, instead of data (e.g. use a more journalistic style).

4. Credibility: external (who is the authority?), internal (details that can be checked), make sure the credentials in the storie can be tested.

5. Emotional: make people care, appeal to the self-interest of people, to their sense of identity

6. Stories: get people to act, to inspire them.

While you don’t need all of the above to make something stick, stories tend to be more sticky when several elements are covered. Definitely a book that reads easily, and the authors also mention that they were influenced by the style of Malcolm Gladwell. Although they don’t make it to Maeda’s ideal of a 100 pages (i.e., my copy has 257 pages without the notes), it’s very possible to chop the book in smaller pieces and read more piecemeal.

by Edward R. Tufte

In january I attended his workshop, and I was really very impressed by the way he manages to capture your attention and keep it. The chance to observe him form close-up (we got a spot in the first row) was something we loved. On a critical note, they way he explored his format didn’t allow for a lot of discussion. Granted, there were far too many people to make a discussion very practical, but once the tutorial is over you have to get out there and make it on your own two feet. So how could I manage to impress on my managers that powerpoint can be a really inappropriate format sometimes?

One of the follow-up things for myself was initiating the discussion about how we communicate within Research. Most of the time, one has to make one-page statements and such. Those one-page statements then have to fit on a powerpoint slide… Not my favourite program for any such things. Also, a lot of stuff that goes top-down only comes in ppt, like they think we can only understand things when they come in bullet-points. Myeah, that’s we all at least have a Masters in something or other! There’s a time and a place for everything, and I wish that upper echelons would be more conscious about their communication methods.

Direct quotes from the book:

Graphical integrity is more likely to result if these 6 principles are followed:
1. The representation of numbers, as physically measured on the surface of the graphic itself, should be directly proportional to the numerical quantities represented.
2. Clear, detailed, and thorough labeling shuld be used to defeat graphical distortion and ambiguity. Write out explanations of teh data on the graphic itself. Label important events in the data.
3. Show data variation, not design variation.
4. In time-series displays of money, deflated and standardized units of monetary measurement are nearly always better than nominal units.
5. The number of information-carrying (variable) dimensions depicted should not exceed the number of dimensions in the data.
6. Graphics must not quote data out of context.

Revision and editing principles:
Above all else show the data.
Maximize the data-ink ratio.
Erase non-data-ink.
Erase redundant data-ink.
Revise and edit.

Pugin: “It is all right to decorate construction, but never construct decoration”

Maximize data density and size of data matrix, within reason.

Graphical elegance is often found in simplicity of design and complexity of data.

Chartjunk is Tufte’s name for unintentional optical art, such as created by Moire effects. Grids can also be seen as chart junk, because a lot of the time they don’t contribute to understanding, especially when you have to crane your head in all directions to be able to make sense of the written stuff in a graphic.
For grids, he definitely recommends a muted form (grey instead of black, for example), which I’ve used with much success since, although not all figures have made it into the final drafts of papers.

Multifunctioning graphical elements, are, as the name says, elements that convey more than one piece of information. Using these, you can use less elements and still say the same thing. Or you can give redundant information in such a way that you don’t double your elements but try to make everything crystal clear.
To maintain clarity within this chaos, you should try and use graphical methods that can organize and order the flow of graphical information. So no pie charts! They aren’t useful, the information you can put in there is usually easier understood when in a table or in a form where you actually can compare and contrast small-sets of data. Techniques that might prove useful are multiple depths for viewing and multiple angles for viewing (although I’m not sure how to achieve this yet). One thing is for certain, you should succeed in showing the architecture of your data to the viewer.

Another way to see if you are actually showing a lot of information is by looking at data density. Data density can take advantage of the fact that the human eye can detect a large amounts of information in small spaces (although I’m not sure how applicable this is when using a beamer, or a low-resolution screen, considering that paper still has more possible options to put more ink in small spaces than a screen).
A formula to use for data density is to divide # of entries in the data matrix by the area of the data graphic.

A very practical way of using data density is by shrinking your graphics, and portraying them into small multiples. Especially when you want to compare graphics this can be very effective, while using the same template for every graphic is also very efficient. It can communicate narrative content also very well. So far I haven’t really used this optimally, because I was worried for data labels. I’ll putter around with this in the near future and if I come up with something useful show it here. MPhD (co-student) has done some useful stuff with this, to compare results from simulations which are graphs without names or necessary numbers.

However! Sometimes, a super-table can also be useful as a reference, especially when it is easier to read information rather than look at a 100 little bar charts. Elements need for super-tables are organized and sequential detail & a reference-like quality.

Now, on the integration of data and text. Anybody who’s ever written anything in Word knows how difficult this can be. I’ve used Adobe InDesign for lay-out as well, and it’s such a joy when you put your figures in and they don’t move, no matter what you do to the text. In effect, it should be possible to have your figure next to the paragraph where you’re talking about it. The graphic is part of the paragraph!
One thing Tufte cautions about is the difference in use for graphics. You can use graphics to communicate and illustrate a finding, and then you can tell viewers what they are reading. If you’re showing an exploration of your data though, only tell them how to read your design because they will want to make up their own mind. This is very much in keeping with academic tradition, as I see it. Give people the space and time to question and be critical, how else will you learn to appreciate the space of their brain?

Then there’s the proportion and scale issue. How large? Conic? Horizontal? Circle? Tufte proposes to give graphics a horizontal slant, so give your graphics greater length and lesser height (humans are very comfortable with divisions around the Golden Section; so as a rule of thumb you could think about moving towards graphics that are 50% wider than that they are tall). Another point is that cause is often on the x-ass and the effect on the y-ass. Might as well exploit that! Although I have to have a critical look at how I can achieve this every time.

Maeda’s book is in keeping with one of his own tenets: don’t make things too long or overly complex. He actually manages to say all he needs within a 100 pages. Nevertheless, it took me a while to get through “Laws of simplicity”, because it’s a lot of information, densely packed.

He summarizes his laws of simplicity as follows:

  1. REDUCE: the simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
  2. ORGANIZE: organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
  3. TIME: savings in time feel like simplicity
  4. LEARN: knowledge makes everything simpler
  5. DIFFERENCES: simplicity and complexity need each other
  6. CONTEXT: what lies in the periphery of simplicity isn’t peripheral
  7. EMOTION: more emotions are better than less
  8. TRUST: in simplicity we trust
  9. FAILURE: some things can never be made simple
  10. THE ONE: simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful
  • AWAY: more appears like less by simply moving it far, far away
  • OPEN: openness simplifies complexity
  • POWER: use less, gain more

In a way, what to take away from reading was fairly easy to start with. Think about the things you design, and think about them in a meaningful way:
Why is that function there? Why does it function the way it does? Could it be made easier, simpler? Or will it be worth it for users when they learn what the function does and learn it well? In other words, is the learning curve worth the effort needed to get to know your design, and if so, how will you convince users to go through the learning curve?

Executing this kind of thinking at all times isn’t easy though. It means that you have to reflect on your design, keeping in mind your users all the time. Not only that, if you work in a team, you have to convince everybody else of this too.
Keeping everybody focused on simplicity (or at least relative simplicity if you can’t make things simple) is a hard task to execute. So, just because you are trying to keep things simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy to achieve.

Considering that I don’t really design products, how to apply these principles for me? Well, they can also be applied to writing papers, and blog posts. Externalize reasonings, ask ‘why why why’ all the time and make it explicit. You know why, but you cannot assume that readers do. And sometimes, when you explain why things cannot be that simple, people take the time to follow through your complex reasonings.

Or how to define quality? What is quality, anyway? Well, people know it when they see it.

Written by John Guaspari

This is a short book of 96 pages and very easy to read, I finished it in half an hour.

It has one very important lesson in it as well: listen to your customers! They might not have all your technical language, but they can for sure tell you whether the product they bought from you indeed meets their expectations for that product (and needs and wants, although you might have to observe them while using your product too).
The solution is not to work harder and do better, or to have more inspectors. Neither is it to prevent mistakes from happening while producing something. The important part is to deliver what your customers need, not necessarily what they want. Always make sure that what you promise them is there.

The other important insight is that management has to give you the opportunity to implement the lessons and comments gotten from the customer. Management needs to lead the business towards QUALITY. If design doesn’t know what implementation is doing, how can there be coherence? What is the use of being able to define exactly what is which if at the end you cannot sell your product? Winning a battle, but losing the war is never what a business wants.

I read this book because I was on a quest to find out more about perceived video quality. Considering that there is no coherent definition there either, I turned to a bigger construct. And although this book didn’t give me a definition, it gave some extra directions to consider, such as marketing and consumer behaviour research. It can be hard to keep an overview of where all the knowledge is, or has gone. The best books can give you new food for thought, asking more questions, while leaving you feel wonderfully focused at the same time. Maybe the term “flow experience” would be quite right for this feeling.

Or why is usability and user experience so important for softwere developers and engineers, and how do you convince them it’s so bloody important?

The inmates are running the asylum, by Alan Cooper

This reads like a business-book, which is what it aims at. It does give a good feeling for what’s important when you develop software for people that aren’t you, especially when it comes to working through specifications (no matter who the specs are given by). Features of your software are not what is important, rather that users are able to reach their goal. So one should work goal-oriented and put in features that help users reach their goal, not put in features just because somebody thinks it’s interesting (think pointy-haired boss).

Engineering methods don’t work to solve engineering problems, because you’re blind to your own problems. A different method will probably work better. Also, it’s difficult to do both back-end and front-end design so separate both but they still have to work together. There is a conflict of interest between what the programmer wants, and what the user wants. So you don’t let a programmer referee whether a program is doing what the user wants (unless it’s something she designed for herself to use, obviously).

Bribery can work to find out what programmers are doing, but you shouldn’t have to resolve to it. On the other hand, maybe you can train some sense into them that way. Or present it together with a rational, defensible reason. In terms an engineer can understand.

Bottom line: you can listen to your users, but it’s even better to observe them. If you only listen, you’ll end up trying to sell them a 12-headed dragon.