Monday, March 21, 2011

Reading :: Cadence & Slang

Cadence & Slang
By Nick Disabato

I have mixed feelings about Cadence & Slang, a small self-published book that its author intends to serve as a style guide for interaction design. The book is beautifully designed and well written, with lots of nice moments in it. As a style guide, it reminds me of Joseph Williams' book, which treats writing style with such grace and reverence. Like Williams, Disabato is clearly in love with his art, and it shows: in his writing, in his examples, and in the care with which he has designed this little book. The book covers a lot, from patterns to writing style to interviewing stakeholders to usability testing, and does it with quiet confidence.

Maybe too much confidence: on the other hand, Cadence & Slang also has the same drawback as other style guides: In trying to summarize the wisdom of an entire field, it tends to gloss over issues. And unlike Williams' book on writing style, this one doesn't acknowledge that it's glossing. For instance, we are told that Jakob Nielsen was the first to perform usability tests on sketched prototypes (p.64) and that you can catch 95% of usability problems with only three participants (p.65). We're also told that contextual inquiry is "the process of informally interviewing users while they're completing a real-world task" (p.109). All of these statements are kinda-sorta correct but hide a great many assumptions and background. (For instance, Nielsen very well might have been the first to apply formal usability testing methodology to paper prototypes in the early 1990s, but paper prototypes emerged as rich participant feedback mechanisms in the UTOPIA project of the early 1980s.)

And don't get me started on his gloss of ethnographic research (p.58).

Disabato repeatedly tells us to sweat the details, but his book produces a 50,000 foot view of interaction design that elides most details. In doing so, it glosses over rather than addressing some of the latent tensions in interaction design. For instance, he tells us to attend to web accessibility (p.42), but the book itself is not accessible for the visually impaired, and as late as October of last year Disabato resisted making an electronic version available because that would cause problems for the book's visual design. (You can now buy a PDF version, but I'm unclear on how accessible the PDF is.) This experience nicely illustrates the push-pull between different design principles, but in the book itself, Disabato doesn't acknowledge or wrestle with such types of hard choices between the design principles he advocates.

That being said, it really is quite a good book. I'd assign it to students who are taking a survey course in interaction design - as long as I was sure they'd be delving into the details in other classes.