Non UX Books

A wise friend and mentor of mine once said to me, "Ten years from now, you will be the same person you are today, except for the people you have met and the books you have read."

It made me want to go out and meet more people and read more books. And though the “InterWeb” has forever changed the way that many of us consume our content today, I suspect most of us can still cite one or more special books that have shaped the ways that we live and work. Perhaps one or more of these books will help shape your next ten years.

Philip Hodgson’s List

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

Go on, admit it, that title made you sit up didn’t it? And the subtitle, Science as a Candle in the Dark, hints at the goal of this book, which is to champion a scientific way of thinking, to guard against gullibility, and to dispel common fallacies.

Do we really live in a "demon-haunted" world? Many people think so. But Sagan sets out to effectively and authoritatively debunk demons, witchcraft, faith healing, UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, astrology, homeopathy, and other assorted pseudoscience notions that simply melt into oblivion the instant they are caught in the dazzling lights of reason, evidence and scientific inquiry. Memorable chapters include "The Man in the Moon and the Face on Mars", "The Fine Art of Baloney Detection", and "The Dragon in my Garage". How can you possibly resist?

This is a delightfully written book that has nothing to do with UX research or design, but to the extent that we can think more like scientists we’ll be much less credulous, much more likely to put hypotheses to the test and demand evidence, and much better prepared to present rigorous, bullet-proof arguments to defend our research claims.

Think of it as a tune-up for your skeptical thinking faculties.

Statistics as Principled Argument by Robert Abelson

Go on, admit it, that title made you sit down again didn’t it? It’s the dreaded ‘S’ word that does it. That’s because most of us focus only on how to run statistical tests and we get too fixated on trying to remember which tests we’re allowed to do, and how to achieve an all-important significance level. And that’s the problem. Obsessed with following the letter of the law (even though there is no law) we fail to grasp the fact that statistics are just a way of telling a story — another ‘S’ word, but one much less likely to scare the living daylights out of us.

I’m reminded of having to solve simultaneous equations as a schoolboy. To this day I still don’t know what that was about. It’s not that my fellow pupils and I couldn’t do them, it’s that we had no idea why we were doing them or what possible use they could ever be. And, of course, no one had the courage to put up his or her hand and ask, “Please Sir, why are we doing this?” It’s the same with statistics. But this is not a book about how to do statistics. This is a book about why we do statistics. It’s the answer to the question everyone is thinking but no one dare raise their hand to ask: “So what?”

A significance level of ‘p equals less than something or other’ is not the end goal of statistical argument, it’s just the beginning of a story. Abelson credits you with having a few basic statistical tests up your sleeve and, instead of plodding along the same old pathway, he shows us, in a very readable book, how to reason and argue on the basis of our statistical findings. When you encounter a chapter such as, "On Suspecting Fishiness", you know you’re not reading a typical statistics textbook.

Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play by Mahan Khalsa

Another intriguing title for a book that could easily have been titled, "How to Help Your Clients Succeed".

Khalsa’s thesis is that that traditional ways of consulting and selling fail because they are dysfunctional, and that a better approach is to help your client better understand the problem they are trying to solve so that you can agree on an effective solution. Khalsa begins by perfectly capturing the downward spiral that kicks off the typical consultant-client encounter:

"Dysfunctional buying practices have arisen to combat dysfunctional selling practices. Companies send out requests for proposals (RFPs) that, under penalty of dismemberment and death, refuse to allow any human being to talk to any other human beings. Their problem has been developing over years, and they want you to respond in two weeks. Don’t do anything different from what they tell you to do, or you are disqualified. And don’t differentiate yourself. Follow the rules. They say they want to keep a level playing field. So if you have questions put them in writing and the answers will be distributed to everyone."

The problem with the RFP is that it typically specifies how a problem must be solved, but is usually written (I say ‘written’ but ‘thrown together’ would be a better description) by someone who doesn’t understand the problem very well and doesn’t know what kinds of solutions are available. Addressing this paradox and convincing the client to set aside their silly rules is essential, and Khalsa turns the game on its head by advocating a set of structured steps and probe questions that break through the bureaucratic nonsense.

The approach is totally client focused and because of this it builds trust and allows the consultant (think UX practitioner) to boldly confront potential obstacles, including the inevitable and seemingly obligatory obstacles of budget (we don’t have enough money) and deadlines (or enough time). Using sound reasoning to walk the client through a few logical steps Khalsa effectively convinces clients to dismantle these barriers for themselves.

Let’s Get Real is the perfect guidebook for the UX practitioner whose many hats include that of consultant.

David Travis’s List

Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy D Wilson

I’m often asked to suggest an academic area of study to people who want to enter the field of user experience. My answer is always the same: psychology. This is because psychology is the only discipline to provide us with proven methods of understanding human behaviour.

For example, it’s common knowledge in user experience that what people say frequently contradicts what people do. What’s less commonly known is why this is the case. It’s true that most people are aware of the “unconscious mind” but they tend to associate “the unconscious” with Freudian theory. This claims we don’t have reliable access to our thoughts and feelings because we need to repress them to maintain psychological health. The reason I’ve chosen Timothy Wilson’s book is because it presents a more modern view of the unconscious: that it’s simply a more efficient way for the brain to operate.

Most people, when asked to think about it, would acknowledge that there are certain parts of their mental life that are outside their awareness. But if asked to place a number on it, they would probably say 10% or so. Wilson’s book makes us realise that the reverse is more likely the case: it’s like we’re riding an elephant. We think we’re in control, but the vast majority of our decisions are made before we’re even aware of them. With chapter titles like, “Knowing Why”, “Knowing How We Feel” and “Knowing How We Will Feel”, it’s almost a manual for user researchers who want to uncover user needs. This book will forever change the way you carry out user research.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland

I remember that when I first came across teams using Scrum — the most popular way to implement agile — it seemed alien to me. This wasn’t just because the teams I had worked with in the past followed a waterfall process. These new teams had unfamiliar and frankly magical sounding roles like “Scrum Master”, entirely new ways of working like the daily stand up and strange artefacts like the “backlog”. I set off to do some reading on the topic but the more I read the more complicated it got.

This is why I’ve chosen Sutherland’s book as my second choice. I wish this book were available years ago. Written by one of the co-founders of the Scrum methodology, this is a short book that will give you all of the background you need to implement Scrum on projects. It’s a deceptively easy read full of anecdotes and stories but that also explains in detail how to manage projects according to the principles of Scrum. After reading this book, you’ll realise that it’s way, way simpler than you ever thought. Indeed, it’s hard to read this book and not think that every project should be run along these lines.

Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton

I’ve said before that empathy is a key skill needed by every user experience researcher and designer. And when someone asks me what I mean by empathy, I show them this book.

Brandon Stanton is a blogger who takes photographs of strangers (initially on the streets on New York but now across the US) and briefly interviews them. In a few short sentences he manages to convey stories that are in turns heart warming and heart breaking. I challenge even the most misanthropic of individuals to stop themselves from empathising with people after reading this book. I sometimes wonder how this format of user immersion might play out for design teams: dozens of photographs of users alongside short stories that capture their needs, thoughts, beliefs and desires.

Stanton doesn’t explain in the book how he manages to get such intimate stories from his portrait subjects, but he does describe his process in this video (skip to about the 10 min mark). He describes the process as “escalating levels of intimacy”. After getting permission for the photograph, he asks a broad question that’s relatively easy to answer (like “Give one piece of advice” or “What’s your greatest struggle right now?”) and then uses that to drill down to a story. For example, if one of his interviewees answers his “advice” question with, “Be optimistic”, he’ll follow up with, “Tell me about a time that you had trouble being optimistic”. User researchers could learn a lot from this process: I often see user researchers over-planning the specific questions they want to ask in a field visit, when it is really not about the questions you ask but about the stories you elicit. And you get to those stories through being a particular kind of empathic person.

Todd Zazelenchuk’s List

The Creative Priority by Jerry Hirshberg 

I stumbled upon this book when reading an online recommendation back when online recommendations were this fascinating, new adventure for us all to contemplate. One anonymous reviewer suggested this was a compelling book for anyone considering a career in design. Another said it was required reading at Fortune 100 companies. I clicked the “buy” button and the rest is history. Ever since, this book has been my most recommended book to UX team leaders.

Hirshberg started life as a car designer, working for General Motors, before getting recruited to lead the Nissan Design Institute in San Diego, CA. In this book, he shares his journey and you learn something about the automotive design industry, but the real learning for those of us in UX is squarely on establishing, growing, and leading design teams that are charged with creating new products. This was the first time I remember getting introduced to the now popular concept of “design thinking”, which is interesting, given that Hirshberg published the book 10 years before the term became mainstream.

Like all the other books in this article, The Creative Priority never explicitly mentions the term ‘user experience’, but the lessons contained within it are immediately relevant to any UX team operating today, regardless of its industry. You will find examples of creative problem solving, team management techniques, hiring strategies, and lessons learned from navigating cultural relationships in business. Concepts such as ”creative abrasion” and “hiring in divergent pairs” are two such examples that I am reminded of regularly. Add to them a classic account of a marketing department’s misinterpretation of customer feedback that ultimately produced incomprehensible project requirements and you have a truly invaluable book that should be required reading for UX teams and leaders for years to come.

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

You might enjoy the first half of this book if you relish outdoor pursuits and appreciate well-crafted products from a company with strong ideals about the planet. If your job description happens to include the terms “user experience”, “design” and “leadership”, you will absolutely find value and enjoyment in its second half. Simply entitled “Philosophies”, the latter half of this book shares the formal (and informal) guidelines that the outdoor apparel company, Patagonia, follows regarding how to conceive of, design, manufacture, and market products that people desire and cherish over time.

The founder/author asks and answers questions that illuminate how Patagonia thinks about its products and, in turn, its design process: Is it simple? Is it functional? Is it multi-functional? Is it durable? Is it invention or innovation? Is it authentic? Is it art? Does it offer any added value? Are we designing for our core customer? Clearly, all of these questions are relevant, if not critical, to what is one of the premier outdoor clothing companies in the world. Interestingly, these same questions are equally important to any UX team that desires to have a positive design impact on its respective business.

Similar to The Creative Priority, this book weaves today’s household concepts of “user experience” and “design thinking” into every page without ever mentioning them explicitly. By doing so, Let My People Go Surfing reminds us that sources of inspiration and best practice can come from unexpected places and that the most valuable often originate in places far different from your own.

101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick

The field of UX Design and Research has many parallels with that of Architectural Design. Some might even argue that there are far more commonalities than differences between the two disciplines. And if like me, you subscribe to the idea that innovation and progress often happen when one discipline is able to leverage what another has to offer, then it’s easy to accept how this “non-UX” book could hold merit for anyone engaged in UX. 

As the book’s title suggests, Frederick shares his most important lessons learned as a student of architectural design. These include the most basic of drawing principles about how to draw a line (#1), and the advice that soft lines should be used for soft ideas, while hard lines are reserved for hard ideas (#27). In many cases, you could imagine the lessons dropped verbatim into a book of “Lessons Learned in UX School”. Such examples include: designing with models or prototypes (#72), the notion that constraints or limitations encourage creativity (#97), and that drawing and sketching are “not merely ways to depict a design solution, but ways of learning about the problem you are trying to solve” (#99). There are also lessons that are more indirect, but still highly relevant for UX designers and researchers to contemplate, including: always justify your design decisions in at least two ways (#18), the more specific a design idea is, the wider its appeal will be (#17), and reasons for why all designers should strive to be process-oriented rather than product-driven (#29).

Unlike the other books in my list, I don’t remember exactly how or where I stumbled upon this book, but I’m thankful that I did. I frequently pull it off my shelf when I need inspiration or grounding. And more than once I have gifted copies of this book to members on my design teams as a thank you for a job well done. 

About the author

Todd Zazelenchuk

Dr. Todd Zazelenchuk (@ToddZazelenchuk on Twitter) holds a BSc in Geography, a BEd, an MSc in Educational Technology and a PhD in Instructional Design. Todd is an associate of Userfocus and works in product design at Plantronics in Santa Cruz, CA where he designs integrated mobile, web, and client-based software applications that enhance the user experience with Plantronics' hardware devices.


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