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Book Review: Designing the User Interface (5th Edition)

Book | Authors | Review

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – July 8, 2009

This review takes a personal look at the fifth edition of the HCI textbook Designing the User Interface.



Cover of Designing the User Interface, 5th edition     

Ben Shneiderman, Cathérine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen & Steven Jacobs
Designing the User Interface (5th Edition)
Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2009
ISBN-10: 0321537351, ISBN-13: 978-0321537355 (Hardcover)

Usability: UI design

Book Website



Photo of Ben Shneiderman Ben Shneiderman is a Professor in the Department of Computer Science, Founding Director (1983–2000) of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory and a member of the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, all at the University of Maryland at College Park.


Photo of Catherine PlaisantCathérine Plaisant is Associate Director of Research of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland. She earned a Doctorat d’Ingénieur degree in France in 1982 and has been conducting research in the field of human-computer interaction since then.

Photo of Maxine Cohen Maxine Cohen is a Professor in the Graduate School of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she teaches graduate courses in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI).

  Photo of Steven JacobsSteven Jacobs recently retired from the aerospace industry and the University of Southern California and is now a lecturer at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona.



If someone asked me to name a comprehensive book about user interface design, which book would come to mind first? You guessed it: Designing the User Interface by Ben Shneiderman and Cathérine Plaisant. This textbook can rightfully be characterized as a bold attempt to tell readers "all you wanted to know about user interface design," or at least as much as is possible in nearly 600 pages. First published in 1986, the book is indeed an all-time "classic," as Ben Shneiderman, the original author of the book, puts it himself. Cathérine Plaisant, Shneiderman's long-time research companion, joined Shneiderman as co-author of the fourth edition of the book, published in 2005. And for the fifth and current edition published in 2009, they were joined by two more contributors: Maxine Cohen and Steven Jacobs contribute their extensive experience gained from using the book in their university teaching. So, having recommended the book, I will now proceed with the review...

Three editions of the book are lying in front of me as I write this review (I hope to acquire the first and second editions one day; see figure 1 and the note below). They demonstrate that this book is not only a standard in itself but also an interesting resource for investigations into the history and changing orientation of the user interface design field and community. However, such an investigation would require access to all five editions, because the changes between editions are subtle and each edition has been updated to accommodate the current UI design topics and trends (you can find a comparison of the tables of contents of the last three editions of the textbook in an addendum to the review). Please note that there is a review of the fourth edition of Designing the User Interface by Silke Ecker (2006) on this site.

The third, fourth, and fifth edition of Designing the User Interface

Figure 1: The third, fourth, and fifth edition of Designing the User Interface

Audience and Reading Suggestion

Conceived as a textbook, the book is primarily aimed at universities, where it is used as a standard work in classes on user interface design. The addition of the two new contributors, Maxine Cohen and Steven Jacobs, both reflects and emphasizes this academic orientation. Nonetheless, the authors also target professional designers and researchers in the HCI field. They state: "This book is meant to inspire students, guide designers, and provoke researchers" – not only to enable and achieve better designs but also to search for solutions that achieve the goal of universal usability, one of the recurring themes in the book. The term "universal usability" was introduced by Ben Shneiderman in 2000 and has been a passion of his ever since (see also our highlight topic Universal Usability). Thus, you might rightfully say that the authors target everyone looking for a complete overview of the UI design field – they just forgot to mention interested lay people... But be warned: It is not easy to take in nearly 600 pages, and practitioners will probably use the book differently to students. The authors anticipate and acknowledge this difference by writing: "We hope that practitioners and researchers who read this book will want to keep it on their shelves to consult when they are working on new topics or searching pointers to the literature."

The authors provide a chapter Ways to Use this Book, in which they suggest reading paths for readers who want to focus on specific topics, such as computer science, business and information systems, or technical writing and graphic design. Therefore, there is no need for further reading suggestions from me, and I will only give away my personal tip on how to digest the book more easily: Before reading a chapter or even its introduction, I jump ahead to the Practitioner's Summary at the end of the chapter and read it first. This helps me establish a frame of reference (or a context) that supports my understanding of the chapter itself. It also helps me skim over certain sections within a chapter.

Overview of the Book and Chapter Structure

Designing the User Interface is divided into four parts. The first two parts of the book introduce readers to the usability of interactive systems in general, the role of guidelines, general principles and theories. They show how usability and its methods accompany the design process and allow designs to be evaluated. Part 3 Interaction Styles focuses on interaction design and can be considered as the core of the book. Here, interaction styles, such as direct manipulation, menu selection, form fill-in, and command and natural languages are explained in depth. This part also includes a more technical chapter covering interaction devices and a newly expanded chapter about collaboration, which now also includes social media participation and can be regarded as a structured introduction to the "Social Web." Part 4 Design Issues encompasses a number of issues, such as quality of service (which itself encompasses a number of topics) and the relationship between function and fashion, that is, the question of how UI design trends can be accommodated without sacrificing functionality and usability. Further chapters in this part of the book are geared toward information-related topics: user documentation and online help, information search, and information visualization.

The book closes with an afterword. First, the authors discuss future interfaces, asking: "What is the next big thing?" Then, like in previous editions, they express their concern about potential dangers from information technologies and list the most prominent "ten plagues of the information age" in their view. As Silke Ecker states in her review of the fourth edition, "the more reflective passages in the introduction and afterword deserve the reader's attention, especially Ten Plagues of the Information Age. Here the authors point to underlying issues, that is, social alienation, impotence of the individual, unemployment and displacement, invasion of privacy, and the vulnerability of organizations – well worth second thoughts." This is still valid for the fifth edition, and like in previous editions, the authors also offer strategies for preventing the plagues or, at least, reducing their effects.

In the last afterword chapter, the authors discuss on-going controversies in the HCI field, such as machine automation versus user control and data gathering versus privacy. A number of them are connected to the delicate balance between empowered users and automatic systems that proceed without users involvement or users' even knowing what is going on. In particular, Ben Shneiderman has actively stated his position, namely supporting empowered, responsible, and active users, at various events.

In addition to a subject index, the book offers a name index, which makes finding references easier. It does not have a glossary of UI design and HCI terms, which would be a useful addition to future editions of the textbook. You can find a chapter overview and a comparison of the chapters of the last three editions of the textbook in our addendum.

Let us also look briefly at the chapter structure. Each chapter opens with a full-page Wordle display that replaces the graphics in edition four showing various users. According to Shneiderman (personal communication), "these displays really show that each chapter is about users but each has a distinct set of terms, wonderfully rendered by Jonathan Feinberg's clever program Wordle." A few famous quotes set the stage for each chapter and, as a useful "advance organizer," a chapter outline is provided. Each chapter closes with a Practitioners' Summary directed at UI design professionals, a Researchers' Agenda outlining possible areas for further research, Internet resources, and, of course, extensive references, which have been updated to include current research. However, with all the many references it may be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Therefore, a nice addition would have been a list of a few further useful books for digging deeper into the topic. However, such a list might have been a criticized for offering a biased selection. Therefore, I provide such a selection for the visitors of our Website. It is based on our book list and can be found in our addendum.

Like previous editions of the book, the fifth edition also has a companion Website with useful information for readers and instructors. However, not all resources on the site are public. The purchase of the book includes a prepaid subscription period of six months from registration. After that period has ended, a further subscription can be purchased.

What is New in this Edition?

The chapter New in the Fifth Edition in the introduction describes how the textbook has been revised since the previous edition. According to the authors, "comments from instructors who used the previous editions of the textbook were influential in the revisions." The authors regard as the main change the "dramatic expansion of the coverage of social media participation and user-generated content, especially from mobile devices." On the other hand, they removed the chapter about software tools, because they change too rapidly and would need more coverage than can be given in a single chapter. But these are, of course, only the major changes. Most changes and updates are more subtle, and the authors state that they updated every chapter with new content, deleted less relevant content, and added new figures, examples, and references. Interested readers can find more details in the above-mentioned chapter. In a personal communication, Ben Shneiderman emphasized that "the opening [of the book] more ambitiously positions user interfaces as the critical determinant of consumer product and professional tool success." Moreover, "the authors have also been getting bolder in claiming HCI's role for successes such as cell phones, iPhones, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, etc." This is in line with statements of other HCI authorities who claim that user interface design, or the HCI field as such, has reached a state of "maturity" where design and usage characteristics of products are more important and discriminative for users (buyers) than technical considerations.

A Personal Encounter with Designing the User Interface

Being a practitioner for many years and always short on time, I have to admit that with the exception of the fifth edition I had never read the textbook Designing the User Interface in its entirety. Instead, I used it in the way that the authors anticipated and suggested: for digging into new areas of interest. I was involved in a project about perceived performance in 2008, and together with Jeff Johnson's book GUI Bloopers (both editions), Designing the User Interface, and here particularly the chapter Quality of Service, was instrumental in my acquiring the necessary knowledge and understanding of a new domain. For example, the typically cited limits for tolerable response times are 0.1 seconds, 1 second, and 10 seconds (see, for example, Johnson, 2007), depending on the type of task. This chapter led our project team to introduce a category of "common tasks" (3-5 seconds), which also marks the point in time when users start to think about system speed and their attention begins to wander. Also inspired by the chapter, we introduced another limit (15 seconds), past which users get annoyed. By the way, the changes in this chapter between the fourth and fifth editions are minor; however, the list of references has grown considerably.

Other chapters that attracted my special attention were:

  • Collaboration and Social Media Use: Provides a good and structured introduction to Web 2.0 (or the "social Web")
  • Balancing Function and Fashion: This is more or less the "design" section of the book, including the design of (error) messages, field layout on screens (templates), Web page, color, and role-centered design, as well as window coordination/management
  • Information Search: Covers a topic of growing relevance, namely text and media search, which has been popularized through Internet search engines like Google, Yahoo, and AltaVista
  • Information Visualization: This aspect of UI design has interested me ever since – it is one of the primary authors' "home matches"

And, of course, I read the afterword with interest, particularly, because I had the luck and pleasure to be able to attend some of the controversial discussions in which Ben Shneiderman took part at various CHI conference panels.

A few Further Remarks...

Finally, I would like to add a few remarks about a few issues or items that I came across when reading the book.

Tag clouds are very popular on Websites today. In their book, the authors use Jonathan Feinberg's program Wordle to produce word clouds from the chapters. However, I must confess that I am not as enthusiastic about the Wordle graphics as Shneiderman is. Admittedly, the graphics look nice, and while it is comforting to see that the word "users" plays a prominent role in each chapter graphic (most often, it is the largest word), this also makes it harder to distinguish between the chapters' content. In addition, the most prominent words often simply repeat what is already in the chapter's title, making the title more representative of the chapter for me than the graphic. However, the exception proves the rule: Whereas the term "quality of service" is a little vague for me, the Wordle graphic prominently displays the words "response" and "time" and some other words still large enough to catch my eye (for example, performance, frustration, service, task). Nevertheless, I would like to present two Wordle word clouds of the final version and one of the draft version of my review:

Wordle graphic of the final version of the review
Wordle graphic of the final version of the review  
Wordle graphic of the draft version of the review

Figure 2: Wordle word clouds of the final and the draft version of the review (draft version bottom right)

Finally, a comment about the writing style: The book is well written and easy to comprehend, but from time to time its academic background becomes evident. Some chapters, particularly the introductory chapters, are written in a very high-level style, boast of references, and might be a little boring for practitioners. In other chapters, however, the authors are more down to earth: They give practical advice and provide guidelines, lots of illustrations, and useful examples. Practitioners will probably prefer these sections of the book.

I also observed that in the third edition, the second chapter of the introduction followed a top-down approach, whereas from edition four, the authors reversed the order: Theories, Principles, and Guidelines turned into Guidelines, Principles, and Theories. In my opinion, this change was a good one.


I do not think that this well-established textbook needs yet another recommendation but it definitely deserves one. Therefore, I gladly recommend Designing the User Interface, 5th edition, to all members of the user interface design community: to students as a helpful companion for their courses on user interface design, and to practitioners and researchers as a valuable reference and resource for acquiring an understanding of new domains or refreshing knowledge in neglected areas. With its large number of references it is a helpful starting point for digging deeper into the literature for all three reader groups. Interested lay people will probably be most interested in the first chapter and particularly in the afterword, which addresses the societal and individual impacts of user interface design.



  • Ben Shneiderman & Cathérine Plaisant (2004). Designing the User Interface (4th Edition). Pearson Addison-Wesley. (Review by Silke Ecker)
  • Jeff Johnson (2007). GUI Bloopers 2.0: Common User Interface Design Don'ts and Do's. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. (Review)
  • Jeff Johnson (2000). GUI Bloopers: Don'ts and Do's for Software Developers and Web Designers. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers. (Review)
  • Highlight topic Human Performance at the Computer
  • Ben Shneiderman (2002). Leonardo's Laptop. The MIT Press. (Review)
  • Highlight topic Universal Usability
  • Wordle Website (Jonathan Feinberg):



August 16, 2012: In the meantime, I was able to aquire the second edition. Read my UI Design Blink Rounding Off My Designing the User Interface Collection for the story.


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