Reading About Face

About Face is a popular book in the interaction design community. Written by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, Christopher Noessel and David Cronin, it covers the essentials of interaction design and is packed with deep insights. Reading this book has changed the way I think about and approach interaction design, and here are my three key takeaways.

User Goals & Persona

The first part of the book is about goal-directed design. To create effective interactions, we’ll need to observe and interview users to understand their goals, needs, behavior patterns, and context.

Personas are a way to condense research data and model users. The book provides a deep dive into the proper way to create one. Personas should be generated by clustering users based on behavioral variables, which typically include users’ activities, attitude, aptitude, motivation, and skills. Behavioral variables from market segmentation can also be used as a starting point.

Personas should have goals, and products should be designed to to help users reach those goals. The example given by the book is cars. Different types of cars are designed to meet different goals and needs of different user groups: pickup trucks need to be reliable to transport heavy cargo; sedans need to be safe and comfortable for passengers, and sports cars need to be fast and fun to drive.

Because detailed qualitative research is needed to create personas, when that is not possible, a provisional persona can be created from data such as stakeholder/subject matter expert interviews, and existing market data.

One thing mentioned in the book that initially could sound somewhat surprising is that making an application easy to learn may not always be a design target. Users will be willing to spend time learning the application if it can help them achieve their goals. The book also emphasizes the need to design for the perpetual intermediates.

Mental Model

A really useful concept in the book is mental model. Besides the user mental model, there are also the implementation model and the represented model, which corresponds to the UI. The closer the represented model is to the user mental model, the easier to understand the UI will be.
Because developers are the ones coding the application, the UI created by them tends to reflect more of the implementation model. Since designers have a better understanding of user goals, we should be the advocate for users and try to nudge the represented model towards the user mental model.

An example in the book related to the concepts of implementation model and mental model is data storage. The computer file system reflects the implementation model: you are required to save your work from the memory to the hard disk. Users on the other hand, think of a document as something that can be directly manipulated. The auto-save feature in Google Docs, Medium and many iOS/Android apps is therefore more consistent with the user mental model.

Pretend UI Is Magic

Another thing I learned from the book is the importance of thinking of the product/UI as magic in the early stage of interaction design. By doing so, we focus on the personality of the product, thereby freeing our minds from unnecessary constraints and letting it drive our thinking towards innovative/interesting interactions. This is also where story telling comes in. The product is the hero of the story that relieve a pain for the users.

So often we get mired in technologies when designing interactions, but technologies are not fixed: they keep changing and evolving. A better approach is to first flesh out goal-directed interactions based on the personality of our product, then pick and choose the right technologies to realize those interactions.

For many products, being smart and considerate is a very desirable personality trait. That’s why the book suggests that products should “ask for forgiveness, not permission” when interacting with users because people tend to do the same thing over and over again.

Final Thoughts

Besides the above three takeaways, the book is full of other useful concepts such as application posture, excise, metaphor, skeuomorphism which I believe every interaction designer should know. I highly recommend this book and it’s definitely a book that I’ll come back to again and again.
That said, the book is a little wordy and long-winded, which is why it’s so thick. Readers will need to spend quite some time to finish the whole book.

Author: Simon Li

Designer, coder and animator.

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