Smarty Pants Book Club: Classics

October 20, 2014

It was a busy summer for the Smarty Pants Book Club! With vacations and project work filling the calendar, we didn’t get around to discussing our August book choices until late September. Our theme this time around was Classics. Everyone a chose seminal piece in a field or genre of interest, and in some cases revisited a title that made an impact the first time around.

I read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. I saw Norman speak at a conference last fall and found him thoughtful, articulate and funny so I was excited to read his book. Originally published in 1988, this book methodically describes how to execute user-centered designs. My colleagues who studied design in college all remembered being assigned to read this book as students. We were all struck by how something that was a game changer in the field 25 years ago remains relevant today. While the text was a bit drier than I was expecting, given what a lively presenter Norman was, I was glad to gain some insight into the history of Design practice.

Sherry read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Published in 2009, this was the club’s most recent selection. In the field of sports and adventure writing it was an instant classic. McDougall tells stories of ultramarathon runners and elite athletes, arguing that human bodies are designed to run long distances. Several book club members are recreational runners and we discussed the difficulty of trying to make changes in stride and form. We thought about ways that products designed for runners over the years have both helped and hindered our natural abilities. Sherry recommended the book as both an inspiration to improve her running and as a lens for considering the design of the human body. 

Technology may change in unimaginable ways in 30 years, but people don’t.

Chad read The Mythical Man Month by Frederick Brooks Jr. In Chad’s estimation this book, first published in 1975, stands up to the test of time quite well and remains a classic on the human aspects of software development. Our discussion focused on how lessons about managing a software project apply to other types of project management. Throwing additional staff on a project that is running late is not likely to get the project back on schedule. New products and systems evolve constantly during development and users learn about their own wants and needs as they interact with something new in the context of their own lives. With this in mind, we often talk with clients about Now, Soon and Later roadmaps. The enduring value in this book is its focus on people. Technology may change in unimaginable ways in 30 years, but people don’t.

Finally, Seng read Differentiate or Die: Survival in Our Era of Killer Competition by Jack Trout. The main argument of this book is that marketing and communication strategies that focus on style rather than substance are inherently flawed. A creative message is no substitute for a quality product or service. We had a great conversation about how rules of good marketing and rules of innovative product development are not necessarily the same. While creativity for creativity’s sake may not be the best way to present an advertisement, openness to wild ideas is very important in the early phases of product and service design.

Thanks for a great summer, Smarty Pants Book Clubbers! This fall we are joining thousands of others in the Madison community and reading I Am Malala, this year’s selection for UW-Madison’s common reading program, Go Big Read

— Written by Leah Ujda