« Firefox versus SSL is really about security versus usability | Main | Self-signed certificates in production point to a failure of SSL »

Edward Tufte is dull

July 16, 2008

Edward Tufte seems to be universally admired for his work on information visualisation. I've seen quite a few positive comments about his work over the years, the latest being Richard Bejtlich's, where he describes the experience of attending Edward's one-day class ("the best single day class ever"). Compelled by the positive feedback from so many different sources I bought the four main books (I would have attended the training, but Tufte does not teach in Europe), and event went through a bit of trouble to get them: Amazon.co.uk didn't sell them, so I bought them in the US and carried them with me back to Britain. (We are talking hardcover books of large format printed on heavy paper, not your average paperback.)

You may be surprised to learn that the books have been sitting on a shelf, virtually untouched, ever since. Why? Because they are plain dull. The production quality is very high: the paper looks expensive and the illustrations look like a lot of thought went into them. I am sure the information contained in the books is very valuable too. But, for me at least, whenever I open one of the books I feel like I've been instantly teleported to a very boring university lecture.

It's ironic that books on information visualisation fail so dramatically. I am sure there are people who are enjoying these books, but that's the case with me. If you are considering buying one of Tufte's books do make sure to browse through them first. They are not everyone's cup of tea.

I don't have a habit of discussing topics outside security and open source on this blog, so why am I mentioning Tufte? There's an important lesson here for everyone in the business of making anything that's supposed to be used on regular basis. (Personally, I am interested in security products, web application firewalls especially.) How our products perform is important, but not nearly as important as how they are perceived by users. A less capable and interesting product will be more useful than a more capable but boring one, purely because the former is going to be used; the latter is just going to be gathering dust.