Top UX Books: 10 Essential, Non-Traditional Reads

UX Design | 27th July 2017

Stop for a moment and really think about your favorite website, mobile app, or digital device. What makes you love it? How about your favorite jacket, shoes, or backpack? What does it look like? How does it work? How does it make you feel?

Everything is UX. Taking a flight is UX. So is a taxi, Lyft, subway, your umbrella, a cinema, theater, shopping malls… The list goes on: furniture, buildings, trains, buses, cars, the supermarket, and your corner grocery store. (Yes, I know, the alternative term used for these is “CX” or “Customer Experience,” but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just call it “UX.”)


Radical UX. French designers Philippe Starck and Jerome Olivet have proposed a revisionist concept for the future of smartphones based around holograms and voice control.

Every workplace has its UX. One could even argue that our relationships are UX—our neighborhood, our city, the country we live in—think of the differences in UX between two vastly different countries: living standards, wages, culture, law, government, economy, politics etc.


Interior design for Swiss Federal Railways by Edon Guraziu

Since “UX” permeates our daily lives, it is critical that UX designers keep up. Dedicated UX practitioners at all levels participate in some form of ongoing education to stay current. It’s our professional obligation to continue to attend seminars and webinars as well as read blogs, studies, whitepapers, and books.

 

The Typical Must-read UX Books on Every UX Designer’s Bookshelf


There are countless lists of “must-read UX books” that have the same, familiar set. Just Google “UX books to read” and you will find all the “usual suspect” books about UX: Don’t Make Me Think, The Design of Everyday Things, Lean UX, Designed for Use, Usability Engineering, etc.


Must-read UX books on every serious UX designer's bookshelf

These “on the mark” UX books are all great and certainly relevant, but keen and eager UX professionals wanting to expand their perspective and imagination can find some unconventional titles in unexpected categories from which to gain valuable insight.

“Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions”

Nicholas Negroponte, Professor and Co-Founder, MIT MediaLab

None of the less obvious books on the following list explicitly mention the term “user experience,” but the inspiration and lessons contained within them are immediately relevant to any UX professional today, regardless of industry.

If you consider yourself a curious and dedicated UXer—a thoughtful practitioner who is looking to learn from practical examples and integrate another approach into your own point of view, picking up these books will help you see the world through other design professionals’ eyes. It offers a fascinating window into interesting, alternative methods to problem-solving. Most of all, it will challenge and inspire you, help you “think outside the box,” and push you to learn from other crafts and industries.

 

The 10 Surprising Books for UX Designers

1. A Century of Car Design by Penny Sparke



Car design is all about UX. The way the car looks, what the interior “feels” like, what the car sounds like, how one opens the windows, shifts gears, adjusts the seats, operates the sound system, opens the doors, controls lighting—not to mention performance, handling, fuel consumption, reliability…

This comprehensive, lavishly illustrated book presents the astonishing development of car design during the twentieth century—it gives a detailed history of the automobile but describes cars entirely in terms of design.

The car started out being mostly about utility—getting people from A to B—and has evolved into one of the most important icons of 20th-century design, whether as a design statement or a functional object. Over the years, the car has become a lot more about emotional design and UX.

In car design, everything matters—all the little details—the entirety of the experience (Read here more about the power of the experience) . One of the main takeaways for UX designers from this book is that successful UX designs must work on three levels. These levels are outlined as visceral, behavioral, and reflective in Don Norman’s UX book “Emotional Design.”


A car's interior design is a smorgasbord of UX-related design elements and a feast for any UX designer

2. Understanding Industrial Design: Principles for UX and Interaction Design by Simon King & Kuen Chang



Good product design has the power to redefine the way we interact with the world.

This is a book about how to create memorable and innovative products. Design is no longer just about beauty; it’s about meaningful results and market relevance. Just as UX has become a competitive differentiator, so has well-executed industrial design.

Experience has become the brand. Think Apple and the success of the iPhone.

Industrial design is a deep well of study for UX designers. It was around long before “UX” even existed as a term. In fact, Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things uses industrial design as a “human-centered design” thesis on which concepts to establish around “design thinking”, the very notion that forms the foundation and principles of every UX designer’s craft (Explore more about customer centricity by design thinking). 

Designers who work purely on digital products may find that the principles in Understanding Industrial Design will provide them with new ways to frame and approach their work.

Written by two design directors at IDEO, the international design and innovation firm, it uses real-world examples to describe industrial designs that are sensorial, simple, enduring, playful, thoughtful, sustainable, and beautiful. The book is especially a “must-read UX book” for interaction designers and UX professionals who find themselves in the overlap between physical and digital products or foresee their work involving more collaboration and integration with industrial design.


Industrial design by Philippe Starck, a famous French designer

3. Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, from Tabletops to Bookshelves by Emily Henderson



Interior design is not only about decorating or “styling a space,” but a well thought-out use of that space and how humans live and interact within it. Driven by deep user empathy and human needs, it’s very similar to UX as the discipline involves a user-centered design process, big-picture thinking, and a holistic view.

In fact, the discipline of interior design shares some of the same conventions, rules, methodologies, and principles that underlie great UX such as employing visual hierarchy and emphasis, working with constraints, color psychology, aesthetic, and minimalist design—to mention just a few.

UX designers can relate to the work of an interior designer who moves through an empty space (like the empty canvas in front of a designer) and imagines a finished product that serves the future occupants of that space, the “users,” exceptionally well, or an interior designer who evaluates an existing room—similar to a UX/UI redesign project—and imagines a superior future state.

Styled takes rooms and vignettes that could seem hopelessly enigmatic and breaks them down bit by bit to give readers ideas, enlightening explanations, and the tools to recreate—or even just understand—why something is placed the way it is and why it works. Styled is packed with practical advice for any design enthusiast, whether a space needs a few finishing touches or a complete overhaul.


Interior design shares a lot of the same principles with UX design.

4. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery



Think of a city in terms of UX. Its architecture, boulevards, avenues, and parks; its government, layout, street signage, and transportation; and its cleanliness. A great deal of planning and thought goes into its design, evolution, and ongoing redesign.

A city is an incredibly complex system. Multiple factors must coalesce before a city, large or small, can achieve perfection. Physics, the physiology and psychology of urban, suburban, and exurban dwellers—all in all, when it comes to city dwelling, it’s a lot about UX.

In Happy City, urban “UX design” proves to be not only exciting but integral to our future. It is persuasively demonstrated that designing cities with social beings in mind can make them more pleasant places to live, and shows why suburbs are experiencing higher crime as well as a significant happiness deficit.

It’s argued that urban design often reinforces inequality, and the author includes useful prescriptions for creating what he calls “the fair city,” as well as addressing issues like gentrification. In this book, the city is a happiness project that exists in part to corral our conviviality and channel it productively.

The book covers many aspects of urban living, but most importantly, how getting out of our cars and traveling on foot or by bicycle makes us happier. Montgomery shows how organizing our housing and neighborhoods to be social and trusting (convivial) rather than isolated and fearful will also make us happier.

Fascinating and enlightening for any UX professional, this book will re-frame how we think about cities and the way we move around in them. As a UXer designing experiences that aim to “delight,” you will never look at cities in the same way again.


A city can also be observed from a UX perspective.

5. 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick



Architecture is probably the most often used analogy to UX because of the design process. Architecture—just like UX—is also about unearthing “user-friendly” creative solutions with the goal of creating delightful user experiences. In fact, as if to reinforce similarities, a “UX Architect” is a frequently used title for a UXer on product teams.

From the determining purpose of a structure to evaluating the land and surrounding space (research user needs and taking into account business goals and technical requirements) and designing blueprints (sketches), creating small-scale models (prototypes to observe and test), laying the foundation and skeleton of a building (wireframes), and putting on the facade (UI and interaction design), one can easily see the parallels.

UX designers can widen their perspective and garner meaningful inspiration from this book. As non-architects, UX professionals will discover that it will make them look at buildings and spaces differently. It opens up a sense of appreciation for user-friendly, carefully thought out architectural design that is not only meant to awe but serve the inhabitants well.

This book has concise lessons in presentation and the creative process, from the basics of line drawing to the complexities of color theory—all very close to the discipline of UX. Books like this are brief tutorials in the art of seeing, a skill useful in every aspect of life on the planet, but in particular UX.


Architecture is also UX design.

6. Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte



Edward Tufte’s seminal work on visual thinking—winner of 17 awards for design and content—offers a remarkable range of examples including visualization examples. The book provides practical advice on how to explain complex material by visual means, with extraordinary examples to illustrate the fundamental principles of displaying information.

This book is a must-read for any UX/UI designer as complex data visualization becomes more commonplace in our day-to-day work. Just think of health apps, financial apps, infographics, business dashboards, and applications where a lot of data needs to be presented visually in an appealing way and made easy to absorb by end-users.

Well-designed visualization delivers a large amount of data in a simple, clean format that makes it easy for readers to understand. Thumbing through this book, designers will gain valuable insight into how to effectively use layout, color, whitespace, typography, information hierarchy, data analysis, and data grouping.

This book includes superb examples of high-dimensional complex data. The most design-oriented of Edward Tufte’s books, it shows maps, charts, scientific presentations, diagrams, computer interfaces, statistical graphics and tables, guidebooks, courtroom exhibits, timetables, and many other wonderful displays of information.


Data visualization of US gun deaths in 2013 (by Periscopic)

7. Design of the 20th Century by Charlotte & Peter Fiell



Design of the 20th Century is one of those books that ought to be on the shelves of every designer (UX, UI, IXD, Visual, or otherwise), design student, teacher, historian, enthusiast, or newbie.

It’s a richly illustrated encyclopedia of the most important names, objects, and ideas in the history of 20th-century design (graphic, furniture, textile, glass, ceramics, and metalware).

The book contains a wealth of information about the role of function, aesthetics, form, and symbolism in practical objects. It’s a journey through design movements like Art Deco, Arts & Craft, and the International Style, and includes profiles on the most significant designers in every field, from furniture and lighting to typography and graphic design.

It looks at the role of technology and the industrial process, the primacy of utility, simplicity, and affordability over luxury and exclusivity. Quality is usually represented by three characteristics: innovation (in form, function, composition, material); production value (when we see that production was taken care of so that a product will endure time); and timelessness (when a product can resist the trends of time, always remaining relevant).

Since everything is UX—every object, piece of furniture, device, etc.—UX designers looking to learn and be inspired can review various design solutions from diverse industries and, in the process, gain valuable lessons from exploring various approaches to problem solving.


Ben Bowden's battery powered "Bicycle of the Future" - 1946

8. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal



A must-read for everyone who cares about driving customer engagement. Nir Eyal, the author of this book, has distilled years of research, consulting, and practical experience to write a manual for creating products people love.

Among other things, Hooked talks about Fogg’s Behavior Model—very influential on the current generation of UX designers—which states that a certain habit-forming behavior is the result of three components—motivation, ability, and a trigger—which all need to be present at the same moment for the model to work.

As we know, UX designers are in fact, “big-picture thinking” product designers focused on not only designing great products but driving engagement and crafting delightful product experiences through such techniques as anticipatory design, emotional design, and persuasive design. Hooked is not only about “persuasive design,” i.e., designing habit-forming products, but it’s also about where to make things seamless, where to give a reward, and how to pull people back to your product through action triggers.

We are definitely in a world that’s Hooked: 79% of smartphone owners check their devices within fifteen minutes of waking up. Experts believe that we check our phones around 150 times per day! How did we get here? How is it that some apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat are so addictive? What makes these products habit-forming? Check out the book to find out.

9. Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D. Wilson



Human psychology is one of the major components to be informed about when crafting experiences. UX designers ought to be familiar with at least the basics of human motivation and triggers, how people make decisions, view the world, behavioral tendencies, unconscious influences, and more.

How well do we really know ourselves? How well can we know ourselves? Wilson (psychology, Univ. of Virginia) convincingly argues that our conscious minds are but the tip of the iceberg in deciding how we behave, what is important to us, and how we feel.

Surveying a variety of contemporary psychological research, this book describes an unconsciousness that is capable of a much higher degree of “thinking” than previously supposed by adherents of either Freudian or Behaviorist branches of psychology.

Capable of everything from problem solving and narrative construction to emotional reaction and prediction, the adaptive unconscious is a powerful and pervasive element of our whole personality. Indeed, it may be the primary element, controlling our real motivations, judgments, and actions.

This book examines the evolution of the idea of the unconscious, the various ways in which it operates within us, and how we can look at our actions (rather than our thoughts) to truly know ourselves. Incredibly useful for a UX designer.

10. Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play by Mahan Khalsa



Last, but not least—this one is an unanticipated and a not-so-obvious choice.

UX practitioners often work as consultants: sometimes solo, sometimes as part of a larger team. Working as UX professionals, we need to communicate our process as well as our solutions, and this often requires us to “sell” ideas and concepts to clients—“the buyers.”

This book gets to the heart of how to become a world-class trusted advisor who has a genuine imperative to help their clients succeed. The tools and approach found in this book will make a huge difference to any UX professional who wants to be trusted and known for providing real value to their clients.

The book’s central premise is that “consultants and clients want the same thing”. It’s up to the UX pro to uncover and articulate that “thing.” How do we do that? One of the points the book discusses is intent. If you have a sincere intent to help the client find the ideal solution to their unique problem, wouldn’t you want to first know what the core issue was? Wouldn’t you dig a little deeper—get to know the real hurdles, challenges, and pain points? Wouldn’t you want to connect with the client’s hopes and aspirations?

UX designers take uncovering user needs seriously as a matter of course—we need to do the same for our clients. The authors suggest that an effective way to engage clients is through “mutual exploration”. We need to consider business goals and technical constraints in the early stages of “discovery”—and in order to develop effective solutions and uncover what it is our clients really want, we need to dig deep and develop empathy for them.

This book will help UX designers develop better communication skills, and help them present design solutions clearly and with impact throughout the design process.

 

Conclusion


UX designers may be attending seminars, scouring industry blogs for information and reading the “right” UX books, but garnering a broader understanding and a different perspective from other disciplines could prove to be incredibly helpful in furthering their knowledge, skill, and career.

These 10 surprising UX books from different industries and disciplines will broaden any designer’s horizons, widen their perspective, and provide surprising insight into varying approaches to problem solving.

After all, UX is about solving problems and improving lives by making things easier through better design.

 

Originally published at www.toptal.com

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