We've wrapped up work on Head First iPhone Development (it's shipping now) and that gave me a chance to sit down and think about Head First in general. Going through the process with both an academic book (Head First Algebra) and a technical book has given me a chance to write from two different angles and get Head First down to what I think are the big things.
1. It's focused on conceptual learning. The thing that we kept paramount for both titles was to keep the concept central to each chapter, be that what X actually means or what Interface Builder really does.
2. Each chapter is its own train of thought. That's right. To the untrained eye, a Head First chapter can appear to be a bunch of disconnected elements strung together - Interviews with programming languages and a crazy story about some guy having girlfriend troubles, and some code snuck in there - but when you put it all together it's all just a means to a common end.
3. If the learner can do it, they should. That means that we often put in exercises and problems that bridge the gap between the story in the chapter and the whatever we need to teach. A lot of times that's a concept or a procedure that they learned chapters ago because it's a foundational one. Forcing the learner to figure out the next step, even if it's a meta type step, means that they stay more engaged.
4. Head First books are frontwards. After spending an entire lifetime learning and writing the traditional way I've had to essentially have to flip the traditional tell-then-show model on it's head. Start with a problem that the learner doesn't know how to solve and then explain. That means that your learner stays more engaged and is actively looking for the information you're giving them, not trying to figure out if it'll ever be useful.
5. Head First books are the biggest puzzle ever. Writing Head First iPhone Development, especially, meant that we had to keep three major things in line: the code needs to work (or break) every step of the way exactly the way you expect it to, the story (like Bob the bounty hunter) needs to make sense and keep things moving along, and the conceptual teaching needs to work. All of these elements need to work as single elements and together.
6. I'm a planner, and Head First is all about good planning. Keeping that puzzle working means that whatever problem (or app) is chosen for the chapter has to work exactly how you think it will. If you get halfway through a chapter and realize that the idea is flawed, and it could mean weeks of work wasted - not that I've ever learned that the hard way!
7. Each page is carefully designed. Even when all of the chapter level planning is done, every page of a Head First book is sketched, from the heading down to the sidebars and transitions at the bottom of every page. If it isn't, then the whole thing falls apart. This is where all the visual work gets done. It's amazing how close you can get with a sketch to what the page is actually going to look like. The big advantage to all that design work is that when you sit down to "write", it's not a blank screen that you're facing, but more of a fill-in-the-blanks exercise.
Stay tuned for some more posts about Head First iPhone Development or follow us on Twitter: @danpilone and @traceypilone for more updates on the new book!