I take book recommendations seriously. Not only am I a UX designer and design teacher, but I am a former librarian, which means I have to speak for the books. Kinda like the Book Lorax.
In approaching this list, I tried to think about what books can add to a field as dynamic as UX, where interfaces and devices change rapidly and designers’ roles can vary so much. I chose books that either introduce UX concepts and methods especially effectively, or that can create a lasting shift in how you understand people and problem-solving. I grouped books into a few categories, so whatever you’re looking for, you should be able to find something to set your heart on fire.
What is User-Centered Design and Why Is It Important?
1. Design of Everyday Things— Don Norman, 2013
This is one of those books every designer will tell you to read…and that’s because you should read it! Don Norman is often credited with founding the field of user-centered design, and he’s definitely one of its most notable and impactful leaders. This book is a very readable narrative that explains why we need to design around how users think and act. He includes lots of examples that show how psychology, design principles, and testing can make everyday things better. After you read it, you’ll find yourself calling out good and bad design as you walk down the street.
Among his accomplishments, Don Norman co-founded theNielsen-Norman Group, which researches and publishes tons of free articles about UX best practices. If you get to know their research articles, you’ll have most of what you need to be a good designer.
2. Don’t Make Me Think— Steve Krug, 2000, andDon’t Make Me Think Revisited, 2014
The original Don’t Make Me Think is an excellent introduction to the best practices of user-centered interface design. The main argument is that when presented with options, people—in this case digital product users—accept the first option that’s good enough, rather than taking more time to find the optimal decision. Krug very concisely explains how this psychological principle, called satisficing, can help us design more intuitive navigation and information organization in interfaces. The Revisited edition includes updated examples and incorporates mobile apps. One of the best parts about this book is how quick, fun, and easy to get through it is.
3. Thinking Fast and Slow— Daniel Kahneman, 2013
If you found Don’t Make Me Think (or the blurb above) fascinating, check out this one for a more in-depth understanding of the psychology of decision making and information processing. A main takeaway is that all people have two ways of processing the world: System 1 thinking, which quickly makes sense of new information (often wrongly), and System 2 thinking, which analyzes information more slowly and carefully. As UX designers, we’re always trying to balance what’s easy with what’s effective. Understanding and learning how to trigger these two thinking systems is essential to smooth design.
Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, so…his hometown is Legit City.
How Do I Jump Into UX?
4. User Experience Team of One— Leah Buley, 2013
This book is a must-read, especially for newer designers. A common challenge for new and aspiring designers is how to get experience when you don’t already have a job with the title UX Designer (or one of the many associated titles). The best answer is often to find a project in your current job, or in another area of your life, and to start UXing. Start applying UX methods, developing skills, and building a portfolio with whatever you can. This book goes beyond the basic What? and Why? questions and dives into specifics of how to apply UX methods. It’s tailored to working without the support of an established UX team, so it’s invaluable if that’s your situation.
Check out Leah Buley’sUX Team of One Blog if you wanna dip your toes in the water.
5. Non Designer’s Design Book—Robin Williams, 2014
This book is like a survival guide if you’re completely new to design. As the title suggests, it’s aimed at people who didn’t go to design school but need to get up to speed quickly. What makes this book so helpful is how accessible it is. The author, Robin Williams (no, not Mrs. Doubtfire), fills the book with “Do”s and “Don’t”s, annotated examples, and quizzes to build your knowledge. My favorite part is the annotated side-by-side examples. Williams presents a poorly designed page and a redesigned, improved version, accompanied by a step-by-step road map of how she made the transformation. It’s a how-to savior for basic layouts, typography, and color in print and web.
Super Accessible Reference Guides
This book falls into the category of unbelievably helpful reference books. It includes 125 major design principles for all types of design in a completely accessible way. Each principle gets a two page spread, the left side for explaining the principle in detail and the right side for illustrating some applications of the principle. You can learn about everything from affordances to confirmation bias to the 80/20 rule—my personal favorite—from this one.
The original is gorgeous, but if you’re more utilitarian about your books, check out the Pocket Universal Principles of Design that you can throw in your bag.
Similar to Universal Principles above, this one is a super accessible compendium of research and design methods. The real utility of this book is how broad and far-reaching it is in its methods. Going beyond more familiar methods like interviewing and surveying (both of which are included), this book shows the ins and outs of methods like parallel prototyping, stakeholder maps, and storyboards. This is more of a jumping off point for each method than an endpoint, but it can take you from zero to 60 pretty quickly.
If you’re looking for something more portable, there’s a Pocket Universal Methods of Design too!
8. Design is Storytelling— Ellen Lupton, 2017
This highly visual book tackles a crucial part of UX work: storytelling and communication. In designing products and services for people, you’re always understanding who they are and how you can lead them through an experience. How does what you’re designing fit into their story? This thin but information-rich book gives you an excellent introduction to the many different ways to tell stories visually. It teaches hero’s journeys and narrative arcs, storyboarding and scenario planning, and emotional design principles like the Gestalt Principles. I think of it as kind of a Universal Principles of Storytelling in Design.
The author, Ellen Lupton, is the Senior Curator at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design. She wrote the famous Thinking with Type, which is a classic graphic design resource.
Longer Reads/Foundational Texts
It’s tough to overstate the role of personas in the evolution of user-centered design. Personas turn your research data into representative people. This process helps you visualize who you’re designing for and how products can fit into their lives (as opposed to your users fitting themselves into the product’s design). Personas are also essential for communicating user needs across teams and organizations. Alan Cooper is widely credited as the pioneer of using personas in digital product design, and this is the book that started it all. Unlike most of the other books on this list, this is a highly detailed (700+ pages!) long read about how to cultivate empathy for your users and specifically how to use that understanding to design better products.
10. Sketching User Experiences— Bill Buxton, 2012
Sketching User Experiences is a textbook, complete with a companion workbook and all. It’s an incredibly structured and comprehensive way to learn the foundations of UX, yet it’s very readable. Unlike the Universal Principles books above that dedicate a page or two to each of a bunch of principles in a quick-and-dirty way, this book includes both breadth and depth. It teaches design thinking as a holistic approach, while still getting into the weeds of how to sketch and prototype to create better products. If you want one tell-me-everything-I-need-to-know book, this could be the one for you.
Books can help you build deeper and holistic UX knowledge than just articles and Dribbble case studies, so one or two good books is part of a healthy diet. This list should give you a good starting point in your journey to becoming a UX designer. Happy reading!
What You Should Do Now
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