Communicating Design: A book every user experience professional needs

Christian Crumlish  

December 27, 2006

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comdesign.jpgAt long last, just in time for the holidays, I received a review copy of Dan M. Brown’s Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning, and the book has more than lived up to my high expectations of it. I tore open the envelope and nearly devoured the book in one sitting. If you design or develop websites, if you do information architecture, interaction design, or content strategy, if you care about making online and digital experiences more engaging and easier to use, then this book is for you.

This is not a theoretical book. It is incredibly hands-on, walking the you through some of the most useful user-experience design “deliverables” you’ll need to create for nearly every project you work on. Brown discusses three broad categories of deliverables: user needs documents, strategy documents, and design documents. In this scheme user needs docs include personas, usability test plans, and usability reports; strategy docs include competitive analyses, concept models, and content inventories; and design documents include sitemaps, flow charts, wireframes, and screen designs.

For each deliverable, Brown introduces them with a layer metaphor, first talking about the most impotant elements in each doc, then looking at how to enhance the document, and finally addressing how to fine-tune each document for the project at hand. This layered approach helps the reader see what is essential about each type of document and how to fit the work to the scope of the project.

Brown also recognizes that these deliverables do not operate in a vacuum but rather need to complement and support each other and for each one he explains how they can best work together.

The book includes many real-world examples gathered from Brown’s own work as well as solicited from his vast and deep network of IA’s and other UX professionals. (I submitted a few sitemaps and content inventories to Brown when he was finishing up the book but none made the final cut.)

I probably learned the most from his discussion of concept models, because I have the least amount of experience preparing these types of documents, and I’ve always found them to be somewhat intimidating. He explains how to build them up from granular bits and also helps clarify a number of different approaches to connecting the nodes in such documents. He also includes as an illustration a version of Bryce Glass’s after-the-fact Flickr user model, an instant classic of the form.

When talking about wireframes and sitemaps Brown tackles some of the thorniest issues, such as whether and how much to show layout and design elements in wireframes and how best to communicate site flows in an age of increasingly dynamic, application-like websites often built on user-contributed content.

Brown also conveys the complexity and challenges inherent in developing a good content inventory better than I’ve ever seen it discussed before anywhere. He doesn’t gloss over the aspect of drudgery involved in this type of work, and he makes it clear that there is no single cookie-cutter template that is appropriate for every site (nor any useful tool out there to help automate the process), but he equips the reader with the right questions to ask and the right tradeoffs to consider in assembling what is in some ways the most crucial document an IA or content strategist will deliver for any large complex site.

Just to prove I’m not gushing just because I like Brown personally and admire his tremendous contributions to the field, I will say that the weakest chapter is the last one, in which he addresses screen designs (what our visual design colleagues typically call “comps”). It may be that because comps are not typically created and delivered by information architects that they perhaps don’t belong in this book. Although the title of the book speaks only of design in general, there are entire realms of visual design that are out of scope here and it may have been better to leave comps out as well. The comp examples are reasonable and inoffensive but uninspiring. The best part of this chapter covers context surrounding these deliverables.

In fact, it is another strength of the book that for each deliverable, Brown describes how best to present the documents: How to run a meeting, how to manage expectations, and – as the book’s title implies – how to communicate the value and meaning of the design documents to your clients. This advice alone justifies the inclusion of this book in any user experience professional’s library. I expect I will continue to refer to this book regularly as long as I’m involved in the planning and design of websites and web-enabled applications.