Book Review: UX for Beginners: A Crash Course in 100 Short Lessons

Innovating UX Practice

Inspirations from software engineering

A column by Peter Hornsby
February 22, 2016

UX for Beginners CoverEvery so often, I’m asked if I can recommend a book on learning User Experience, and I generally struggle to find an appropriate answer. It’s not that there aren’t any good books out there. It’s more that learning User Experience—as with most things—is something better done through practice, working on something that is as close to a real problem as possible. (Sure, no one wants to mess up on a big corporate project in the name of personal development. But frankly, if you’re the person trying to make things better, and you can persuade people to let you do it, all power to you.)

If I were able to go back to being my younger self, one of the pieces of advice I’d give myself—in addition to buy Apple stock and round glasses really don’t suit you—would be to read less and do more. While reading to learn a new skill is good, reading in the absence of simultaneous, practical learning activities to put what you’ve read into practice is pretty much wasted effort. At its worst, reading gives the illusion of progress because the reader vicariously shares the author’s successes.

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Once someone has been working in a field for some years, what can be challenging is losing the ability to experience and explain that field through the eyes of a novice. In a previous column, I wrote about finding it challenging to appreciate a design as a user rather than as a designer when looking for ways to improve it. This is a similar situation, and it’s why having a solid rationale for any design decision and opening a design up to users’ challenges are such key parts of the process.

Online Training Materials

A little while ago, I presented an introduction to User Experience to some of my colleagues, as part of a broader set of activities to help increase their understanding about how the UX design process works and the kind of thinking that underpins design. As part of trying to get back into a beginner’s mindset, I took a look at various online resources. The growing popularity of User Experience has meant that there are a lot of sources of information available online for learning about this field. The downside is that many of them—in my view—lack credibility. Many sites push sound bytes or myths—claims relating to the fold or the number of clicks being the most prominent—rather than useful content. Others confuse effective UX design with graphic design.

In my search for useful information about User Experience, one of the best online sources of training materials I came across was Joel Marsh’s UX Crash Course: 31 Fundamentals. I ended up drawing on a lot of the material from that course in preparing my own internal training course. The book UX for Beginners is the dead-tree format of that course.

UX for Beginners

There is a lot to like about the approach Joel Marsh has taken in developing his book UX for Beginners. He’s spent a lot of time and effort preparing bite-sized training morsels, each of which addresses a single facet of user experience. Joel originally developed his course for his colleagues, refined it in response to their feedback, then finally, put the content online. Now, Joel has further developed his content for this book. He’s taken a very user-centered approach to doing things, which lends credibility to his subject matter. The book is bound in a way that allows most, but not all pages to lie open on a desk, which is a good approach for a reference.

Joel has broken the content into 100 lessons that are structured into 14 sections. The lessons are short—typically, just one or two pages long. That is a format that works well online, and it’s good to see the same format being applied to something other than click bait. The structure covers good, solid, core UX content, including user research, information architecture, behavioral techniques, visual design, prototyping, and analytics.

Joel has a very distinctive writing style that’s very chatty and informal. This can be both a positive and a negative. While that type of approach can help make a subject much more approachable, some may find it a bit too much. On balance though, I think it works.

Because of Joel’s obvious knowledge of UX design, the book comes across as a credible resource. Not just because of the book’s content, but also because of the approach Joel has taken in developing the materials. I did feel that the book might have been improved by including some references to additional credible reading. However, while this would have been nice to have, for the book’s intended audience of beginners, there’s still plenty to be getting on with. Readers can get a good, basic understanding of User Experience. Hopefully, this will be enough to enable them to sort the good stuff from the bad when they do start looking elsewhere.


UX for Beginners has now become my standard response when people ask me to recommend a book to them to learn about User Experience. Reading this book—together with practical design work and support from an experienced UX designer—could be a really effective approach to getting involved in the field of User Experience. The book contains a lot of practical, science-based content, without getting into too much heavy-weight academic material. Since it approaches UX design in a way that manages to be authoritative, though informal, it provides a good antidote to some of the more misleading UX advice out there! 

Director at Edgerton Riley

Reading, Berkshire, UK

Peter HornsbyPeter has been actively involved in Web design and development since 1993, working in the defense and telecommunications industries; designing a number of interactive, Web-based systems; and advising on usability. He has also worked in education, in both industry and academia, designing and delivering both classroom-based and online training. Peter is a Director at Edgerton Riley, which provides UX consultancy and research to technology firms. Peter has a PhD in software component reuse and a Bachelors degree in human factors, both from Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, UK. He has presented at international conferences and written about reuse, eLearning, and organizational design.  Read More

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