2014 Reading List

A good year for fiction, especially of the science variety. I thoroughly enjoyed The Moor’s Account based on both the concept of the book as well as the story itself. I especially enjoy how Ian McEwan paints his characters, and The Children Act did not let me down. The Sixth Extinction was less in depth and more accessible than Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker articles, but the breadth captures the scope of the disaster humans are making of the planet. The Serial podcast was memorable for its storytelling, although it ended up putting a big dent in my reading time.


The Children Act
Ian McEwan

The Son
Philipp Meyer

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

The Moor’s Account
Laila Lalami

Station Eleven
Emily St. John Mandel

The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber

Howard Jacobson

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn

Tenth of December
George Saunders

On Such a Full Sea
Chang-Rae Lee

Train Dreams: A Novella
Denis Johnson


How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
Steven Johnson

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Elizabeth Kolbert

Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential (unfinished)
Tom Kelley

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town
Beth Macy

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
Ken Jennings


Notable Articles

The Case For Reparations –  Ta-Nehisi Coates
Reza Aslan on What the New Atheists Get Wrong About Islam
How Fossilized Ideas Live on Even in Science – Andrew Crumey
How To Get Beyond The Parasite Economy – Eric Garland
Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem – Yiren Lu
The Mammoth Cometh
The Collateral Damage of a Teenager


How Bad Products Get Made

This article recounts how the Pontiac Aztec, perhaps the most notable automotive failure in recent history, came to be. I suggest reading the whole thing as a lesson in how bad products get made. A few things stood out as significant to me:

Targets and goals that aren’t grounded in actual user needs:

“Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer.”

I’ve emphasized that a clear vision and support from upper management is an absolute necessity, but leading by dictate is often disastrous:

We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.

Adhering to first principles you’ve established with customer input is critical. And the manifestation of those – the design – is something that’s arrived at through a process of invention:

Many people in the car business do not understand that a vehicle has an image. To them, a vehicle is a collection of attributes. If your attributes are better than the other guy’s attributes, you’re gonna win. It’s engineer thinking, along totally rational lines.


Does Apple Hate Old People?

Recently, Apple tripped me up trying to install software from the App Store on a new Mac. It had been a while since I’d done this, so the security questions were pretty obscure: “What was model of your least favorite car?” and somewhat less so, “What was the model of your first car?”. After quite a few tries, I was kicked out and had to set up a phone call with Apple support (answering security questions in my open-plan office). Once I was let back in to my account, I was prompted to establish new security questions. This is what I was offered:
Possible security questions Apple offers users
The intent of this is find answers that only the account holder knows and may not exist online. Most people don’t realize you can put whatever value you want as an answer, but it might be self-defeating to ignore the prompts and forget what you entered. For someone getting on with his life, and probably more than halfway through it, these seemed like a stretch for me:
9 questions (half the total) that involve “first” memories.
3 questions from early childhood, depending on how you count.
3 or more questions questions from high school.
Perhaps the team in charge of this is very young (as tech companies can be) and these memories are not so distant, or there’s an intent that I’m not appreciating. I hope there are culturally-specific versions of this, since not every country has a population that relies on automobiles or has an educational structure like the US does.
Or maybe I really am just losing it.

The Rental Car Test

I recently spent nearly two weeks using a rental car – a 2013 Ford Explorer – on a family vacation. We drove from New York to Chicago, around Chicagoland and Northern Illinois, and then back to New York, with daily trips in the car. One of the highlights was taking advantage of the My Touch infotainment system in the vehicle. My car at home is a decade-plus old Subaru, so “hi-tech” for me means a cassette deck. Call it a busman’s holiday, but I was excited to use an up-to-date interactive system that’s in so many vehicles (and is somewhat notorious).

My first and lasting impression is that the UI is more suited to a tablet than an automobile. The screen was reasonably responsive, and there was some pairing with physical (albeit digitized) controls. Giving Ford the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure they tested it in a moving vehicle, but I found the the typography too fine, the layout cramped, and enough nomenclature and flow quirks to trip me up to the point of defeat. I couldn’t escape the feeling that this worked well in a simulator and on someone’s tablet, but hurtling at 70MPH down the highway is an entirely different experience.

It seems to me that a serious usability test for vehicle manufacturers building these systems is how quickly a car rental customer could figure out basic tasks. Like climate control, the stereo, and then synching a mobile phone, getting directions, and on to more complex tasks. Like a lot of rental car drivers, I get into a car in the airport parking lot and drive off without stopping for couple of minutes to figure out controls beyond the mirrors and seat. Frequent rental car customers might actually have an advantage, since they could be exposed to a multitude of systems, but I don’t know how much thought people give to how things work. Perhaps a “simple mode” for frequently-accessed items, and — this is a minor annoyance — some way of resetting everything so that a new renter doesn’t have to encounter a previous user’s radio stations, trips, etc.

Not nearly as ubiquitous as the airticket redesign projects (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), but perhaps much more meaningful in potentially saving lives — and as a design exercise, significantly more challenging — is the vehicle touch screen redesign exercise. This one caught my eye as being one of the better ones of the breed: it showed an appreciation for the context by attempting to use multi-touch to overcome the lack of physical affordances in a screen; another one addresses Tesla’s attempt to overcome the problem (by going all-in with a giant screen and no physical controls) with an attempt at splitting input and output into two different screens. Actually, the Ford Explorer I rented had some elements of this, although it seemed they were unable to restrain themselves. In the end, I don’t think a heavy reliance on a touchscreen is a good idea – reserve them for what computers do best: complex, nested, changing features, and use physical controls (with digital refinements) for the top 3-5 user needs.

News reports tell me that Apple and Google/Android are getting into the car UI business, which may be welcome news. Its difficult to say if touchscreen GUIs are too far outside the expertise of carmakers to do well, or its an issue of large companies not being able to do small things well. While an outsider perspective might work well, the decades of deep expertise carmakers have is extremely valuable and can’t be discounted.

What I Read in 2013

I don’t think I read quite as many books in 2013 as I did in 2012, but I’m pretty sure I read substantially more long-form and short-form content. I’m on a better pace so far this year, but I’ve noticed that I tend to read much more in the winter and during my summer break. Here, in no particular order is what I managed to get through.

The Orphan Masters Son – I can’t recommend this enough.

The Teleportation Accident – I was entertained, but not completely thrilled with this.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb – Well crafted, if not completely satisfying scifi.

Transatlantic – Fairly sprawling, beautifully written historical novel.

The Windup Girl – I actually enjoyed this a lot more than I thought: another scifi book with a good mix of tech, plot and character development.

The Plot Against America – An alternate history that was very entertaining and well-written.

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up - Reporting of a murder that reads like fiction.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created – Deeply interesting to me, and certainly sends a message about how we continue to ravage this planet.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon – Really stunning piece of fiction.

The Brothers – If you’ve ever wondered why the rest of the world hates the US, read this.

Notable Articles

Why it’s time to lay the selfish gene to rest – David Dobbs – Aeon

Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality - Clay Shirky

And Then Steve Said, ‘Let There Be an iPhone’ – Fred Vogelstein

American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids. Here’s How. – Elizabeth Weil

What Paintbrush Makers Know About How to Beat China – Adam Davidson

Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World – James Fallows

The Enlightenment’s ‘Race’ Problem, and Ours – Justin E. H. Smith

Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart? – Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

The Innocent Man, Part Two: Texas Monthly December 2012 – Pamela Colloff

Designers, not Dribbblers

Paul Adams has written a fantastic short article (I suppose it might even be considered long-form these days, but that’s another topic) about what he calls The Dribblisation of Design. In it, he derides the growing trend, as he identifies it, of designers posting attractive mockups and reworks of existing or fictitious products on Dribbble, a gallery of member’s work, in the absence of any context. By context, he means the business environment that almost all substantial product work takes place in. He’s not knocking the desire of designers to show off their work, but the undue influence that showing work out of context can have.

Dribbble itself shapes the conversation to some extent, the medium shaping the message, with highlighting of colour palettes and other superficial details prominent in the UI. People look and people emulate.

Designers can easily retreat into pushing pixels because “it’s just more fun to draw nice pictures and bury oneself in pixels than deal with complicated business decisions and people with different opinions.”

Regrettably, this is a problem that has always existed and will never go away. Designers come from all sorts of backgrounds, with a huge array of skills and experiences informing their practice. Richard Buchanan, one of my professors at CMU talked about design practiced across four orders, and while he emphasized that these should not be considered as existing on a continuum or as outcomes, it is a useful framework for understanding the breadth and depth of what a contemporary product designer should be addressing:



Strategic Planning

Systemic Integration


Signs, symbols, and images





Physical Objects




Activities, services, and processes



Systems, environments, ideas and values

Most designers aren’t trained to do more than decorate – to spend time in the upper left, where their skills are most easily displayed and recognized. The woeful lack of preparation designers are getting in most schools is a serious issue. I think Paul is addressing an elite group of product designers in this piece, not the vast majority of designer/decorators.
Not mentioned in Paul’s piece are the structural issues within most contemporary product development environments that favor the atomization of output, further exacerbating a designers worst habits. He does talk about the need to align work to company vision and provides some excellent guideance on how to frame that understanding. Processes that disallow for a holistic view of the business problems and user goals are only going to yield fragmented, disconnected experiences. They might look great, but they won’t be solving the real big problems designers should be.

What I Read in 2012

Although its not complete, and doesn’t include many excellent periodicals and longer-form essays that I consumed here and there, here’s a list of what I read over the year 2012:

1491 (Second Edition): New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

Born to Run by Christopher Mcdougall

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age by Steven Johnson

The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea by John Moynihan

How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Started, still in progress:

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens

Articles and essays of note:

Why Things Fail: From Tires to Helicopter Blades, Everything Breaks Eventually – wired.com

How Culture Drove Human Evolution – edge.org

The Enemy (Kindle Single) – Christopher Hitchens

The Hunt for Geronimo – Vanity Fair

The Value of Drawing

Michael Graves, renowned architect and product designer, wrote about drawing in yesterday’s New York Times. I’m a constant sketcher at work, so I found his discussion especially meaningful, since he addressed the “lost art” of drawing in an age of computerized rendering in the architectural profession.

First, Graves talks about the intention and value of drawing, which is particularly valuable for those who don’t draw or don’t think they need to. I think he neatly sums it up with this statement:

“Drawings are not just end products: they are part of the thought process of architectural design. Drawings express the interaction of our minds, eyes and hands.”

What we’ve done since we were children is cast aside to easily, without considering what is lost. The literal connection that exists between our brains and hands has a much higher degree of fidelity and nuance than is possible with a mouse (pen, or tablet input as well). It takes a significant amount of time to develop and atrophies when not used.

And then Graves talks about his process, which I found particularly illuminating, since I don’t think I’ve ever given names to the drawings I do, other than calling them “iterations”. He identifies three drawing types called the  “referential sketch,” the “preparatory study” and the “definitive drawing.” The last is most appropriately done on a computer these days, but he finds the most value in the first two:

“With both of these types of drawings, there is a certain joy in their creation, which comes from the interaction between the mind and the hand. Our physical and mental interactions with drawings are formative acts. In a handmade drawing, whether on an electronic tablet or on paper, there are intonations, traces of intentions and speculation. This is not unlike the way a musician might intone a note or how a riff in jazz would be understood subliminally and put a smile on your face.”

Read the whole piece here.

Design or Cut Bait

At a UX conference not so long ago, a fellow presenter (a non-designer) and friend remarked that in so many of the presentations, he detected a tones of exasperation, almost whining, coming from the speakers. He wondered why so many designers were concerned with not being in a strategic or decision-making position, when the opportunity is theirs for the taking. I’ve encountered this quite a bit, and confess to being that designer in the past.

At a lot of companies, especially larger ones, the goals and language set are dominated by people with backgrounds in business, sales and marketing. Much of what is discussed has an aura of rationality, science or math, its largely subjective, and its difficult for many designers to overcome the wall of jargon they encounter. Designers definitely need to learn some of this to approach the table, but they should be prepared to bring their own. Look for ways to shift the culture, ways to open up the discussion to include stories from real users, and ways to build on what’s already being done.

Take a hard look at where you are working – is it even possible to achieve this? In my experience, if there isn’t someone a couple rungs above you who gets it, you are in for a long, frustrating and probably futile quest. If this isn’t working, find another company that does get it, work in consulting, or start your own. Agency work is appealing to designers partly because someone else is paid to inject them into the position they covet, but also because someone is running interference for them. They get to focus on design work while someone deals with the challenging clients.

I vastly prefer working in-house, where I see a rich range of problems and get the chance to see solutions through to conclusion and revision. It’s a personal preference, and one that requires patience and stamina in different ways than other contexts.