Books are really expensive. Nothing on this list is essential.
You might want to borrow some of these books rather than buying them. Read them once, take some notes, and you’re good to go. Others are more of a reference guide that you might come back to several times throughout your career. Even if you only borrow them now, buy them later after you’ve landed that high-paying UX gig!
Tip: If you want to save money, buy used copies – you’ll find them on Amazon alongside the new ones. Just make sure you’re getting the most recent edition.
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Intro to UX
Easy reads that teach you a lot. All of these are written without assuming any prior UX experience.
Steve Krug’s book, Don’t Make Me Think (Revisited) 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 2.0: Common User Interface Design Don’ts and Dos is 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. The UI examples are looking a little dated (the book’s from 2007) but still relevant.
Don Norman, curmudgeon extraordinaire, has been writing about bad interfaces and how to fix them for many years. The Design of Everyday Things (Revised Ed.) 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.
Key UX Research texts
If you’re going to buy anything, I’d suggest you take a look at these three books.
Leah Buley wrote The User Experience Team of One to help every UX practitioner who works on their own – either as freelancer, in a small company, or as the only UX person on a large team. Great advice the “Philosophy” section, highly actionable content in the “Practice” section.
Erica Hall’s Just Enough Research is written for people who are working in UX already, but it’s highly accessible. She has created a cookbook of methods but also offers great advice on how to actually get real work done.
Steve Portigal covers just one topic in Interviewing Users, but it’s such a key part of the UX job that you HAVE to get it right. Almost every UX research method involves asking questions of users, even if it’s not face-to-face. This book shows you how to do it right.
Key Interaction Design texts
Designing Interfaces is now in its 3rd edition. Jennifer Tidwell describes UI best practices as a series of design patterns. The whole book is packed with excellent interaction design advice. This edition covers mobile and web apps as well as desktop software.
In The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams explains visual design principles in a way that makes sense to non-designers.
UX Research methods
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.
Jeff Rubin has been doing usability work for ages, but still has a fresh perspective. The second edition of Handbook of Usability Testing, written with Dana Chisnell, brings the original 1994 book up to date with more emphasis on discount techniques and best practices.
In Observing the User Experience (2nd Ed.), Mike Kuniavsky takes a very hands-on approach to describing 13 key user experience evaluation techniques for people with an interest in doing research but no assumed background in psychology or similar disciplines.
The Essential Persona Lifecycle: Your Guide to Building and Using Personas by John Pruitt and Tamara Adlin is the how-to version of their 700-page The Persona Lifecycle: Keeping People in Mind Throughout Product Design. It doesn’t have so much of the theoretical background. Instead, it walks you step-by-step through the creation process.
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. Borrow Usability Engineering rather than buying it, just because it’s been superseded by other books. But his Web usability book (with Hoa Loranger) and Mobile usability book (with Raluca Budiu) are both research-based reference guides that might be worth buying when you have the cash.
How Design Makes the World is written by Scott Berkun, who has been both a user researcher and a project manager in his career. It’s a wonderful book that really makes you consider the effects of design in every aspect of our lives.
Don Norman wrote The Design of Everyday Things, mentioned above. He 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.
For each of Don’s books, I’d say borrow them, take notes, and then revisit them in a couple of years’ time. You’ll get something different out of them after you have more experience in the field.
Universal Principles of Design, by William Lidwell, Jill Butler, and Kritina Holden, contains 125 major design principles. Each gets a two page spread with explanations on the left page and examples on the right page. That makes this such an easy book to dip into, you might not even realize you’re learning!
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (2nd Ed.) by Edward Tufte is a beautiful book. It’s all about how graphs, tables, and other statistics should be displayed. Sounds dry and boring, but the book is fascinating and incorporates many key design principles. Tufte went on to write Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations, and Beautiful Evidence. You’ll find these books on a lot of designers’ shelves.
Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton shows how to improve design by thinking about the narrative journey. In other words, how storytelling techniques make designs better. This is a very visually engaging book.
Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, by Nir Eyal, is a highly practical description of his Hook Model; a four-step process embedded into the products of many successful companies to subtly encourage customer behavior. Learn why some products capture widespread attention while others flop, and what makes us engage with certain products out of sheer habit.
Evil by Design: Interaction Design to Lead Us into Temptation, by Chris Nodder – yes, that’s me. A book about how companies make us feel good about doing what they want. Approaching persuasive design from the dark side, this book melds psychology, marketing, and design concepts to show why we’re susceptible to certain persuasive techniques.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. Marketing and market research use many of the same methods as user research to study user behavior. Cialdini and his team research what it takes to make people say “yes.”
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 (2nd Ed.) she gives practical advice on how to structure content and write for the Web. The second edition talks more about SEO and the marketing potential of text.
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.
I suggest you borrow both books to start with, then choose one to buy – whichever looks most like your style.
Navigation and information architecture are hard to get right. Peter Morville, Louis Rosenfeld, and Jorge Arango show you how in Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. This is the fourth edition of the “Polar bear book” – the absolute reference book for IA. Buy this if you think you want to specialize in IA.
Bonus extra: Read Intertwingled by Peter Morville, where he discusses the increasing relevance of information architecture using case studies from his career.
This is Service Design Doing is a follow-on book by Marc Stickdorn and Jakob Schneider, who wrote This is Service Design Thinking. A highly practical book that describes the steps to getting Design Thinking working in an organization. There’s also a Methods book that accompanies this.
An often-cited book in this space is Jake Knapp’s Sprint. I have two issues with the method he teaches: It doesn’t start from direct user research, and it doesn’t end up with a plan for how to implement the design. It’s popular though, so you may want to check it out.
Research and statistics
Colin Robson’s How to do a Research Project: A Guide for Undergraduate Students (2nd Ed.) is a good general guide to running and analyzing your own research. It’s written with social science experiments in mind, which is basically what UX research is all about.
It doesn’t cover statistics in massive detail, but on the publisher’s site you’ll find a link to the online book resources. In that list is a freely available digital copy of Robson’s original (out of print) book Experiment, Design and Statistics in Psychology. It’s NOT a substitute for the Research Project book, but it does walk through how to run various statistical tests so I’d suggest bookmarking or downloading it.
Quantifying the User Experience: Practical Statistics for User Research (2nd Ed.) by Jeff Sauro and James Lewis is written for UX practitioners. It shows you how to answer common research questions with statistics. Includes the stats to use, and excel formulas to calculate them.
Measuring the User Experience: Collecting, Analyzing, and Presenting Usability Metrics (2nd Ed.) by Tom Tullis and Bill Albert has a similar focus to Sauro & Lewis’ book, but a different approach. I suggest you check them both out, and choose the one that suits your learning style best.
Cory Lebson’s UX Careers Handbook is full of resources to help you with every aspect of getting a job in UX. Several UX Pros share their stories, and there are worksheets and activities to help you build your own career.
I want a UX job!: How to make a career change into UX research by Lauryl Zenobi talks about what it says on the label. A solid look at what’s needed to move into UX from a different discipline, including lots of resources. If you have Amazon Prime, this book is free with Kindle Unlimited.
Read broadly. There are many books you could read just for the sake of it, allied with UX or just generally talking about design, human nature, or why things fail. These books give you weird examples to use in conversations/interviews that will make the person you’re talking with think “wow – they really thought this one through!”
Here are a couple of suggestions, but seek out more of your own as well.
Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is Dan Ariely’s book about behavioral economics. This field is a combination of psychology and economics and it seeks to explain a lot of the “weird” behaviors that people demonstrate. You can also buy all three of his related books in one (cheaper) Kindle bundle.
How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. Maps are fascinating. They are a data-dense representation of reality. But that representation can omit or emphasize certain elements to serve a particular purpose.
Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik. An investigation and celebration of the materials that make up the stuff in our lives.
Toothpicks and Logos: Design in Everyday Life by John Heskett describes (among other things) how different cultures and individuals personalize objects. Even simple objects, such as a toothpick, can have their design modified to suit the specific cultural behavior in different countries.
Set Phasers On Stun by Steven Casey. Examples of where interfaces failed with extreme consequences. An older book, but still relevant.
On Directing Film by David Mamet. Film is story condensed to its essence. So is UI. Learn from a master film maker.
Pretense Design: Surface Over Substance by Per Mollerup. How some design appears to be something that it is not—by beautifying, amusing, substituting, or deceiving.
A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. A picture, says David Hockney, is the only way that we can communicate what we see.
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud. Comics are “sequential art” – they tell a story through pictures. Scott breaks down how they work.
The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Tales of the strange behaviors exhibited by patients with neurological issues.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Short stories about being inquisitive and open to new ideas told by a physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The creators of one of psychology’s most famous recent experiments use remarkable stories and counterintuitive scientific findings to demonstrate an important truth: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do.
How to Get to Great Ideas: A system for smart, extraordinary thinking by Dave Birss. Step-by-step approach to helping individuals and teams uncover new ideas. Useful for product team workshops and also for innovative user research sessions.
Disclaimer: I have worked with Don Norman, Jakob Nielsen, Scott Berkun, and John Pruitt. I received review copies of a couple of the books on this list when they were first released. I know several of the other authors whose books I’ve listed here. That may have biased me, but I don’t care.