Giles Colborne: "Writing a book about user experience" at London IA

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 18 November 2010

Pretty much every time I finished a freelance contract between 2006 and 2008, I'd return to my adopted Greek home and tell my wife, "Right, now I'm going to start writing my book".

I never did.

I mean, sure, I scratched out a few clumps of words, and made lists of potential chapter headings, and scribbled bits of notes down in a little book, but I never really started.

Which in some ways is just as well, because having listened to Giles Colborne talk at London IA on Tuesday night, I realise that I was in no way prepared for how much work it would be. Nor did I have some of the key elements in place which he told us helped him get through "the worst 12 months of his life" as he wrote 'Simple and Usable'.

High on Giles' list was a support network of people who had already been through the authoring process. Although some of the advice was quite scary too - Steve Krug pointing out, for example, that "the secret to success is just to write a really good book".

As he wrote his book, Giles had an anti-pattern in mind - a specific book on a similar topic that he wanted to avoid being like. He said "it helps to have an enemy, and helps to know what you don't want to be".

One aspect that people often don't realise before they start writing their first book is that it is more of a team effort than you might have thought. Giles had regular feedback from his production editor, and vital input from a proof-reader and manual indexer of the content. Although, as he pointed out, getting your corrected copy back can lead to moments of epiphany like: "Wow. I really can't punctuate".

As someone who regularly gets to see the difference between the content I write that gets subbed and copy-edited (on and in FUMSI) and the mess that gets uploaded to this blog, I know exactly what he means.

During the course of the question session after his talk, Giles made a very valuable point about having experience of print publishing. Back in the mists of time, he used to produce a paper newsletter. That means he was practised in writing to a word count. "This isn't like blogging", he said. "The page stops".

Giles also faced an additional dilemma. His book is about simplicity in digital design. He argues that a lot of the usability and design rules we stick to were developed about ten years ago at the time of the dotcom boom, and that we haven't moved on from there. The rise of smartphones, tablets and mobile devices is forcing us to make ever simpler interfaces, and we need the skills to do that. And so he felt pressured to live up to his argument, and produce a book that was also simple and easy to use, without being dumbed down.

He said he found that the way to capture the right tone and voice for him was to read the material he had written out loud, because he realised that when he was talking at a conference, the style that he gave his presentation in was 'his style'.

It was a great talk, and a real insight into what it is like to spend a year with nearly every waking moment thinking "I shouldn't be doing this, I should be doing something towards 'the book'"


Also talking on Tuesday night was my friend and ex-colleague Nic Price. I've also blogged my notes on his presentation about using analogy during the digital design process.

London IA: Notes from the talks
Martin Belam, foreword by Ann McMeekin Carrier
London IA is a network of designers, information architects and thinkers. Since 2009 the group has been holding regular meetings featuring talks about UX, or of interest to UXers. This ebook is a compilation of my notes from those evenings, featuring talks by Andy Budd, Giles Colborne, Cennydd Bowles, Claire Rowland, Jason Mesut, Ben Bashford, Chris Heathcote, Dan Lockton, Relly Annett-Baker, Michael Blastland, Margaret Hanley and Richard Rutter amongst others. Topics covered range from ubicomp to psychology, from learning how to sketchnote to how to write a UX book, and how to improve digital design through diverse routes like copy-writing, designing for doubt, learning from music technology or taking care of typography.
London IA: Notes from the talks is available for Kindle for £2.47.

1 Comment

My advice on writing is - get started! I spent way too long debating, pontificating and procrastinating. If you make a start - put down anything to get going ( it can always be changed at a later date) then one idea leads to another and another and before you know your in the flow.

Keep up to date on my new blog