Holiday Reading: Thing Explainer and Designing for Touch

For years now, my Christmas wish list—of which, I am seemingly required to present to family members at Thanksgiving— has been largely dominated by music CDs and books. This year was no different, and so I had a nice stack of each waiting for me under the Christmas tree.

This year, I was happy to see three new books from the A Book Apart series to ask for. In the end, this was the small library I received:

In the four days following Christmas, I’ve managed to read two of these (which is pretty impressive for my reading habits). Here, I want to share a few quick thoughts on those books.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

This is the second straight Christmas I received a book by Randall Monroe. Last year brought me the entertaining What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, which takes a series of fictional scenarios and attempts to explain what would happen if these situations were brought to real life. One of my favorites is the examination of a mole of moles.

While What If? examined fictional scenarios, Thing Explainer does the opposite…sort of. Thing Explainer takes a look at real objects or concepts and attempts to explain them simply. But it’s not quite that simple. To give this book more of a challenging premise, Monroe only allowed himself to use the 1,000 most commonly used English words. The result is an entertaining and educational look at some rather complicated things.

At first, it was hard for me to not read the text in my head using the voice of The Simpsons character Ralph Wiggum. And maybe this is a very appropriate characterization for this book. Ralph is known for being extremely simple-minded, but has been known to be profound in some of the things he says. Thing Explainer does this with but with much greater frequency in its wisdom.

After a while, I stopped noticing the simplicity of the words used and came away with a better understanding of the concepts than I did before. Who knew that inside a “Box That Cleans Food Holders” (aka a dishwasher) a simple check ball regulated water flow to either the top or bottom of the machine? I had no idea!

Other subjects include the “Bags of stuff inside you” (organs of the human torso), “Sky boat pusher” (jet engine), and the “Big tiny thing hitter” (Large Hadron Collider).

My only gripe about the book is that some of the more complex illustrations fail to be quite so linear. This varies with each subject. But losing a sense of order in some of the illustrations had me worried I might miss a detail or two before moving on. It would be a shame if that were to have happened, because I really enjoyed sucking the last big of knowledge I could from this book.

If you are a fan of xkcd or What If?, then you’re going to love Thing Explainer.

Designing for Touch

The second book I read was Josh Clark’s Designing for Touch. I had the pleasure of seeing Josh speak at Pittsburgh’s Web Design Day 2013. I came away from that talk with lots to think about, much as I did as I read this new book.

Designing for Touch begins by asking us to think about the placement of app and website controls and how they relate to a user’s posture and grasp of our Web-capable devices. We are no longer just designing for the scenario of a typical desktop computer user. Interfaces have become much more physical than that. Because of this, placement of controls on sites and apps deserve careful consideration. Commonly repeated tasks should be well within a comfortable reach of a user’s fingers while they are grasping a device. Conversely, if a button or control could potentially be destructive it make sense to place that control some place where it is less likely for a user to inadvertently activate it.

We also want to ensure our designs keep speed and efficiency, as it pertains to user input, at the forefront of our minds. Using proper form controls and taking advantage of gestures are tools now at our disposal on touch-enabled devices. Helping our users to discover gestures and other features not blatantly obvious in our designs is also covered. Josh even gives a level-headed look at carousels, examining both when they are the wrong choice (using them on the homepage to give everything prominence) and when they are acceptable (linear data that can be casually browsed). I personally geeked out, as I usually do, when the topic of forms was covered in detail. There’s some very practical advice in that section.

Up Next

Next on my reading list will be the books the duo team of the Responsive Web Design podcast authored, as well as the second edition of Adaptive Web Design. Hopefully, I’ll have that post written here in the next couple of days.