13 August 2006

A quick guide to readings

I have spent a great deal of time reading in the last few years. Much of it wasted. It occurs to me that there are some patterns observed that may be worth sharing. One of my personal life principles is “I can always make more money, but not more time to live.” Time is a much more precious commodity. And wasting time is the greatest of all wastes. So for what is it worth… this may be worth the time to read, and save you some time down the road. Then again, it may be a further waste of your remaining hours…

Academic papers and publications.
Often to esoteric or theoretical to be applied (the PhD dissertation that was the foundation of Google being a recent exception), these are generally too specific or too theoretical to be of much direct use to practitioners. What they do well though, is provide food for thought, seed for expansion, and often a vision for what will be possible or commonplace down the road. Mined well, this can be a great place to spend you time.

Books by academics.
Some of the more productive professors in a field are those actively engaged in the practice. My personal opinion is that too many professors are well removed from the real world. At the same time, too many practitioners are so “heads down” they are unaware of current research. If you are lucky enough to live near IIT, CMU and Stanford, you likely know one of these cross breads (most often a lecturer, guest or associate professor) such as Dan Saffer who have taught, researched, worked and also write. My hat is off to these obsessively driven industry leaders. This is often very valuable stuff.

Books about our profession but that do not target us.
This may seem curios, but many books about business, design, interaction and marketing are not targeting that market. Dan Pink and Seth Godin are good examples of such authors. There is very little for the savvy marketing professional to learn from a Seth Godin. He is speaking to the CEO or manager that has never taken a marketing class. Dan Pink, by his own admission is not an expert in design… but he does recognize its value. Dan is a great advocate of our profession and deserves much credit for helping to bring design thinking to the attention of the press and business.

Barely worth the coffee table…
I have several books that are titled very topical and mean well, but fall well short of being helpful. They are often full of images, few words and nary a point. Most of my examples have come from professionals at major firms and leverage that firm’s reputation. I won’t name names, but you know who you are.

“In my experience” books.
I have also wasted time reading books by practitioners that are neither writers, visionaries or provide much in the way of vision. I can only guess that the intended audience is the lost entrepreneur or manager browsing the business or web section at Borders. Usually these are cleverly and seductively titled. Read the first chapter or the introduction while still in the store, only then make your decision.

Case studies… war stories and the picture of success.
Often sold as recipe books or chronicles of greatness, these books are fun to read, can provide insight, but are also very dangerous. As much as I respect and admire Jim Collins, and enjoy reading his books, way to many interpret these chapters as solutions for their particular problem. The story told is one perspective, after the fact. Evidence is missing and it is generally not the precise same situation that you, as the reader are facing. Be ware of no evidentiary solutions.

Techie manuals
Often great for getting up to speed late, but fast… the useful shelf life of these books is often very short. Maybe that is why they are so expensive. I don’t need to be on the bleeding edge, so I usually buy them after the fact, on the sale table at a fraction of the retail price. Some of these, however can be great! A recent example is Dan Cederholm’s “Bulletproof Web Design.”

The outside visionaries
Very often, the problems we as designers, marketers and innovators are facing are not specific to us. There are other sources of information that can provide great insight. Malcolm Gladwell comes to mind. I read nearly everything he writes. Well researched, complex and very relevant material, explained in such a manor that it is easy to understand. I could only dream of obtaining this skill as I am not nearly as obsessive as Mr. Gladwell about writing. Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis are another example of a writing team that present topics well beyond a specific practice, but that have huge implication to what we do.

Understanding the nature of a particular bog is important. Mine for instance, started out as a venting mechanism while trying to figure out the relationship between my work and my graduate research. Later, it became a perfect positioning tool for the job hunt. Now, it is simply a nice form of expression that I enjoy assembling. If people read it great, if they don’t it is still fulfilling to me. Many blogs however are full of poorly researched advice (this one at times, I suppose as well) with a mission transparent to the reader. Some bloggers band together to optimize tagging and search optimization. This helps to raise their Digg ranking and eventually sell “the book.” Beware the huckster.

In summary
Three rules that may help in evaluating readings. First, be aware of what you know and where you are headed. Relevancy is critical. Second, try and understand the credibility and purpose of the author and the book. Third, know that there are very few new ideas… but many are repackaged, over and over. And fourth (OK, I lied) understand the Pareto Principle (also called the 80/20 rule or even as the “long tail”) as it applies to books. Most of the real content is presented in the first 2-4 chapters. The rest is reiteration and evidence. Often this is worth the effort, but there is no shame in abandoning a book prior to its finish and beyond its usefulness. Few authors (and no sane publisher) will allow the critical information be held until the final few chapters. Though summary chapters can be well worth the time.