User Interface Design for Programmers: A Book Review

A book by programmers for programmers.

The last time I checked, software was meant to be used.

In order for software to be used, it needs to be useful to those who have not perused all the texts required for a Ph.D. in Computer Science--as well as to those who have. This is rather less common than one might wish in the Open Source community. Often, the applications written for Linux seem to be "by geeks, for geeks". The fact that we are many of doesn't mitigate the preference of Janey-or-Johnny-User for a consistent interface among the applications they use, and for those applications to behave in a way that is comprehensible to someone unfit for MENSA(R) membership.

User Interface Design for Programmers (Apress, 2001) is written for programmers, especially programmers who a) think user interface design is an artistic pursuit, b) have a sense of humour, and c) can no longer think like Janey-or-John-User.

Who? Us? Yes.


The reader of Mr. Spolsky's work will require both a sense of humour, and some acquaintance with the cultural context in which he writes. Lacking either or both, the reader will not go all verklemmt, but will go straight to meshuggah, neither passing GO nor collecting $200. This is not a book for those who think tech and storytelling don't mix. For those of us who like to smirk and learn at the same time, it's a wonderful read.

There are not a great many software engineers who would deem their work as being of signifigant importance to, say, mental health. Or human rights. Yet Spolsky begins with the premise that there is some relationship between being able to control one's environment and mental well-being, and the relationship between not being able to control one's environment and depression. Specifically, he relates how this applies to the users of computer programs:

UI is important because it affects the feelings, the emotions, and the mood of your users. If the UI is wrong, and the user feels like they can't control your software, they literally won't be happy and they'll blame it on your software. If the UI is smart, and things work the way the user expected them to work, they will be cheerful as they manage to accomplish small goals. Hey! I ripped a CD! It just worked! Nice software!" (p. 6)

The moral of this story? "A user interface is well designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would". (ibid., emphasis mine) What? Not how we think it should?

Spolsky uses 18 short chapters to illustrate the various principles and pitfalls of UI. (There are some pratfalls, too, some of which involve UI designers from the Redmond Contingent, as well as from Juno). The author's anecdotes are lively, and generally point to a specific corollary or rationale involved in designing applications that "make users happy". There are worse goals in the development of software.


"Good UI designers use consistency intelligently, and though it may not show off their creativity as well, in the long run it makes users happier." (p. 48)

Spolsky might have added that this can be taken to extremes, as in the case of StarOffice's 'butterfly start button'. On the whole, though, he makes a good point. For those of us who would like to increase the number of Linux users, consistent interfaces make the job of helping newbies view Linux as more user-friendly. This does not preclude efficiency or security, by the way: the sooner the newbie can accomplish what s/he intended to, the less likely s/he is to look for an alternate command that will permit him or her to accomplish something unintended.

"Design for extremes so that your product can be used under extreme conditions, and design for extremes so that your product is more comfortable to use under normal conditions" (p. 59)

The good people who developed wheelchair ramps know this principle well. Slopes are easier to navigate than steps, for both wheelchairs and normal pedestrian traffic. Well-cushioned seats in vehicles are more comfortable and, in a bizarre twist of fate, safer than their harder counterparts. Food that doesn't take as long to cook retains more of its original nutrients...well, okay, maybe that's pushing it. Sometimes pandering to creature comfort and/or sheer laziness can be put to good use.

"A good heuristic is obvious, easily undone, and extremely likely to be correct. Other heuristics are annoying." (p. 113)

Microsoft Bob died. Many users of MS Office would prefer the spellcheck to simply let them make spelling mistakes and suffer the consequences. The Paperclip infuriates everyone over the age of 5. Don't create bells and whistles that require removal by less than obvious means.

"Let's do the time warp again"

One of the most salient points Spolsky raises is what happens to time between development and software use. Days of development yield seconds of software to the user; months spent on a project yield knowledge the user won't have in minutes of its use; seconds of time required to load an application (or a web page) feel like hours of boredom to a user. Lest we forget.



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Re: User Interface Design for Programmers: A Book Review

Anonymous's picture

Joel Spolsky's book is just one example of the high quality titles that have been on the market recently from Apress. Joel's writing is easy to understand and I could fully apply the information to what I'm currently working on. I highly recommend this book and, can you believe it... the book is full color with amazing screen shots and examples.

Not only are Apress books full of valuable information without "filler fluff," they are written by folks who know what they are talking about, not a committee of several people who know a little about this, and a little about that. The books are well worth the investment and will be an excellent addition to any developer/programmer's library at work or at home.

Re: User Interface Design for Programmers: A Book Review

Anonymous's picture

The original classic human interface book is now free as PDF files: The Apple Human Interface Guidelines. HIG is good because it doesn't always try to educate the programmer or designer on the motivations for good interface, but presents it's rules as simple edicts: "put N pixels between the button and edge of the dialog" "the rightmost button is OK" "all alerts should say Yes and No, not OK and Cancel" "don't use colors everywhere".

What's amazing is that, despite Apple's success with HIG for over 15 years, the style and format of HIG hasn't been copied.

Apple Human Interface Guidelines


Anonymous's picture

My bad - turns out the HIG has extensive explanations. I guess I forgot. The explanations are all put into one section.

The book reads like a Christopher Alexander book. It's a big list of rules, goals, and techniques. (CA is an architect popular with many software designers for his "pattern language". He believes that good design can happen only of the constituent parts of the design are complete and correct. Thus, his method involved cataloguing good small scale design, and recommending their correct reuse. Though architects have gripes with his method as applied to architecture, it seems to work well for software design.)

One thing I forgot to add was that the book is very Mac-centric. Still, it is useful for everyone.