consilience

Design Books Galore by Peter Last

What Is This?

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Being – like many people working across user experience-related roles – a bit of an impostor/newcomer to design and its underlying principles rooted in ethnography, phenomenology, and cognitive science, I had to teach myself a lot. I personally find reading lots and reading widely to be the way I like to discover and pre-filter new techniques before I try them out. As a result, over the past year or so, I have read or re-read a total of 39 different books on everything from design project management to semantic models of human-computer interaction to field guides on conducting effective research interviews. I found that there was a lot of repetition across many of the books, as well as a startling lack of consistency in the terminology and priorities of the authors. What follows is a curated list of books that I would recommend for specific purposes. It is necessarily biased by my own interpreted priorities, and even my imposed taxonomy may not align with that of any given reader, but I felt it might be worthwhile to share what has become my "map" of available literature on the topic. Enjoy!


HOW TO READ THIS

I've tried to come up with a bit of a taxonomy to help you figure out which books might be most useful, so there are 3 characteristics associated with each book: length, jargon, and type. 

LENGTH

Length is based on my perception of length, so while Glimmer might be longer in terms of pages than In The Bubble, for instance, it feels shorter because it's a little less weighty conceptually. 

JARGON

Jargon is my attempt to get across both how much jargon is used, and how much jargon is defined, in each book. Unfortunately, because UX design is a fairly young and non-standardized discipline, you'll find a lot of the jargon used across these books is non-standard as well, and different authors draw the lines between things in different ways.

TYPE

This is really where I'm making judgement calls that you may disagree with. I've stuck to 3 types: overview, field guide, and detailed practices. Overview books try and cover all the bases, and either gloss over sections that aren't core to their theses or describe them in generalities that let you know that something ought to be done, but not really how to do it. Field guides assume certain comfort levels with practices, and mainly talk about tips and tricks. Detailed practice books cover off the mechanics of how to do something in one way, but might not situate that thing very well in the broader scope of a design project.

You might find that I've called something an overview when you think of it more as a field guide or detailed practice guide. This might just be that in my memory, I've weighted more heavily the introductory and concluding chapters that talk about how it fits into the broader project scope. In general, though, if I've marked it as a "Detailed Practices" book, it has step-by-step instructions on how to do one or more very specific tasks that might fit into the buckets of research, design, testing, etc.


CATEGORY 1 - WHAT IS THIS UX BUSINESS, ANYWAYS?

Not sure what you’re getting into, what you think you want to get into, or what you’ve gotten yourself into already? That’s all good, because there are more than enough books that speak in grand generalities about design to inspire and guide you along.

TO MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE THE FATE OF THE WORLD IS IN YOUR HANDS: 

  • Change by Design
    • Author: Tim Brown
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview
  • Glimmer
    • Author: Warren Berger
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview
  • Design for the Real World
    • Author: Victor Papanek
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview
  • Cradle to Cradle
    • Author: William McDonough and Michael Braungart
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

TO CONVINCE YOU THAT THIS WHOLE DESIGN THING IS A REAL JOB: 

  • The Opposable Mind
    • Author: Roger Martin
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

TO GET YOU THINKING ABOUT HOW PEOPLE THINK: 

  • Design of Everyday Things
    • Author: Don Norman
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

TO GET YOU TO ALWAYS THINK FURTHER AND IN A MORE CONNECTED FASHION: 

  • In The Bubble
    • Author: John Thackara
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview
  • Thinking In Systems
    • Author: Donella Meadows
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

TO REFRAME HOW YOU THINK AND TALK ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO DESIGN:

  • The Semantic Turn: A New Foundation for Design
    • Author: Klaus Krippendorf
    • Length: medium-long
    • Jargon: significant
    • Type: N/A

CATEGORY 2 - THE ANATOMY OF UX

It is easy to get bogged down by the tactical practices that seem to come attached to UX-related work. From sticky notes to photoshop comps, it seems we are always defined by the detritus of our processes, but what exactly constitutes a user experience? Where does it begin and end?

FOR GENERAL PURPOSE CONSUMPTION: 

  • The Elements of User Experience
    • Author: Jesse James Garrett
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Overview

FOR THE DIE-HARD TEXTBOOK JUNKIES WHO WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO EXERCISES TO PRACTICE THEIR UNDERSTANDING: 

  • The UX Book
    • Author: Rex Hartson & Pardha Pyla
    • Length: Long
    • Jargon: moderate to significant
    • Type: Detailed Practices

CATEGORY 3 - ON USERS (OTHERWISE KNOWN AS PEOPLE), AND THEIR STUDY

To say you are designing experiences for others without doing research on them is lying to yourself and to your clients. At best, you are designing experiences for yourself, for products you will most likely never use. Good research is the foundation upon which meaningfully designed experiences are built.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN BUILDING RESEARCH AND TESTING INTO THEIR WORK WITHOUT GETTING REALLY INTO IT: 

  • UX Team of One
    • Author: Leah Buley
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Detailed Practices

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO BUILD OUT A SPECIALIST SKILL SET IN RESEARCH: 

  • Observing Users
    • Author: Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky, Andrea Moed
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Detailed Practices
  • Practical Ethnography
    • Author: Sam Ladner
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Field Guide

FOR THOSE WHO ARE LOOKING FOR TACTICAL TIPS AND TRICKS TO MAKE THE INTERVIEW PROCESS SUPER-SMOOTH: 

  • Interviewing Users
    • Author: Steve Portigal
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Field Guide

FOR THOSE WHO LIKE (OR NEED) TO PUT NUMBERS TO PEOPLE OR VICE VERSA: 

  • Measuring the User Experience
    • Author: Tom Tullis, Bill Albert
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Detailed Practices
  • Quantifying the User Experience (the next step up from "Measuring the User Experience")
    • Author: Jeff Sauro, James Lewis
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: detailed practices

CATEGORY 4 - DOING DESIGN: RULES, GUIDELINES, & FRAMEWORKS

The previous books often don’t get into the specifics of what techniques exist or how to use them, making them less practical as reference guides for practitioners. This category is the exception to that rule, in that these books provide specific practices, heuristics, and frameworks for actually doing design work.

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN THE PRINCIPLES BEHIND DESIGN PRINCIPLES: 

  • Designing With The Mind in Mind
    • Author: Jeff Johnson
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Overview

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO DESIGN FOR THE SMALL SCREEN: 

  • The Mobile Frontier
    • Author: Rachel Hinman
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Field Guide

TO GET YOU THINKING ABOUT DESIGN AS A SERIES OF EXPERIMENTS IN INCREASINGLY HIGH FIDELITY: 

  • Prototyping: A Practitioner’s Guide
    • Author: Todd Zaki Warfel
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Detailed Practices

FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN A COMPREHENSIVE GOAL-DRIVEN APPROACH TO UX DESIGN: 

  • About Face 4
    • Author: Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, David Cronin, Christopher Noessel
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: moderate
    • Type: Detailed Practices

FOR THOSE WORKING ON COMPLEX SITES WITH LOTS OF DIFFERENT CLASSES OF CONTENT AND SUPPORT FOR LOTS OF DIFFERENT USE CASES: 

  • Information Architecture: Blueprints for the web
    • Author: Christina Wodtke, Austin Govella
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

FOR THOSE WHO WANT A GRAB-BAG OF TECHNIQUES TO REFER TO IN A BIND

  • Universal Methods of Design
    • Author: Bruce Hanington, Bella Martin
    • Length: short
    • Jargon: minimal to moderate
    • Type: Field Guide

CATEGORY 5 - ODDS & ENDS

These books don’t really fall into any of the other 4 categories, but it’s worth looking into them for a variety of reasons.

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE TO MANAGE OR FACILITATE DESIGN PROJECTS: 

  • A Project Guide to UX design: for user experience designers in the field or in the making
    • Author: Russ Unger & Carolyn Chandler
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview

FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO DESIGN HOLISTIC EXPERIENCES, NOT JUST SINGLE-CHANNEL PRODUCTS: 

  • Service Design: From Insight to Implementation
    • Author: Andy Polaine, Lavrans Løvlie, Ben Reason
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview
  • This is Service Design Thinking
    • Editors: Marc Stickdorn, Jakob Schneider
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Detailed Practices

FOR THOSE WHO DON’T THINK THERE ARE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH NOT THINKING ABOUT THE BROADER SCOPE OF IMPACT OF A PRODUCT: 

  • Why We Fail: Learning From Experience Design Failures
    • Author: Victor Lombardi
    • Length: medium
    • Jargon: minimal
    • Type: Overview