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Introduction

Although most of you aren't really going back to school, there is something about the Back-to-School time of September that makes me feel it's time to learn something new. One of my favorite things to do, if and when I get any spare time, is read. And there are some really great books out there these days. I thought I'd review a few of the ones I've been reading lately.

I've got three different types for you to choose from:

  • Light Reading – lots of content but mainly with pictures, so it also works to just skim through and get ideas
  • Makes You Think – no pictures here, but the reading is not too tough and the writing style flows enough to make it a pretty easy read
  • For Brainiacs Only – dense reading full of research findings. Tough reading, but wow, do you know a lot when you are done!

Light Reading

My pick in the Light Reading category is Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (Peachpit Press, 2008).

If you haven't "read" this book you should definitely get your hands on a copy. It's full of pictures and lots of examples. It's not about usability or user interface design per se, but it is all about how to display information and present your ideas visually.

We know that showing PowerPoint slides with tons of bullet points is not a good idea, but exactly what ARE we supposed to do instead. This book shows you what the alternatives are and gives lots of visual examples.

Living up to the Zen part of the name, there are great nuggets sprinkled all throughout the book. For example, in a section called "What Makes Messages Stick," Garr Reynolds talks about Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories. I also liked his ideas about storyboarding a presentation.

Even someone who is not naturally visually inclined like me can take what he has in this book and put it to work. I started revamping my presentations when I was only 1/3 of the way through the book. If you don't get at least 15 great, practical, and very important ideas out of this book then I think you are asleep.

Makes You Think

My pick in the Makes You Think category is a book with a misleading title.

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage books 2006) sounds like a self help book, but it's not. It's a book about human memory of the past and human imagining of the future, and about how our mental processes around the past and the future affect what we do in the present.

This book is full of very well-chosen and well-explained research that Dr. Gilbert writes about in a supremely engaging way. He covers literally hundreds of studies, but he makes it so interesting you don't realize you are getting a review of the research.

For example:

  • People will estimate fairly accurately whether and how much other people will donate to charity, but will overestimate how much they themselves will give.
  • Providing a very expensive choice when people are making a purchase decision will make the next less expensive choice seem like a bargain.
  • People routinely overestimate how happy and how sad they will be if certain life events happen to them.

And... Well, you should just get the book and read it.

For Braniacs Only

One of the areas of psychology I've been learning and reading about lately is the Unconscious. In fact, I'm so fascinated by this field, I've decided it's the most important and fruitful area for psychologists interested in interface design, user experience, and usability. It turns out that most of our decisions are made unconsciously. The last 5 years has seen an explosion of research into the unconscious, and one of my favorite books right now is a book that dives into this research.

The New Unconscious, edited by Hassin, Uleman, and Bargh (Oxford University Press, 2005) is a great book, but it's not for the faint of brain. It contains nineteen chapters by different authors, each describing in research-journal format one, or in most cases many, of the research studies they have conducted around the topic of unconscious mental processing.

If you think the word unconscious doesn't go well with the phrase mental processing, then you should consider reading this book.

Some of my favorite parts include:

  • The description of the subliminal techniques that were used in a campaign ad in the US in the year 2000 where the face of Al Gore appeared on the screen while simultaneously the word RATS was presented, covering the whole screen, for one thirtieth of a second.
  • The description of how the amygdala in the human mid-brain is involved in our decision making.

If you like reading research studies and you are interested in the frontiers of human behavior, then I heartily recommend this book.

These are just a few of the books I've been reading. I wonder if there's a pop quiz this week?


References

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (Peachpit Press, 2008).

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert (Vintage books 2006)

The New Unconscious, edited by Hassin, Uleman, and Bargh (Oxford University Press, 2005)

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Reader comments

Robert Wolverton
Intelimedix

I just wanted to say thank you for the recommended reading list. I thoroughly enjoyed Presentation Zen and put the lessons learned to immediate use - quite successfully I might add. One member of my team commented: "By far the best PPT I have seen come out of IMX. It says a ton without using a bunch of words. Cool."

Mike Wheaton

I read Stumbling on Happiness recently and found it very interesting to say the least. Thanks for the recommendations; I'll most likely look into Presentation Zen and maybe The New Unconscious if I'm feeling brave.

Gary Pendergrass
L-3 Communications

For those interested, the elements of SUCCES referenced in the Zen book are fleshed out in the very readable Made to Stick, a bestseller from 2007 by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.

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