Like they say ‘knowledge is power’, and although knowledge is becoming faster and easier to obtain online, there’s still something incredibly special, intimate and tactile about reading a book. There’s no distractions, no notifications or noise, just you and a book…and potentially a pen for taking notes.
The internet and tech in general have I’m sure shortened our attention spans, I for one definitely see it in myself. I truly believe forcing yourself to retreat to some quiet space with a book is important to balance this out, I don’t think us humans were made for this constant connectively and world of distraction. So switch your phone off, pick up a book, and get reading!
Here’s the list of our go-to and essential books for UX Designers, it’s a mix of design, product and business-related reads, after all, design is not just about aesthetics. These 7 books we believe are the essential list that anyone in UX should read. Many of the thoughts described in these books are universal and can be applied to other aspects of life and work, so could be invaluable to anyone. To help give some context we’ve given a brief summary on each. If anyone lives in London or is happy to commute to us we’d be more than happy to let you borrow a book from our micro-library. We’ve also added a list of more at the end of this post for further reading once all of these have been checked off 😉
“The best designers sometimes disregard the principles of design. When they do so, however, there is usually some compensating merit attained at the cost of the violation. Unless you are certain of doing as well, it is best to abide by principles”. — Paraphrasing William Strunk
This book is essential for any designer, with 100 concise principles, it is an easy read and a great tool to have. The overall goal of the book is to help enhance usability and help make better design decisions, with a design principle on each page, this book is incredibly handy to just pick up and reference a principle. There is an abundance of useful tips that are great not just for how you design, but also how you interact with clients. Such as understanding design trade-offs and discussing the principle of Usability vs Flexibility, or even the 80/20 rule. There’s also a couple of funny anecdotes such as the Nudge theory. Used in toilets in Amsterdam, it was essentially an image of a housefly in the urinals, this reduced fluids missing the urinal by an outstanding 80%!
This book first published over 30 years ago, is still very relevant today, at the end of the day-core design principles are never out of date. Don Norman is the don of design. Design of everyday things is an essential book for any designer, I feel like it’s almost become a cliche that every design has to read it.
This book is especially great for beginners of design, if you’re a newbie pick this book up first. Although focused more on product (industrial) design, there are many parallels with UX, as the overall premise is all about usability. It’s a super informative book, and it’s definitely worth the read. It references simplicity and focuses on simple solutions. The ultimate purpose of the designer is to make useful products, not just good-looking.
This classic book personally gave me a new appreciation for physical products in general, it highlights both good and bad design, which is useful to compare and see how bad design is still so prevalent today. One point which was mentioned that I’ve also thought of, is of how bad experience some push or pull doors are. When it’s to push, it should be flat, and when it’s to pull it should be more like a handle that you pull. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s not like that, which can be frustrating, and sometimes funny…when you see other people doing it.
“A brilliant solution to the wrong problem can be worse than no solution at all: solve the correct problem.” — Don Norman
Solving design problems is a great segue to this next book. Although not specifically UX Design related, the main crUX of the book discusses the importance of ‘why’ you do something, which can be tied back to the importance of not just designing for aesthetics. But moreover solving the actual problem, and focusing on the purpose. Not the ‘how’, or ‘what’. But the ‘why’.
The author Simon Sinek illustrates that all successful businesses start from the inside in, with the ‘why’. He argues that everyone knows ‘what’ they do but not the ‘why’ and that this is one of the main differences between a business that is successful, and one that is not. He compares this to Apple, and how they’re an excellent example of how it should be done. Simon Sinek gives an anecdote of how if Apple were like everyone else they would say “we make great computers, they’re beautiful and easy to use” — that’s what most people do. That’s the ‘what’ and ‘how’. But what Apple actually says is “everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently, the way we challenge the status quo is by making products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly, we just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”. Apple understands people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. This book is useful in switching your mindset to the importance of ‘why’, and that this should be the focus of everything you do.
Steve Krug is the godfather of UX, his book was published almost 20 years ago. The book is all about usability, with a focus on user interfaces and experiences, it is one book every UX Designer should own, it’s a great tool for the armory! What also makes it great, is that the book is relatively short, it’s well written with good use of imagery, and plenty of humor. I’ve read this book a few times, and have got new information each time. Unlike The Principles of Design, this book leans more towards a common-sense approach to UX, with the main crUX being, if the user has to think about an action or task, then the UX can be improved.
A snippet of information which I always remember is the importance of reducing text on a webpage as much as possible.
“Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half what’s left”. — Steve Krug
Although clearly, tongue in cheek it is a useful rule to abide by, or at least remember when writing content. Steve Krug does go on to argue that great literature on a website can be wasted, as most people don’t read websites like a book, they’re more likely to scan or skim. A user’s reality is much closer to a “billboard going by at 60 miles an hour”, he emphasizes that it’s better to keep information concise, in chunks and clear. Most look for words that catch their eyes, hence why minimizing noise and using white space, contrasting text and also hierarchy is paramount.
Familiarity is another important point of usability which this book discusses. Steve Krug explains that it’s better to keep the design familiar with users, it’s better to refrain from trying to reinvent the wheel. However if you do, and it’s successful then it can be revolutionary. But most of the time it’s better to keep it familiar, as a learning curve will always cause friction.
Lastly, another principle which I’ve always found useful, and is great with client conversations, is all about clicks. Steve Krug explains that it’s not necessarily all about fewer clicks is best. What’s more important is where that click takes you, and how difficult the click is. “3 easy clicks are better than one click which leads you nowhere”.
This is one of my all-time favorites, and it delivers exactly what is says on the tin. This book is less about a list of principles of design and usability, but more on how to design to keep your users engaged and coming back to the product, making it a habit and doing it without thinking. Nir Eyal talks about the 4 stages of keeping consumers hooked to the product, he calls it a ‘hook cycle’.
Firstly getting the user to the product. This he explains can be done in two ways, external (ads or email invites), or internal, when a user comes to you organically. Nir argues that the latter is a stronger trigger, as this is proven to be better for user retention. But using both triggers are even stronger. For example if your product is awesome, and is solving a problem, and you couple this with external triggers…then you’re off to a winner!
The point of the trigger is to get the customer to a reward, something that surges a hit of dopamine. The action shows there is a reward, and how to obtain it, for example with posting a photo that will get likes, those likes are the reward. The action has to be as simple as possible to use, so that there are no obstacles for the reward.
This is the actual reward after the user makes the action, such as likes on a post, or receiving a funny image. It essentially boils down to two aspects, either an entertaining or useful reward. The differentiated aspect of this stage is the ‘variable’ part of the reward, the reward can’t be predictable, the user shouldn’t anticipate what’s coming. If the identical result happens every single time, the experience becomes repetitive and monotonous and the user will get bored and ultimately lose interest.
Lastly making a user invest in the product, not necessarily with money, but with time. Essentially the more time, a user invests in the product the more likely that they’ll see value in it. In the book this is referred to as the ‘Ikea effect’, by a consumer investing in the product, by spending time building it, they’ll value and appreciate it more.
This book really helped my understanding of how you should build and grow a product based startup. The main theory and methodology is that of a Lean Startup, of creating a Minimal Viable Product, and then being agile and efficient, testing early and then iterating until what you have is right.
The author Eric Ries discusses that the Lean Startup helps avoid failure. He claims that with startups, people don’t always know exactly what the market wants. A startup should never make that assumption, which apparently is the reason for most failures. A lot of startups will invest loads of time and money building something on assumption instead of really understanding the market. Building a perfect looking product, which no one needs will ultimately result in failure. Eric explains that startups should focus on a rinse and repeat type of cycle; build, measure and learn. Build an MVP with a couple of assumptions in the cheapest and fasted way, test it and measure the user’s reactions, and then from there learn and iterate. If an assumption isn’t right, then the idea is that you’d pivot and adjust to the customer’s needs.
Another of my favorite books, and a go-to in which I try and reference regularly. This book looks at how and why people behave, using real science and research this book focuses on how you can apply these theories and thoughts to the way you design. There are some common-sense principles, but also some that I wouldn’t have thought to apply to design, but after reading it’s incredible how relevant they all are. A nugget of information that I’ve always remembered is how the brain recognizes and prefers some imagery and text over others. We all do this subconsciously as it goes back to our ancestral old brain. We look at things in three ways “can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Will it kill me?”, that’s all the old brain cares about. Images with any of these will be better for engaging with your customer. We’re also “hard-wired to pay attention to faces”, an interesting point with this is that when you want a user to make an action, the best thing to do is show someone else doing it.
“If you want to influence someone’s behaviour, then show someone else doing the same task”. — Susan Weinschenk
Another useful point is the importance of showing progress in design. People are motivated to continue if there’s a goal in sight, and even more when it’s closer to the goal. Another point also mentioned in the book Hooked, is the importance of designing a trivial and novel experience, to keep the user engaged. “The human brain not only looks for the unexpected, it actually craves the unexpected”.
All of these books together are excellent and super helpful, having the knowledge of usability, principles of design with the addition of understanding aspects of psychology and how to design for people is imperative for any UX Designer. Using the information in these books, designers can make educated and better decisions. Most people might understand a beautiful interface, but if they don’t understand people, then their interface won’t have the impact that is needed for a truly successful outcome.
Love to hear your thoughts, and if there’s any we’ve missed, do let us know in the comments below. We’ve tried to keep each summary concise, but if you would like a longer version, then just let us know!
Much ❤️ 🧡 💛 💚
Some other books worth mentioning: