In 1982, I published my first book through Prentice-Hall on computer usability, Human Performance Engineering: A Guide for System Designers. At that time, there were no other books that directly addressed the steps necessary to optimize computer system usability. In fact, Bell Laboratories (AT&T’s Bell Labs), where I was working at the time, sponsored the research and development of the book. It took me one year to write the book, and another year to defend it (and re-write different sections) as it was reviewed by over 100 research psychologists, computer programmers (UNIX, C and C++) and usability experts within Bell Laboratories.
The second edition of Human Performance Engineering was published in 1989, and the third and final edition in 1996. The book was used at major universities throughout the world for well over 20 years, and still sells a few copies on Amazon even now — over 30 years later.
Ben Shneiderman eventually published his excellent book, Designing the User Interface, in 1987. During the previous 20-year period (1962-1982), there had been some book chapters written, and a few books that focused primarily on improving the input-output hardware. These are listed below:
- Gagne (1962) – Psychological Principles in System Development (Chapter: Men and Computers)
- DeGreene (1970) – Systems Psychology (Chapter: Man-Computer Interrelationships)
- VanCott and Kinkade (1972) – Human Engineering Guide to Equipment Design (Chapter: Data Entry Devices and Procedures)
- Martin (1973) – Design of Man-Computer Dialogs
- Engel and Granda (1975) – Guidelines for Man/Display Interfaces
- Ramsey and Atwood (1979) – Human Factors in Computer Systems: A Review of the Literature
- Schneiderman (1980) – Software Psychology
- Cakir, Hart and Stewart (1980) – Visual Display Terminals
Times have really changed. A recent search of the Amazon database using the term ‘usability’ returned a list of 5,742 books; by using ‘computer system usability’, there were 2,779 results. Even using the terms ‘web usability’, Amazon returned a list of 3,909 books. It is clear that the amount of information concerning the usability of computer systems has increased substantially.
I narrowed the Amazon search, and tried to find out how many books were currently available that purported to cover the general topic of computer usability – primarily ‘web usability’. I eliminated all of the books that had not been published or updated in the past ten years. Finally, I dropped those few books that covered only the usability of a specific topic, such as the usability of games, and the usability of speech inputs (plus other non-traditional interfaces). There were 58 books in my final list.
Using ‘Amazon’s Best Sellers’ ranks, I identified the usability books that were currently being read by the most people. Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think (3rd Edition, revised in 2014) was at the top of the list. Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, which was finally revised in late 2013, also has been very popular. You can access my list of usability Best Sellers to see the current ‘Top 50’.
Even though there are many more books available today than in the past, it is not clear that those that are available are being read by most developers. Neither Amazon nor the book publishers release the actual number of books sold weekly, monthly or annually. Even so, a very rough estimate can be made based on Amazon’s ‘Best Seller’ rankings for each book. My best guess is that Krug’s ‘best selling’ book probably sells an average of about 50 copies per week, whereas the book that is 20th on the list probably sells fewer than 5 copies per week. Those further down the list most likely sell far fewer than that.