Books That Have Influenced Our UX Careers, Part 1: Design

Ask UXmatters

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A column by Janet M. Six
February 20, 2017

This is the 100th edition of Ask UXmatters! I’d like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss many interesting topics—ranging from my inaugural column “Choosing the Language for a User Interface,” in November 2008, to “Fundamental Principles of Great UX Design,” to “Making the World a Better Place Through User Experience.” It is an honor to work with our esteemed expert panelists and bring this column to you. We look forward to collaborating on many more great columns!

For this centennial edition of Ask UXmatters, I asked our expert panel to tell me about some books that have influenced their career—whether UX books or inspiring books on other topics. Our experts have shared 65 different influential books and stories about how they affected their evolving career. Since they shared so many books, I have decided to break this column into three parts. In Part 1, we’ll cover design books, then in Part 2, we’ll discuss books on UX research—including both user research and usability testing. Finally, in Part 3, we’ll look at books that, while not about UX topics, have had great influence on our experts.

AnnouncementUXmatters will soon launch a new Books section on our Web site, providing a helpful information resource to our readers about the best books on User Experience and other topics of interest to UX professionals. We’ll continually add more books—both new books and classics. Plus, because UXmatters is now an Amazon Associate, you can support UXmatters by starting your shopping trips to Amazon from our site. In fact, you can start supporting UXmatters now by clicking a book link in this column and buying the book on Amazon! Just by purchasing books and other products on Amazon, you can—at no additional cost to you—help us cover the magazine’s operating expenses and fund our ongoing Web-development efforts—including the high cost of completely rebuilding our site to implement our responsive design, which launched in mid-2016. Please support UXmatters and help us to continue delivering great, free content to you—our readers. Thank you!

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Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, or research or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

The following experts have contributed to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Stephen Anderson—Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • Leo Frishberg—Principal, Phase II
  • Gerry Gaffney—Director and Principal UX Consultant at Information & Design
  • Steven Hoober—Mobile Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile; author of Designing Mobile Interfaces; UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—UX Manager at Distribution Technology; UXmatters columnist
  • Adrian Howard—Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Traci Lepore—Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle; UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe; Co-founder and 1st President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA); Co-author of About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design
  • Jim Ross—Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

After months of discussion and receiving many enthusiastic responses from our Ask UXmatters panel, the key thing I noticed was the wide variety of the books’ topics—reflecting the varied backgrounds of our experts and UX professionals in general. One exciting aspect of our work is the fact that, in creating better user experiences, UX professionals draw inspiration from many seemingly disparate domains—as you’ll see in Part 1 and those that follow.

Note—To make it easier for you to find books on topics of interest to you, I’ve organized them loosely into categories and ordered both the categories and the books within them alphabetically. But, just as it’s hard to categorize UX professionals, it’s also hard to categorize the books that inspire them, and there are other ways in which I could have categorized these books.

Important—You can buy any of the books in this column on Amazon now, just by clicking its link in this column—either a book-cover image or a book title. UXmatters will receive up to 8.5% of whatever amount you spend during that session on Amazon.

Design Domains

A Theory of Fun for Game Design

By Raph Koster

A Theory of Fun for Game DesignA Theory of Fun for Game Design is, hands down, the single best book I can recommend to anyone at all interested in understanding games at a deeper level. Raph Koster takes us on a tour of games in all their forms—from board games to video games to sports games—and peels back the surface details to see what fun is and why games matter. Super approachable and fun to read. And while the casual, no-nonsense explanations will feel like a conversation over drinks, nearly every paragraph is footnoted with numerous research studies and academic citations. This book helped me view most things we do in life through the lens of games.”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard

Computers as Theatre

By Brenda Laurel

Computers as Theatre
“For me, the book that comes immediately to mind is Computers as Theatre. I read this book a few years into my career, and it was the spark that got me thinking that I could combine my loves of design and theatre in a productive and innovative way. It led to my pursuing grad school and earning my Masters in Theatre Education. Plus, it provided the seed for my UXmatters column Dramatic Impact. Now, I have a voice and a perspective to offer the UX world, and I’ll never forget that initial inspiration!”—Traci Lepore, User Experience Professional at Bridgeline Digital

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

By Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtUnderstanding Comics is one of those rare books that speaks to the formal peculiarities of a particular discipline, while simultaneously peeling back the layers to dig deeper and explore universal constants that underlie most expressive mediums. This is a popular book among designers, for so many reasons—from its exploration of how the juxtaposition of panels suggests narrative to the effects of abstract versus photorealistic iconography, which was highly relevant to the rise of skeuomorphism a few years ago. On the fence about comics? This book will help you see what comics—as an art form—are really all about.”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard

Graphic Design

Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice

By Armin Hofmann

Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice<“Armin Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual is a classic in the field and a great resource for understanding basic design principles. I think anyone working in the field of User Experience would find value in it because it stresses economy and simplification for maximum impact.”—Warren Croce, Principal UX Designer at Gazelle and Principal at Warren Croce Design

The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and Books

The Grid: A Modular System for the Design and Production of Newspapers, Magazines, and BooksBy Allen Hurlburt

“By and large, most of my design reading has focused on graphic design, which was my major in college. The Grid was written in 1978, but is still a book I refer to now.”—Warren Croce, Principal UX Designer at Gazelle and Principal at Warren Croce Design


History of Technology

Our panelists found design inspiration in these books.

Computer Lib / Dream Machines: You Can and Must Understand Computers NOW

By Ted Nelson

Computer Lib / Dream Machines: You Can and Must Understand Computers NOW“I highly recommend this book, which was written in 1974, the year before I was born. It really conveys Nelson’s enthusiasm for what computing could be. In case you’ve not come across Ted Nelson before, he is someone who has given a huge amount to computing and, while he has sometimes—to paraphrase Browning—found that his reach exceeded his grasp, that is, in itself, no bad thing. It’s how we progress as a species.”—Peter Hornsby, UX Manager at Distribution Technology

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance

By Henry Petroski

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance“Henry Petroski is a terrific writer and, in his many volumes, has explicitly discussed how to design well or poorly. But my first, early exposure to his work was this daunting tome. It is wonderfully written, tying things together in improbable ways, as many historians have done since—in much the same way as James Burke’s Connections TV series, for those as old as me. In doing so, he has made the complexity of even simple things clearer and proven to me the necessity of understanding at least part of the complex chain of systems, so I can utilize them well in my design work.”—Steven Hoober, Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile

The Soul of a New Machine

By Tracey Kidder.

The Soul of a New Machine“This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award many years ago. Something I am concerned about regarding a lot of UX designers is a lack of empathy with the engineers who make hardware or an understanding of that hardware. User experience is one layer in a very deep system. What this book does incredibly well is to describe the creation of a new computer. lt takes you on an emotional journey. Kidder talks about all levels of the hardware and how they were brought together, as well as the challenges and frustrations of developing an entirely new machine. It’s quite an old book now, but the writing and the emotions it evokes are timeless.”—Peter Hornsby, UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Industrial Design

Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change

By Victor Papanek

Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change“Perhaps the biggest influence on my design career was Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World, which was published way back in 1972. I read it around then—perhaps a couple of years after its publication. I was a young designer, not yet in college, and I was struck by Papanek’s impassioned plea for appropriate technology. The notion that we could reduce the amount of technological investment and creation, in service of solving the targeted problem, really resonated with my adolescent self. It still resonates strongly today, in the context of highly complex technical environments.

“Papanek continued his criticism of the industrial-design domain from the mid-1960s throughout his career. The main tenets of his arguments were as follows:

  • Industrial design—and design as a human-centered activity in general—was obligated to solve real-world problems. We, as designers, are in a position to create solutions that reduce the suffering of humankind.
  • Papanek criticized design in the 1960s because it had devolved into a competition of styling, which he traced all the way back to the 1930s and streamlined moderne. He lamented that adding aeronautical elements to teapots didn’t do a thing to improve the teapot or the user’s experience of making tea, all the while using up precious resources.
  • Papanek documented case studies from his classes at Cooper Union, among many other universities, in which he and his students applied serious, deep design thinking to significant problems in developing nations—such as lack of power, limited access to fresh water, and the value of recycling whatever materials could be had into functioning technology.

“This single book still informs almost all of my design thinking over 40 years later. Can I find the least necessary technology to solve the problem at hand? While this may sound a lot like minimum viable product (MVP), it is anything but. Am I, through my design efforts and deliverables, contributing to improving the world? Are the companies for which I work and their business interests in line with the idea of appropriate technology? This is great stuff, and I urge anyone who hasn’t read this book to give it a read—or if it’s been a while, give it a re-read.”—Leo Frishberg, Principal at Phase II

Designing for People

By Henry Dreyfuss

Designing for PeopleDesigning for People and Design for the Real World—both written by important figures in the industrial design world—were highly influential in my thinking about interaction design as a profession and as a philosophy. They’re about balancing client needs with design work that is ethical, purposeful, pragmatic, and elegant with respect to users. Papanek’s book, in particular, inspired me to tackle tough design problems that make a real difference in improving the human condition and is, in part, responsible for my attraction to the healthcare domain, where design can truly have a direct and immediate effect on the quality of life of patients and their families.”—Robert Reimann, Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe

How Things Don’t Work

How Things Don’t WorkBy Victor Papanek and James Hennessey

In writing How Things Don’t Work with James Hennessey, Papanek continued his critique of industrial design.—Leo Frishberg, Principal at Phase II



The Psychology of Everyday Things and

The Design of Everyday Things, Revised and Expanded Edition

By Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things</em>, Revised and Expanded Edition“I first read The Design of Everyday Things after it had been revised and renamed from its original title, The Psychology of Everyday Things. By that time, it was already a classic—perhaps the classic book on interaction design that predated the term interaction design. Don Norman precisely describes the great need for interaction design processes, practices, and principles that books such as About Face later addressed.”—Robert Reimann, Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe

“I read Don Norman’s The Psychology of Everyday Things in 1991—the edition that preceded the title change to The Design of Everyday Things. For me, it helped crystallize the idea that making digital products and systems easier to use could be a discipline in and of itself rather than just a side effect of other work.

“At the time, I was an undergraduate, studying artificial intelligence, and the book fell into a bunch of reading I was doing around computer vision—because Norman tangentially, and somewhat inaccurately, discussed James J. Gibson’s concept of affordances.

“This book helped me reframe some of the development work I had done earlier in my career—as making systems easier to use—see how it related to cognitive psychology, and understand how humans worked rather than thinking in terms of technological advancement.”—Adrian Howard, Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX

“I discovered The Design of Everyday Things late in my computer-science graduate school days. I had become frustrated by the gulf between the amazing technology that was being created and the typical user experience, so was thrilled to find a discussion of why that was happening and how to make it better. Door handles have never been the same for me since I read this book. I now enjoy quipping, ‘Well this design probably won an award.’ In all seriousness, though, this book verified for me that good design for the products we use every day is not a waste of time or a frivolous extra, but an extremely important endeavor, because technology is an extension of humanity.”—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Interaction Design

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design

By Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, David Cronin, and Christopher Noessel

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design“After reading The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, I was eager to make technology easier to use, so I bought About Face 2.0 to better understand exactly what interaction design was and how to apply it. In this book, Cooper and Reimann describe the why and how of using goal-directed design to build products that are effective and easy to use. As someone who was classically trained in computer science and had spent many hours writing code, I greatly appreciated having this book, which integrated solid design principles with the tenets of computer science, with which I was already familiar.—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

The Elements of Friendly Software Design

By Paul Heckel

The Elements of Friendly Software Design“Published a year before the first edition of About Face, this might have been the first book that attempted to describe principles of what would eventually be called interaction design. My favorite illustration in the book couples a quotation from Einstein with sketches of a baby wearing a diaper. In the first sketch, the baby’s diaper is fastened with a safety pin—‘Make things as simple as possible….’ It’s followed by a sketch of a baby wearing a diaper fastened with a straight pin—‘…but no simpler.’”—Robert Reimann, Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe


Usability Engineering

Usability EngineeringBy Jakob Nielsen

“Nielsen’s Usability Engineering provides a hard-nosed view of what usability is, how it’s measured, and why it matters. I consider this a foundational book.”—Gerry Gaffney, Director and Principal UX Consultant at Information & Design


User Experience Design

The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond

By Jesse James Garrett

The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond“A book that I found extremely useful early in my career was Jesse James Garrett’s The Elements of User Experience. To this day, I don’t think anyone has ever created a clearer, more accurate, more understandable description of user experience and how its elements fit together. I recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t already understand User Experience.”—Jim Ross, Principal User Experience Architect at Infragistics

User-Interface Design

Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction

By Ben Shneiderman, Catherine Pleasant, Maxine Cohen, Steven Jacobs, Niklas Elmqvist, and Nicholas Diakopoulos

Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer InteractionDesigning the User Interface is one of the books I use most frequently. It is a classic textbook—now in its 6th edition—for HCI at many universities. Since I did not have formal training in user interface or interaction design, I sought out a great textbook in this area. This book gave me a good foundation in user interface design that I was able to integrate with my computer-science education. I frequently use Shneiderman’s ‘Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design’ in my work. Why do I harp on the basics? Because they are still not pervasive in today’s designs!”—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines

Macintosh Human Interface GuidelinesBy Apple Computer, Inc.

“The early editions of Apple’s Macintosh HIGs were one of the few places you could look to figure out how to go about creating visual style guides for user interfaces. This book was on my shelf for most of my early design career.”—Robert Reimann, Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe

Tog on Interface

By Bruce Tognazzini

Tog on Interface“The first time I stumbled across anything that codified what we were calling Web design, as part of a larger truth, was when I found a book someone had left behind at work: Tog on Interface. It’s a collection of old Bruce Tognazzini columns from the early Mac days. While it rambles, has excessively specific rants about stuff that no longer matters, is overly opinionated, and dismisses ideas and research he doesn’t like, it’s full of useful nuggets and how-to lists from design to hiring. Plus, it introduced me to many useful terms and concepts.”—Steven Hoober, Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile

“Bruce Tognazzini’s AskTOG blog was one of the first resources I found when searching online for more information about interface design. I would often find myself saying, ‘Yes! Yes!’ while reading his blog and was glad to have a collection of his columns from Apple in this book.”—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

UX Strategy

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity

By Alan Cooper

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity“This book has been fundamental to my career in User Experience. After reading The Design of Everyday Things, I knew there was a better way to design technology, but I encountered a significant obstacle: many businesses did not see a problem with the current state of technology. ‘These poorly designed products sell; why invest so much money in a better design?’ Alan Cooper’s The Inmates Are Running the Asylum makes a business case for interaction design. We can have the best product design in the world, but if it does not make sense for the business to implement it, the design will remain unrealized. Alan bridged the gap between design and business goals.—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design

Visual Interface Design

Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques

By Kevin Mullet and Darrell Sano

Designing Visual Interfaces: Communication Oriented Techniques“This book, sadly out of print, remains the best book on the detailed visual design of user interfaces that I have come across. In the early years of my design career, this was my go-to book for visual interface design. I wish someone would update it and put it back in print!”—Robert Reimann, Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe

What About You?

Look for further discussion of what books have had great influence on our experts in Part 2 and Part 3 of this Ask UXmatters series. And please share what books have inspired you and your work—whether books on UX topics or others—in the Comments section. We want to hear from you! And we hope you’ll support UXmatters by clicking a book link and buying one or more of these books on Amazon. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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