The making of Undercover UX Design

After 200 pages, 50,000 words and over 1000 hours, we’re done. Undercover User Experience Design is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US. It’ll hit the shelves from 17 September.

The writing process

Writing a book has been the most complex information architecture challenge of my life. The permutations in which you can sculpt, exclude, clarify and link information are staggering. No surprise then that we relied on our familiar design process, heading up the chain of goals, structure, content and surface. We appropriated the tools of our trade: personas, content analysis, user feedback and deep iteration—but it was trial and error that finally unearthed the process that worked for us.

  1. Research. The scale of the project demanded hundreds of hours of research: absorbing other books and articles, recombining miscellaneous thoughts into coherent patterns. The trick was knowing when to stop. The only way to write the perfect book is first to read every book. We repeatedly had to refocus on our audience and mark tight boundaries around curiosity. Several high-level ideas, although fascinating to us, weren’t relevant for the punchy style of the book.
  2. Outline. We then turned our scrappy notes into a hierarchical structure with the help of OmniOutliner. Somewhere between a vast card sort and a minimax search; an exhaustive attempt to craft as coherent a flow as possible.
  3. “Pigeon”. Turning this outline straight into high-quality prose proved too great a step, so first we threw words onto the page without regard for their quality.
  4. First draft. Only then did we turn this “pigeon” prose into tight writing. Even with this narrow remit, this step challenged our writing skills and patience. We reshuffled and excised enormous swathes of text, while juggling minutiae of definitions and style. Here too we finally cast off our Britishness and accepted dollar signs and American spellings, although we’re proud to say we drew the line at “gotten”.
  5. Diagrams. Undercover UX Design is printed using two inks—black and the blood-red Pantone 484U—meaning our illustrations could only use these colours. We had to recreate several deliverables from scratch to suit this setup, and spent many hours struggling with the technical requirements of the printers.
  6. Templating. The first draft then had to go into an awkward Word template for the publisher. Mind-numbing hours of copying, pasting, and style formatting, including smart quotes and other preferred typographical treatment.
  7. Author review. Our two wonderful editors Wendy and Jacqueline then reviewed our work at both the logical and technical level, and returned corrections in a haze of Track Changes. Most points were minor—grammatical or logical errors we kicked ourselves for not seeing—but even at this stage we found ourselves in deep spirals of “What are we really trying to say here?”. Our response was usually to leave the offending sections on the cutting floor.
  8. Proof. Finally, we returned the author review and the compositors laid the text and images out in a PDF which we then proof-read alongside the publishers. Proof-reading was impossibly tedious but immensely valuable, giving us the chance to fix clunky phrases and embarrassing typos.

The tools

I relied on the excellent Scrivener throughout, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It suited my non-linear writing style and its stability is truly impressive. As we worked concurrently on chapters, James and I shared our work with a hacky Dropbox sync. Only once did we overwrite each other’s work. There’s a strong case for a more formal version control system, but the very thought depressed us. Dropbox worked for us, and again I gladly recommend it.

Our other essential tools included SkypeIllustrator, a good thesaurus, and several Stars of the Lid albums. Trial and error again showed me which albums I could successfully listen to while writing. Anything with vocals or strong percussion was out, creating a portfolio.

The effort

Everyone knows writing a book is hard, and I won’t play the martyr. But I will say the extent to which my life ground to a halt surprised me. A writer isn’t just an author; he is a project manager, juggling chapters, drafts, reviews, illustrations and copyright releases, as well as personal time and client time. A book is a constant source of ideas, questions, and worry. The pressure made me regress into quasi-adolescent nail-biting and insomnia, and I’m enjoying the quiet return of my regular life.

I was initially advised not to partner with a co-author and not to write a book while in full-time employment. Excellent advice, which we ignored. For six months I’ve been fond of saying “Having a co-author doesn’t mean you each write half a book. You each write a book”. It would have been substantially easier for either James or myself to write this book alone, but without my co-author’s inspiration, efforts and motivation, Undercover UX Design would be a shadow of its final form.

The money

Our financial return from Undercover UX Design will depend of course on sales, but we shan’t end up rich. Tech & design books don’t sell in the quantities required to turn huge profits, and what initially seemed a decent advance was quickly demolished by currency conversion, tax, bank fees, and other costs. Both James and I had to register as self-employed, go through the US tax system with its obscene forms and mandatory trips to the US Embassy, hire an accountant, and so on. As a wage slave all my life, it’s been a major upheaval, but money was never a priority for this project. Royalties will be a happy accident rather than the main reward.

The illustrations

Early on, we decided we wanted to make a book that was slightly different to other tech books. We politely insisted on a 9×6-inch format (rather than New Riders’ customary 9×7) for aesthetic and usability reasons, and commissioned my friend Chris Summerlin to produce chapter illustrations for the book.

He did a spectacular job. The results lie somewhere between Kevin Cornell‘s A List Apart illustrations and The Perry Bible Fellowship, demanding a second or third look before the penny drops. They’re quirky, slightly tangential and wonderfully drawn. We hope our readers will love them as much as we do.

The result

Undercover User Experience Design ended up shorter than expected, mostly thanks to rigorous editing. There’s no wasted space, and the book’s concision is definitely a feature, not a bug. As befits the title, we’ve tried to create a down-to-earth, practical book that avoids the more ponderous tendencies of the field. We’re proud of the results and I’m hopeful UUXD will become an essential guide for people who can’t do UX by the numbers.

It’s too early to say whether writing a book has changed me, but it has certainly sparked further interest in writing. I’ve learned a great deal about making a coherent argument and writing well. My client work is suddenly full of content challenges I never previously saw. I’m no longer frightened to wield an axe on my favourite ideas, and I now see a good editor as the solution to most of the world’s communication problems. (More on that later.)

Now we wait, and hope others will respond well to our work. James and I would be eternally grateful if you could spread the word about Undercover User Experience Design. Please feel free point people at the website or suggest they pre-order on Amazon. (Please use these links so we get a small referral fee per sale: Amazon UK and Amazon US. Note that the RRP is still unconfirmed, so there’s a very good chance the book will end up cheaper. Pre-order now and you’ll get the lowest price available.)

Thanks to everyone who supported us, and we hope you enjoy the book!

Cennydd Bowles