The Pile for December 14, 2009

The Pile is our weekly guide to what we’re reading to become better managers. This is our first entry in several weeks, because your editor has been ill. He's back now.

This week we're looking at a classic book; next week we'll return to periodicals, our usual metier.

moggridge-coverThere are many wonderful books about design and its implications for business and technology, ranging from the extremely accessible (Donald Norman’s The Invisible Computer) to ideal for practitioners (Jakob Nielsen et al’s E-Commerce User Experience) to the joyfully excessive (Gavriel Salvendy’s Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, all 1,654 pages of it). We recommend them all, but Designing Interactions, by Bill Moggridge, a founder of the IDEO design firm, distinguishes itself by offering all sorts of practical tips for what it takes to make breakthrough products and services, and embedding those lessons inside stories of the people who made them happen. And even if you don't care about design, you can learn quite a bit from Moggridge's approach.

The book is built on interviews with 40 innovative and influential designers, among them pioneers of computers and handhelds, all sorts of telecommunications, games, and notions that still feel more futuristic than real. In this big book stuffed with useful information, Moggridge is comfortable slowing down and letting us see through his idiosyncratic eyes. When he describes the circa-1981 Osborne luggable computer, he compares it when it’s closed to a sewing machine, when it’s open to a human face, and the keyboard cable looks “like the tongue of a cheeky little boy.” A quarter century after he first saw the object, Moggridge’s wonder is still very much alive and infectious.

The practical lessons are there, don’t worry. But it’s the stories that will keep you reading: Larry Tesler and Tim Mott working tag-team around the clock at Xerox PARC to control access to their precious Alto; Bill Atkinson inventing pull-down menus during one mysterious night; Brendan Boyle using memories of Charlie Brown and Lucy to create his Aerobie Football. Nearly all the interviewees reach beyond the expected when they describe what they’ve achieved: Bing Gordon of Electronic Arts talks of designing games and says “we imagined that people using technology could have the same kind of fun that lion cubs have when they’re tussling in the Savannah.”

Most book/DVD combos are gimmicky, but here’s one case in which having a DVD with excerpts from 37 of the interviews increases your enjoyment and improves your understanding. Seeing and hearing these masters discuss their craft reinforces the lessons inside the book—and it lets you get through the whole thing in less than two hours if you’re not committed to completing an 800-page book. Like so much of the outstanding design it celebrates, Designing Interactions lets you use it the way you want to.

Behind the business and design insights, there’s a life lesson here as well. Although written by a legend in the field, Designing Interactions turns out to be a great case study in humility. Not until the final chapter does Moggridge deliver his own maxims. Until then, he does what the smartest designers and managers do: he listens and he learns. Only then can you develop the ideas that will build innovative businesses.

If you're interested in this book, don't miss our special report on design thinking.