UX books have to serve many purposes. Here are three lists aimed at making people enthusiastic, giving them practical how-to advice, and teaching them the research skills they will need.
In the past, my over-simplified advice has been that Steve Krug’s books appeal to developers, Jakob Nielsen’s to researchers, Don Norman’s to everyone else. I still stand by that advice, but of course there’s more to it than that.
Getting people fired up about user experience
Steve Krug, Jeff Johnson and the grand old masters Bruce Tognazzini and Don Norman all expose the stupidity of everyday designs, explain some reasons why, and then go on to suggest solutions.
If you need to get someone to consider usability, buy them Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think. Now in its second edition, is a great read for any member of a development, business or management team. It explains the key elements of interaction design in a really accessible and straightforward manner. One of the key books that gets teams thinking they should “have some UX.”
Jeff Johnson’s book GUI Bloopers: Common User Interface Design Don’ts and Dos is also in its second edition. Full of visual illustrations that you’ll love to hate, and explanations of why each of the interfaces in the rogue’s gallery is bad. Jeff writes in a way that leaves you unaware that you’ve been learning principles from cognitive psychology or interaction design.
Bruce Tognazzini wrote some of the first truly accessible books on interaction design. Tog on Software Design draws on his experiences working at Apple. He describes how the software design process typically ignores users, and how to remedy that situation. A classic text. The interfaces described in this book show their age today but the message is still spot on.
Tog’s other book, Tog on Interface, takes a more guideline-oriented approach. Tog uses his many observations of user behavior to suggest what is wrong with interfaces, why it’s wrong, and how to fix it. Again, although the examples seem old-fashioned now the topics covered are still fresh. In a sense, that’s very depressing. For a taste of Tog, try his site – AskTog.com.
Don Norman, curmudgeon extraordinaire, has been writing about bad interfaces and how to fix them for many years. The Design of Everyday Things was originally called “The psychology of everyday things,” which is a more accurate but obviously less profitable title. Don explains why simple objects like telephones and door handles can either just work or cause endless frustration.
Don has released many subsequent books. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things touches on feelings – an angle that doesn’t get much attention in software, mainly because it’s very hard to measure. Living with Complexity describes the challenge of making complex designs sufficiently but not overly simple for users.
Learning research techniques from the experts
The books in this category are all practical guides to usability methods. The people writing them have many years of experience doing what they do.
Usability Engineering is the book that probably started it all, back in 1993. Still relevant today. Jakob Nielsen is the “guru” of usability (and I am not even paid to say that any more). His writing has a slightly academic tone because he backs his statements up with solid research, so you know that what you’re getting is a well-considered answer to the issue. This is true of each of his long list of published books.
Jeff Rubin has been doing usability work for ages, but still has a fresh perspective. The second edition of Handbook of Usability Testing brings the original 1994 book up to date with more emphasis on discount techniques and best practices.
In Observing the User Experience, Mike Kuniavsky takes a very hands-on approach to describing the key areas of user experience evaluation for people with an interest in doing research but no assumed background in psychology or similar disciplines.
John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin wrote The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design (Interactive Technologies) from personal experience building personas for large organizations. The resulting book is over 700 pages long and worth every page. Because of the level of detail it includes, team members might prefer the cliff notes version, below.
“How to” for your site or app
What about practical advice for making your product better?
Again, we have Steve Krug. In “Don’t Make Me Think” he said that UI design isn’t exactly rocket surgery. He obviously got feedback that some people thought it was, hence the title of his second book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. Very practical advice for time-stretched teams. He advocates discount usability techniques aimed at finding and fixing the big issues.
Almost every site that requires user interaction has some type of Web Form. Most sites’ forms could benefit from some serious tidying up. Find out how in Forms that Work: Designing Web Forms for Usability (Interactive Technologies) by Caroline Jarrett and Gerry Gaffney – professional forms designers.
In Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks Luke Wroblewski takes a different approach to telling you (mainly) the same information. Based on original research he conducted and his time with Yahoo! and eBay, he describes why as well as how to create usable forms that ask the right questions.
Navigation and information architecture are hard to get right. Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld show you how in Information Architecture for the World Wide Web: Designing Large-Scale Web Sites
Have you considered how much what you write influences users’ actions? Ginny Reddish is one of the grand dames of usability. In Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works she gives practical advice on how to structure content and write for the Web. Tends to neglect the SEO and marketing potential of text in order to create the most comprehensible copy.
Hot Text: Web Writing that Works is a different book to Ginny’s. Lots of before-and-after examples and a very different writing style. If Ginny’s book seems a little academic, this one feels a bit flippant. Still full of very useful tips on how to write for comprehension, and information on creating content, marketing spiel, assistance and e-mail newsletters.
The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas is the how-to version of the book listed above. It doesn’t have so much of the theoretical background. Instead, it walks you step-by-step through the creation process.
Invest in your brain
Some of these books are expensive. Like college textbook expensive. However, if you consider them to be reference books rather than a quick one-off read, they soon show their value. Lots of the teams I work with have reference libraries – shelves of books on the languages and tools they use. I’d suggest adding some of these books to the shelf.
If you click the book cover images or links on this page, they’ll take you to Amazon. I make a tiny bit of money from every referral. Disclaimer: I used to work with Tog, Jakob and Don and with John Pruitt. That has probably positively influenced my decision to add some of their books to this list.
If you think I’ve missed a must-have book, please add it in the comments.