Books That Have Influenced Our UX Careers, Part 3: Books on Topics Other Than UX

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A column by Janet M. Six
April 24, 2017

In Part 3 of our special Ask UXmatters series about books that have influenced our UX careers, we consider books that, while not about User Experience, have greatly influenced members of our expert panel. For our discussion of influential design books, see Part 1. We covered books on UX research and usability testing in Part 2. You may also find the references in the Ask UXmatters column “Inspiration for UX Design from the Arts and Sciences” of interest.

AnnouncementUXmatters is now an Amazon Associate, so you can support UXmatters by initiating a shopping trip on Amazon by clicking a book link in this column, then buying the book or any other products on Amazon. Thus, by making purchases on Amazon, you can—at no additional cost to you—help UXmatters cover its operating expenses, fund our ongoing Web-development efforts, and defray the recent $90,000.00 cost of completely rebuilding our site to implement our responsive design. Please show us that you value UXmatters and want us to continue delivering high-quality, free content to you every month. Thank you! UXmatters plans to launch a new Books section on our Web site, recommending additional helpful books to our readers on User Experience and other topics of interest to UX professionals.

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Every month in 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
  • Mark Baldino—Co-founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Carol Barnum—Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm; author of Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set … Test!
  • Warren Croce—Principal UX Designer at Gazelle; Principal at Warren Croce Design
  • 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
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Important—You can buy any of the books we’ve described in this column on Amazon now. Just click the book’s link—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.

Note—I’ve organized the books into topics and ordered the topics alphabetically.

Agile Development

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change

By Kent Beck

Second edition

Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace ChangeExtreme Programming (XP) was one the early influential processes of what later became known as agile. So why was a book for developers influential on my UX career? People often see agile as a very developer-focused approach. After all, Kent Beck and the other people who produced the Manifesto for Agile Software Development all self-identified as developers.

“What people forget—or never knew—was that agile was a radical change for most developers, too. It broke down traditional silos. It pushed for lots of collaboration between development disciplines. It focused on cross-functional teams with strongly articulated values. It reframed development as an evolutionary, feedback-driven process rather than one that was driven by up-front planning. Agile pushed for intense collaboration with users and stakeholders—in fact, on the first XP project, a user was embedded on the development team.

“Changing from the traditional model of a big design phase that was then followed by a very hierarchical team’s building large systems in one go was an immense change. This was, quite frankly, scary to a lot of people in the development world. When I first encountered XP—on the first wiki!—in 1999, I thought it was nonsense. But, by trying things that were different—sometimes very different—from previous best practices, I’ve found better ways of building products. By the time I finally read Kent’s book, I’d already seen some of the practices work well and was eager to try others.

“The lesson that improving your culture can feel scary and counterintuitive is one that’s been useful ever since.

“What I’ve found, when working with good agile teams, is much more openness to user-centered methods than I’ve seen on non-agile teams. The feedback loops in agile provide a natural point at which to guide ongoing product work with the results of user research. The cross-functional and generalist-friendly structure of agile teams has made it much easier to embed UX roles on teams and spread UX knowledge. Whatever you think of Lean Startup or Lean UX, neither approach would exist without the agile folks first having paved the way. I wouldn’t want to work any other way. And Kent’s book was a major part of the agile movement.”—Adrian Howard, Generalizing Specialist in Agile/UX

Computer Science

Fuzzy Logic: The Revolutionary Computer Technology That Is Changing Our World

By Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger

Fuzzy Logic: The Revolutionary Computer Technology That Is Changing Our World“As a graduate student in Computer Science, I was fascinated by the breakthroughs that were happening in the field. However, at the same time, I was frustrated by the gulf between the current innovations in technology and the usability of products that were available to consumers. This was in the mid-1990s, so not everyone had a computer at home or a cell phone. Many people I knew were not interested in technology because they saw it as a hassle—or worse, just something else that would break and be an expense. As a computer-science student, I saw how technology could improve the everyday lives of many people, and I wanted to help make that happen.

“I loved studying and working on innovations, so that was my main focus. But, in the background, I was looking for a way to make great technology accessible to more people. One day at the bookstore, I happened across Fuzzy Logic: The Revolutionary Computer Technology That Is Changing Our World, by Daniel McNeill and Paul Freiberger. This book discusses Lotfi Zadeh’s work on fuzzy logic, which algorithms can use in applying imprecise data to complex situations. All of sudden, I saw a strong connection between the zeros and ones of computer science and the messier realities of the physical world. Another reason I enjoy this book so much is its inclusion of so many real-world examples—such as the fuzzy logic–controlled trains in Sendai, Japan.

“The most profound way in which this book impacted me was that I now had an example of how to use and respect formal computer-science tenets, while applying them to the complex, imprecise situations we encounter in everyday life. This book also led me to find The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, which discusses the physical design of objects. Since the time I found both of these books, I have been motivated to help create beautiful, usable products that take advantage of the amazing technological innovations of our time.”—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design


The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education

By Maria Montessori

The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education“After many years of my praising the benefits of a Montessori approach to education, I finally got around to reading Maria Montessori’s  book on the subject. More than a century old, the ideas are more relevant than ever: the importance of tangible learning objects—something that’s presently missing from digital learning experiences—encouraging learners to pursue their natural interests, and creating an environment that encourages this natural learning. I could go on and on! While the book is explicitly about teaching young children, it helped me to crystallize my approach to design—an approach that uses psychology to create generative play spaces where people can learn and grow. This is quite different from the conversion-focused, transactional systems with which most companies seem to be preoccupied.”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard


Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail

By Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadore

Why Buildings Fall Down: How Structures Fail“I originally went to college to study aerospace engineering, and I pursued that goal pretty vigorously—even doing additional grant-funded aerospace research with people at Boeing. That work and my education brought me to a real understanding of systems thinking, how everything is connected to something else, and how rarely a success is the result of one brilliant flash of insight—or a failure, the result of one wrong move. The thing that coalesced my thinking most was the book Why Buildings Fall Down, which traces the causes of a variety of key, interesting engineering failures and, sometimes, solutions that let teams recover from them. I grew up—and still live—in Kansas City and clearly remember the Hyatt Skywalk collapse. Having that sort of simple structure fail due to a system’s not operating in intuitive ways has really stuck with me. This book is full of such examples, including that one.”—Steven Hoober, Interaction Designer and Owner at 4ourth Mobile


The Little Prince

By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince“What can I say about this timeless classic? It’s a beautiful story that everyone—and I mean everyone—should read. It imparts so many lessons about what is important and what is not. For designers, I believe experiences are fragile, delicate things. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, ‘The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.’ I think anyone crafting an experience should perk up at reading this. When you get down to it, our medium—user experience—is fundamentally intangible. How can we speak up for and value something so elusive?”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard

Little Brother

By Cory Doctorow

Little Brother“Speaking of stories, one might describe Little Brother as 1984 for the 21st century. It’s a fictional account of a teenage hacker whose constitutional rights get trampled, following a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Yes, it’s young adult fiction. The prose is preachy, and the hero isn’t without his own flaws. But the themes are eerily prescient when you consider that the book was written years before the Snowden / NSA revelations and long before the current Trump presidency. Some consider the message subversive—I’d say so! This book was the splash of cold water I needed to move me from being merely concerned about data privacy to actually taking efforts to protect and defend what are basic human rights.”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard

Pandora’s Star

By Peter Hamilton

Pandora's Star“I first encountered the E-Butler in Peter F. Hamilton’s Pandora’s Star. The idea of the E-Butler is that every citizen has a digital implant that provides access to a set of sophisticated software applications. People can use these applications for automated data searches, forwarding and answering communications, paying for services, and sending personal files securely. More sophisticated E-Butlers are available that are essentially mental copies of the user’s mind, allowing users to multitask, essentially by using their own brain algorithms. Ultimately, E-Butlers are a type of artificial intelligence—or what Hamilton calls a restricted intelligence. What I like about this concept is that it takes something that could be incredibly complex, hard to define, and some years off the future and brings it into a very real world, showing both the potential for the technology and the dangers that are associated with it.”—Peter Hornsby, UX Manager at Distribution Technology

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into ValuesBy Robert M. Pirsig

“Many years ago, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made me think about how people interact with machines and technology, as well as the nature of quality.”—Gerry Gaffney, Director and Principal UX Consultant at Information & Design


Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

By Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration“At some point in our careers, we realize that designing great things depends on our first designing a great company culture that encourages designing great things. Following the epic success of the movies A Bug’s Life and Toy Story, Ed Catmull began devoting his energy to cultivating the creative culture that makes Pixar so great. Equal parts story and business book, Creativity, Inc. is packed with many brilliant gems about how to create and nurture a creative culture. This is perhaps the best business book I’ve read—especially for those of us who work in a creative space where things are constantly changing—in other words, nearly everything UX designers do.”—Stephen Anderson, Chief Experience Officer at BloomBoard

Managing the Professional Service Firm

By David H. Maister

Managing the Professional Service Firm“The book that has been most influential on my career is not about design. It is Managing the Professional Services Firm, by David Maister. The book offers clear tactical and strategic advice on how to structure and run a consultancy. In particular, it focuses on how to select and treat your clients; how to market and sell your services; and how to manage, motivate, and encourage growth on your team. So, while the book is not directed at designers, the information it contains can benefit anyone who works with and for other people.”—Mark Baldino, Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math

Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits

By Robert Townsend

Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits“The book I’d like to nominate is Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits, which was published in 1970. Robert Townsend was the CEO of Avis when they came up with their famous slogan ‘We Try Harder.’ This short book is an alphabetical series of reflections on management. Townsend strongly believed in the user-centered design of organizations and of business. He structured Avis ‘as if people matter,’ and the book is full of sensible advice. The section on people is well worth the cost of the book, all on its own.

“My favorite of Townsend’s aphorisms is the one I recall as: ‘If you’re not in business for fun or profit, why are you here?’ It’s been a while since I read the book, so I dipped into it to find the exact quotation. It’s under E for Excellence:

Excellence: Or What the Hell Are You Doing Here?  If you can’t do it excellently, don’t do it at all. Because if it’s not excellent, it won’t be profitable or fun, and if you’re not in business for fun or profit, what the hell are you doing here?’—Robert Townsend

“I’ve often thought about that, even though most of my work has been for government and nonprofits. Will a particular activity save some cost? Will it help to make someone’s life better, possibly even my own? If not, why are we doing it?

“Given the book’s 1970 origin, you’ll find a few anachronisms. For example, the people he works with are almost invariably he or him. But for each of these, there are many nuggets that are still just as relevant today. For example, the section ‘Epaulets for the Chief Executive’ is another of my favorites—especially the following quotation:

‘No matter what the experts say, never, never automate a manual function without a long enough period of dual operation. When in doubt, discontinue the automation. And don’t stop the manual system until the non-experts in the organization think that automation is working.’—Robert Townsend

“I came across this book in the 1980s and loved it. The ‘as if people matter’ mantra really worked for me and helped to guide me into user-centered design. If you’d like to read the book yourself, I recommend getting the paperback version of Townsend’s Further Up the Organization: How to Stop Management from Stifling People and Strangling Productivity. The 1984 edition is more or less identical with the newer book and is widely available for pennies.”—Caroline Jarrett, Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited

Marketing and Sales

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and PurposeBy Tony Hsieh

“I read Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh, about a year and a half ago. I had recently begun working at a startup, and I could see the influence of his customer-centric focus and obsession with culture there.”—Warren Croce, Principal UX Designer at Gazelle and Principal at Warren Croce Design

Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers

By Geoffrey Moore

Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers“The first book that comes to mind for me is Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore. I see it’s now in its 3rd edition, which was published in 2014, so I guess it’s continuing to find readership. Moore is probably best known for his technology adoption lifestyle, which starts with first adopters, which are called innovators, then moves to early adopters, then the early majority and late majority, and finally, to the laggards. The chasm, from a technology-adoption perspective, occurs between the early adopters and early majority. Usability comes in once a product crosses the chasm and is making its way into the mainstream market. That may sound counterintuitive, but Moore says first and early adopters don’t care about usability. They just want to be the first to have whatever new thing is on the market. However, if new products are going to be successful, they’ll have to pass the usability test to make it into the mainstream market. This book seems as relevant today as it ever was.”—Carol Barnum, Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm

Real-World Selling: For Out-of-This-World Results

By Maura Schreier-Fleming

Real-World Selling: For Out-of-This-World Results“While I was well schooled in technology, I had no training in sales. But I knew that I must become knowledgeable in the art of selling to progress in my field. In the future, I hope more universities include basic business training in all of their degree programs, so graduates can better apply their knowledge in the real world. I was fortunate enough to attend an IEEE Consultants Network panel discussion on starting a business and met Maura there. As a textile engineer turned top salesperson in the industrial-lubricants industry, she is able to speak to both engineers and salespeople. In general, people in technology do not pay enough attention to sales and marketing. But to get the greatest products to customers, their design must make business sense. I appreciate Maura’s great help in my building a bridge from technology to business. Not only have her sales techniques helped my business, they have also helped me to create better designs. Because her techniques are customer centered, I can apply them to my design work.”—Janet Six, Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design


The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places

By Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass

The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places“Another classic that comes to mind is The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places, by Reeves and Nass. They were conducting research at Stanford University that revealed people treat computers like humans—so much so that they give higher marks to a training program when they evaluate it on a different computer from the one they used for the training. And that’s just one example from the fascinating studies that the book reports.”—Carol Barnum, Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our MachinesBy Clifford Nass and Corina Yen

“Clifford Nass also wrote The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, which further explores how people relate to technology as if it were human.”—Carol Barnum, Director of User Research and Founding Partner at UX Firm 


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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