Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review–Back of the Napkin

I have been trying to mix up my non-fiction reading with some business type books to go along with my technology reading list. The first business book I read this year was The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. This book describes the use of simple pictures as a mechanism for demonstrating and solving complex business problems.

The concept was interesting and compelling but I have never been an artist. Of course, Dan had anticipated this type of response and addresses it in the first chapter. Dan categorizes people into three categories he refers to as pens.

Black pen people are eager to pick up a pen and start drawing.  Yellow pen people are reluctant to draw but generally add good feedback on pictures that have been drawn. Red pen people are very reluctant to draw at all but generally add insightful dialog to pictures. There is a test to determine what type of “pen” you are. I ended up being in between yellow and red.

If you want to get a really concise summary of what the book is all about start with chapter sixteen. It gives a quick back of the napkin presentation on just what visual thinking is and how it helps get your point across.

Dan breaks down the visual thinking process into four parts; look, see, imagine and show. Looking is simply taking in the entire scene get a general impression of what your eyes are showing you. This is closely followed by seeing where we start to focus in on a particular part of what we have looked at. Next we imagine what could happen based on the things we have seen. Finally we want to show what we have seen and imagined to someone else. This process is summed up nicely in Dan’s example ( chapter 3 page 35 ).

This process shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, we go through these steps thousands of times a day—like when we cross the street, for example. We look both ways and if we see a car nearby, we stop. If we see a car at a distance, we imagine weather we can make it across before it arrives, and if so, we show our decision by confidently striding across the street or waiting until the car has safely passed by.

The look and see phases of this process are very interdependent, in fact, they can form a loop where we go back to looking at the whole picture after we have focused (seen) on a particular piece. This can be followed by focusing on another aspect of the whole.

For the imagine phase Dan developed a series of questions to ask about the problem in order to decide how to present it. To make it easier to remember he came up with the mnemonic SQVID.

  • S for Simple vs. Complex
  • Q for Quality vs. Quantity
  • V for Vision vs. Execution
  • I for Individual Attributes vs. Comparison
  • D for Change ( Δ ) vs. Status Quo

Once we have asked the imagination questions it is time for us to show our idea. To do this we have to answer the time honored questions of Who, What, When, Where, How and the all important Why. Dan once again gives us visual answers for these questions.

  • Who/What – Portraits
  • How Much – Charts and Graphs
  • Where – Maps
  • When – Timeline or Gantt Chart
  • How – Flowchart
  • Why – Multivariable Plot

As you can imagine, even without a picture, the book goes much more in depth on each of these points. In fact there are plenty of pictures to back up the points on visual thinking.

The bottom line: I found this book easy to read and I enjoyed Dan’s casual writing style. The points he made are backed up with many examples and a bit of science, not to mention that they just make a lot of sense. If you are looking for a way to deliver more impact with your message you could benefit from the techniques in this book.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Book Review: Emotional Design

EmotionalDesign_DonaldANormanI have long been a fan of user interface design and design in general. Having been impressed by The Design of Everyday Things, I decided to pick up a few more of Donald A. Norman’s books. Emotional Design, why we love (or hate) Everyday Things, is about how the design of things effect us emotionally. Or more accurately how we can design things to elicit the emotional response that marketers want.

Although Dr. Norman tends to have a rather dry academic writing style from time to time, he backs up his claims with many stories and examples. Overall I found this book to be very interesting and I picked up some very interesting tidbits on how design effects us on many levels. The book primarily focuses on the design of physical things rather than software specifically but many of the principals can be applied to software as well.

One of the very interesting studies presented in this book showed that attractive things work better. It brought to mind the “form follows function” premise from architecture. In the study by Noam Tractinsky ATMs were compared. All of the ATMs performed the same functions, had the same number of buttons but some were more attractive. In all of the tests users felt that the more attractive ATMs worked better than the less attractive ones.

This demonstrates how the look and feel of a device is just as important as the function of the actual device. Take the iPhone, which revolutionized the smart phone industry, its functionality isn’t completely revolutionary but its look and feel was entirely new. Smart phones have allowed for phone calls, web surfing, games and many other applications for many years but none of them did it in such an elegant way. The clean interface and simple yet sophisticated design of the iPhone made it a winner in the smart phone market.

Dr. Norman describes our reaction to the design of things into three levels; visceral, behavioral and reflective. We process the things we see and use first on a visceral level, how it looks and feels. We then explore how the item behaves or does what it was designed to do. Then we reflect on our past experiences with the item.

The book builds upon these three principals of design with many examples and stories. There is a very interesting discussion about emotional machines, think the Turing Test. This translates into the future of robots as well, think of your favorite movie robot. The design of robots that are truly useful will have many human characteristics to make interacting with them more natural.

The bottom line: This book provides a good perspective on how our designs affect the users. By providing a functional device or application that is also appealing on a variety of levels we will be more successful. I always love to hear from our customers about how easy our software is to use and how great their experience was with our products.

Friday, January 6, 2012


After posting my 2012 Book Reading List I ran across an article by John Tierney called Be It Resolved. It has some great information about how to keep your resolutions and some surprising statistics that show that you can be successful in achieving you goals by following some simple strategies

    1. Set a single clear goal
    2. Pre-Commit
    3. Outsource
    4. Keep track
    5. Don’t overreact to a lapse
    6. Tomorrow is another taste
    7. Reward often

So I thought I would apply these concepts to my 2012 resolutions to see if it will help me stay on track to reach my goals. One of the biggest portions is outsourcing, which I have done by publicly declaring one of my goals. My book reviews will serve as a mechanism for keeping track of my progress.

Now all I need to do is come up with those frequent rewards.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Reading Goals

Its that time of year again where we all take an opportunity to start fresh and forget about the resolutions we didn’t accomplish last year in favor of the resolutions we make for this year. I am no exception to this cycle of making resolutions sticking to them for awhile and then letting them slide because life just got too busy.

One of my big resolutions is to do more reading. I always seem to have several books on my shelf as well as a big wish list of books that I would like to read. So this year I am setting the goal of reading one technical book every month and posting a review of each of them.

So, without further ado here is my 2012 list.

  1. Living With Complexity Donald A Norman
  2. Code Complete Second Edition Steve McConnell
  3. Entity Framework 4 In Action
  4. The Art of Unit Testing
  5. RESTful Web Services
  6. SQL Antipatterns
  7. The Productive Programmer
  8. Seven Languages in Seven Weeks
  9. Head First Android Development
  10. Head First C# Second Edition
  11. The Design of Design
  12. Thoughts on Interaction Design