15 books that influenced top UX and UI influencers
Interest in the fields of user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design—a.k.a. "human factors"—is on an upswing. As more people come into or consider entering the field, they have the same questions that their more seasoned and more authoritative UX and UI brethren once did.
Experienced and influential UX and UI professionals aren't born with the knowledge of how to design products in a human-first way. Experts each have their own sources of training, perspective, and passion. Inevitably, newbies will turn to those resources for insight, including UX- and UI-related books—just as those before them did. (Conferences help, too.)
To learn what informed UX and UI pros, I asked several UX and UI designers and researchers about the books that personally affected them. Collectively, these 15 books inspired them in their work and their careers. Perhaps they'll inspire you, too.
From theory to practice
Tom Tullis, retired leader of Fidelity Investments' usability lab, a designer who worked on the International Space Station, and co-author of one of the first (if not the very first) books on UX metrics—"Measuring the User Experience"—points to two books that had a "profound" influence on his early career.
The first, "The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction," by Stuart K. Card, Thomas P. Moran, and Allen Newell, is about UI theory's unification of principles taken from software engineering and psychology. Tullis read the book shortly after its release in the 1980s during his doctorate studies.
"I was already thinking in a more quantitative and measurable way about how people interact with computers," says Tullis. "This book really made me realize that, hey, other people are starting to think this way too. Maybe we really can start trying to take a serious quantitative/scientific approach to this type of interaction."
The second book that inspired Tullis, "Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction," by Ben Shneiderman and Catherine Plaisant, focuses on practical UI considerations. For Tullis, the book drove home that UI could be a career.
For consultant Danielle Cooley, no book demonstrated the importance of practical UX and UI considerations more than "Set Phasers on Stun and Other True Tales of Design, Technology, and Human Error," by Steven Casey. The book tells real-life stories about catastrophic failures caused by poor design, says Cooley. "It emphasizes how important the work is, especially when the consequences of failure are more dire. (Oh, someone gets lost in your checkout process? Bummer. Someone dies?! Wow.)"
Meanwhile, Susan Mercer, TripAdvisor's senior manager of research and usability, drew practical impact from Steve Portigal's "Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Designs."
In particular, Mercer points to the book's observation that people "speak in paragraphs." That advice reminded her to use silence to elicit information when she does user research, to say nothing after the user answers a question. "They will then fill [the silence] with a little bit more information," says Mercer. "And often, that's when you get those nuggets of good information that you're after."
The popular choices
Some books about UX and UI are highly and frequently recommended. "Don't Make Me Think," by Steve Krug, is one such book. But for Tommy Dale, UX designer at Wells Fargo, Krug's work is more than just something to recommend for a reading list—it is a timeless influence. His local library's copy of the 2005 edition (an updated edition was released in 2014) inspired Dale to make a career switch into UX.
The examples cited in older editions are dated, Dale admits. But the book uses a conversational tone to drive home enduring principles—in particular that in UX studies, it is users, not the specific technologies, that really matter.
Similarly, "The Design of Everyday Things," by Don Norman, is recommended repeatedly by UX professionals (and also is a recommended book for developers). A deeper and more technical complement to Krug's work, Norman's book likewise focuses on helping the lay audience understand users.
Cooley, for her part, read Norman's book shortly after getting her bachelor's degree (under the book's original title, "The Psychology of Everyday Things") and cites it as influencing her career transition into UX.
"'The Psychology of Everyday Things' helped me understand why so many things seemed not to make sense, design-wise," says Cooley. It helped her realize that UX was a real career, rather than a random item of interest, and encouraged her to make UX her own career.
A grad school professor recommended Norman's book to Amy Battles, senior manager of UX design at CenturyLink, after she expressed interest in UX principles. Both Norman's book and a book by Alan Cooper helped her affirm that she wanted to make this her career.
In "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity," Cooper describes the corporate culture of software engineers self-managing both design and development. The result, argues Cooper, is poor usability for actual users. Battles says she related to that situation vis-à-vis her past co-workers and employers.
"It was knowing [that] this career really did exist or could exist," Battles says of the impact of Cooper's book, "and that you could design things to make them more intuitive and not just make all the parts fit together—which is what we learned in engineering school."
A different book co-authored by Cooper, "About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design," substantially influenced Mercer's work. It helped her to infuse sympathy and "humanity" into her designs by enabling users with explanations, instead of blaming them for things going wrong. Cooper illustrated several principles, she explains, but "the one that always stuck with me was the principle of 'Don't make the user don't look stupid.'"
Cooley and Battles both point to the works of Jakob Nielsen, who presents UX practicalities to supplement—and make relevant—user-focused philosophy.
One reason was timeliness. In particular, Cooley says Nielsen's "Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity" "lit a fire" under her. It was released in 1999, when the business website and application field was exploding.
Battles was similarly educated and inspired by a different Nielsen book, "Usability Engineering." "[Nielsen] really broke down the nuts and bolts of user research and design," she says. "It gave me a lot of guidance in how to do things, and do things right, and a lot of confidence that I knew more than the average person off the street."
Non-intuitive selections for a field about intuition
Many UX and UI specialists take a great deal of inspiration and learning from books that have little, if anything, to do with UX.
This is particularly true for storied computer scientist Alan Kay, one of the inventors of the modern graphical user interface. A self-described "voracious reader" since age 3, Kay provided me with a list of more than two dozen authors—let alone books—that had a profound and "shocking" effect on his thinking and work. The works of one particular author, however, gets special attention from Kay: media theorist H. Marshall McLuhan. Kay points to three McLuhan works from the 1960s:
- "The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man" (1962), in which McLuhan predicted the advent of the World Wide Web more than 30 years before it came to be
- "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (1964)
- "The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects" (1967)
Together, says Kay, these books identify a fundamental concept of UX and human factors: that humans evolutionarily adapt their ways of thinking to fit communication technologies. Thus, design changes society.
"We who invented personal computing and the Internet did it for the plus side of the 'McLuhan effect,' that you can make a superior environment [such] that growing up in it will lead to even stronger kinds of thinking than the [printing] press did," Kay says.
C. Todd Lombardo is vice president of product and experience at Vempathy, which offers customer experience research software. He is also co-author of UX books "Product Roadmaps Relaunched: How to Set Direction While Embracing Uncertainty" and "Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products." Lombardo gained pivotal insight from "Never Split the Difference," a negotiation book (from which companies can also learn about creating and implementing a privacy plan) by former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Voss's primary thesis is that people are fundamentally irrational and emotional, and therefore, negotiations and communication are best approached by empathetically appealing to people's emotions instead of to logic and reason.
"I learned early on in my career as a product and UX professional that communication is extremely important. I also learned that negotiation skills are a big part of communication," says Lombardo. "Chris's book helped me realize why some of my product ideas or designs failed or why my conversations didn't have the intended outcomes. I was approaching them too rationally."
To speak of UX designers' struggles with human emotions, UX designer Austin Beer's main takeaways about UX design come from Mark Twain's classic "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," a time travel novel about a then-modern (circa 1889) American transported in time and place to England in the time of King Arthur. Twain's protagonist uses his futuristic knowledge to try to make people's lives better (while taking advantage of them and gaining power) but fails to prevent calamities nonetheless.
"There has only been one true lesson for me as a UX designer: Humans are contradictions. Every choice we make is so mired in irrationality, bias, confusion, and haste that we can't help to make poor decisions," says Beer of his takeaways from Twain's book. "As a designer, this is our fight."
It suffices to say, with the right literary inspiration, up-and-coming UX and UI professionals will continue to join that fight—and make decision-making a little easier.
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.