KM: Hi Jeff, thanks for joining me today! Let’s start by talking about what inspired you to write this book. It’s a really fascinating compendium of why certain design principles matter, which I think is a smart departure from the usual how to of most design books.
JJ: In 2006, I had a teaching fellowship at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I taught a class in Human-Computer Interaction to second-year Engineering and Computer Science students. New Zealand uses the English system of education, so college students there don’t take a wide assortment of classes; rather, they study a single topic. Discovering that my students had no background in psychology, I added a couple of lectures on basic cognitive and perceptual psychology to provide the background they needed to understand user interface design principles.
After returning from New Zealand, I turned those lectures into a professional development seminar and began presenting it at conferences. The seminar turned out to be quite popular, giving me and my publisher the idea of expanding the seminar into a book.
KM: It’s interesting to me that, right up front, you lead off with the book’s intended audience.?While interaction designers and UX professionals are on the list, I was surprised to see that you listed software developers first. Based on feedback you’ve received, are you surprised at just how many people from diverse fields are finding value in the ideas you share?
JJ: It is a convention for authors to state their intended audience in a book’s introduction. I’ve followed this convention in my previous books and continued doing so with this one.
In the book’s introduction, I used the term software development professionals to include everyone involved in developing software—designers and user researchers as well as programmers. I wasn’t singling out any of these job categories as primary.
I have received feedback that the book is useful not only to its primary intended audience, but also to print designers, animators, and development managers. Even some people who don’t develop software, but use it have told me they like the book because it explains why they sometimes have trouble using software and the Web.
KM: It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that literally had me hmm-ing out loud with every turn?of the page. The facts you present are so fascinating. How much research did you have to do to write the book, and what’s the one thing you discovered about how people interact with user interfaces that you found to be most fascinating?
JJ: I studied cognitive and perceptual psychology in the 1970s. Obviously, human perception and cognition haven’t changed since then, but as a result of new technologies that allow researchers to observe the human brain in operation—such as functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI)—our knowledge of them has improved tremendously. Thus, my Seventies-era psychological education was out of date. After returning home from New Zealand, I spent several months reading recent books and articles before I wrote my book, most of which I’ve listed in the book’s bibliography.
One of the more interesting things I learned is how extremely focused and goal-oriented human visual perception is. We hear a lot in the news these days about the 1% versus the 99%. Well, there’s another place those numbers come up: the high-res portion of our visual field is only 1% at the center of our entire visual field; 99% of our visual field has very low spatial and color resolution. The 1% at the center is the only part of our visual field that enables us to read. The main function of the other 99% of our visual field is to notice motion and irregularities, thereby directing the eye to focus the high-res 1% center there. This helps explain why people often don’t notice information on a screen. If nothing causes a person to move his eyes to the information, he won’t see the information. Based on this knowledge, error messages or data-entry fields that attract attention to themselves by shaking briefly are becoming more common.