Rosenfeld Media: UX Publishing Startup: An Interview with Lou Rosenfeld and Liz Danzico

By Joshua Kaufman

Published: May 7, 2008

“Established publishers aren’t quite ready to jump into the UX waters with both feet.”

After working on five books as an editor or co-author, Lou Rosenfeld became disenchanted with the traditional book publishing model. So, in late 2005, he founded Rosenfeld Media, a new publishing house that develops short, practical, useful books on user experience design. Rosenfeld Media published their first book, Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior, in early 2008. I recently had the opportunity to interview Lou—along with Liz Danzico, Senior Development Editor at Rosenfeld Media—about starting a new publishing house and “eating their own dog food.”

Joshua Kaufman (JK): When you started Rosenfeld Media, you recognized that book publishing has been a relatively unchanging and unhealthy industry over the last few decades. What are the big issues within the industry, and how will you be confronting them as a publisher?

(Lou Rosenfeld (LR): Established book publishers are locked into a really difficult legacy business model, relying heavily on sales staff and middlemen to reach customers through retail channels. For publishers, selling retail means giving away 55–70% of the book’s list price to make a consignment sale. Those are some ugly numbers to live with, so Rosenfeld Media has opted to sell through two primary channels: direct from our site and via Amazon—which is inescapable. In any case, I just don’t expect our books, which are so focused on the user experience community, to be purchased on impulse at your local Barnes & Noble. I do expect it to be attractive to purchase directly from Rosenfeld Media. For the same price as you’ll pay at Amazon, you’ll also receive the digital edition, optimized for on-screen use. ( More on this below.)

Also, established publishers aren’t quite ready to jump into the UX waters with both feet. It’s still a relatively small and misunderstood market, so you can’t blame them. I’m convinced that the UX community will grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years, so I’m willing to take a chance that more risk-averse publishers are avoiding. I’m looking forward to serving that community with short and practical books that will collectively constitute a Swiss Army Knife for the field.

JK: The About page for Rosenfeld Media says one of the core ideas behind the company is “eating our own dog food.” How will you be doing this?

LR: By using UX methods to inform the design of our own products and infuse our services. That means doing little things the right way—like quickly and personally answering every customer query—and it means big things—like investing in the design and testing of both our print and digital books.

JK: One research technique you used to learn more about your audience was show-and-tell sessions. Tell me more about how those were run and what you found.

“UX people are passionate about their books.”

LR: I facilitated four show-and-tell sessions with groups of five to fifteen participants, generally as lunch-time brown bags. Three groups consisted of UX practitioners; the fourth group was made up of design students. Collectively they represented a healthy variety of design-related disciplines, including interaction designers, visual designers, usability engineers, ethnographers, developers, and information architects.

I asked each participant to show a few user experience books that they loved and a few that they didn’t and to tell us about the features that made the difference. Not surprisingly, UX people are passionate about their books, and some stimulating discussions broke out. (I tried my best to stay out of the way.) I gleaned a lot of good ideas about book features—for example, optimal book size, margin width, relative importance of tables of contents versus indices—as well as usage context—such as between stops of the subway or during a medium-length plane trip. I also learned what just about everyone’s favorite book was, hands down: Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think!

JK: What aspects of Don’t Make Me Think! made it such a stand out book?

LR: Aside from the fantastic writing, the humor, and the illustrations that always work perfectly? Well, first and foremost, it’s short. And that’s especially important when a book often serves as a gift for a manager. Its physical dimensions (7"x9") make it stuffable. (We’re taking the dimensions down a little more with our titles to 6"x9".) Don’t Make Me Think!’s sections and chapters are very short and digestible, and his tone is conversational. We’re trying to emulate those qualities, too—although we have to balance them with the individual style and tone that each author brings.

JK: In retrospect, did you find the show-and-tell sessions valuable?

LR: The show-and-tell approach worked quite well, given my limited time and budget and the fact that I had no design of my own for users to evaluate. It wasn’t as useful and rigorous as, say, a field study would have been, but certainly better than a focus group, which would have provided almost no value whatsoever. It provided me with a huge list of features to incorporate into the Rosenfeld Media series design, and it helped me identify a good book as a model for that design. In fact, I hired Allison Cecil, the interior designer of Don’t Make Me Think!, to develop our series’s interiors.

But perhaps the most important benefit was that it forced me to think more critically about something that I—and most of us—take for granted: the design of books. With some exceptions—like an FAQ for each book—the resulting design is still very much within the boundaries of conventional book design, but I’d have always regretted not having explored opportunities to push the envelope a bit.

If you’re interested in reading more about the sessions, I’ve shared most of my notes:

JK: Once Mental Models was complete, you tested a print prototype version of the book. What did you learn from this?

“We learned a lot about how people leaf through a book through observation.”

Liz Danzico (LD): Above all, I learned that usability testing can be done on books in print. When Lou first suggested testing, I was hesitant. Can we really test a medium that’s been in use for centuries? Because we weren’t looking to revolutionize book design—only to publish the book—I hesitated.

But as it turns out, you can improve a book’s usability! We learned a lot about how people leaf through a book through observation. Watching users flip through the print prototype—essentially a version of the book we ordered from LuLu—revealed good information about where the chapter information and chapter subsections should be displayed.

Through task analysis, we learned that participants relied on the front matter—particularly the Table of Contents—much more than we’d anticipated. When trying to judge a book, participants did a first flip, thumbing through pages in the middle of the book to get a feel for its content, then went directly to the front to find context and an introduction to the book’s content.

What was surprising to me: Participants did not rely on the back cover. The blurbs or the quotations that typically appear on the back of the book from other authors were not seen as trustworthy. People—even though they said they trusted Rosenfeld Media as a publisher—did not tend to trust the quotations. They saw them as marketing.

JK: Later, you tested a digital version of the book—a PDF version optimized for on-screen reading. Why test a separate digital version, and what did you learn about how readers use on-screen PDFs?

LD: The PDF version was where we had the most questions, and developing a test plan for an on-screen version was much more similar to developing a test plan for a Web site.

“Participants, when retrieving information in the digital version, become search dominant.”

Participants, when retrieving information in the digital version, become search dominant. In the print edition, participants had to rely on the Table of Contents and Index to retrieve information. Even though the digital version has those elements—and they’re linked, so participants could interact with them—they chose to use search instead.

One of the primary questions we had was about size: Was the larger point size appropriate, and what were its side effects? The goal of a larger point size was to relinquish the need to scroll or resize the document. But in doing so, we increased the overall page count to over 500 pages! That is okay, since we suspected that participants wouldn’t be printing out an entire book, but the potential shock value of this many pages concerned me.

First, we found that participants didn’t even notice overall page count, and when it was pointed out, they didn’t blink. Size, as defined by page count, is not a meaningful or even appropriate metric by which participants measure digital books.

Second, we found that, while the type size seemed appropriate and participants seemed to be able to comfortably read the content, all participants resized the document anyway. We suspect that this may be partially due to the testing taking place on a foreign computer, but it may be a habit prevalent in digital documents. Either way, the size we ended up with works for the participants we studied.

JK: With the introduction of the Amazon Kindle, there may be a greater expectation for more books to be available as ebooks or specifically in Kindle format. Will Kindle owners be reading Rosenfeld Media titles on their devices anytime soon?

LR: Most likely! But the Kindle is only a few months old, so we’ll be taking a wait-and-see approach with it. PDF is, naturally, a larger digital book market, so that’s where we’ve focused our digital ambitions. And we’d want the time to invest in designing and testing a Kindle-friendly edition.

That said, we’ll be paying close attention to our customers’ requests. If the market wants our books in a Kindle-friendly format—or papyrus for that matter—we’ll be more than happy to oblige.

JK: What else will we see from Rosenfeld Media in the next year?

LR: At least three more books published: Luke Wroblewski’s Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks should be out in April. Donna Maurer’s card sorting book, and Rich Wiggins’s and my book on site search analytics are slated for spring/summer. Todd Warfel is writing on prototyping, and we’ve just signed Whitney Quesenbery and Kevin Brooks to write a book on storytelling for user experience design. We’re hoping for more exciting new titles, as well as finally launching the UX Zeitgeist service and co-producing some Webinar content in the second half of the year.

It’ll be a busy time!

2 Comments

Interesting stuff, especially Liz’s description of prototyping and usability testing the physical books. Mental Models is excellent and beautifully designed—although I think a bit long and perhaps overly conversational. I’m looking forward to the next ones.

A suggestion: How about a subscription series? Let me pre-order them as a group, or maybe let me get a discount off a future title if I preorder it during purchase of one of the current titles?

Andrew, thanks for the kind words and the interesting idea. The challenge is that books come out unevenly—we don’t always know how many will be published during a given time period. (In fact, it’s always possible that a book we’ve signed won’t get published at all for various reasons.) So it’s hard for us to predict and, therefore, price, a subscription. T’would be nice though!

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