Get hands-on practice in all the key areas of UX and prepare for the BCS Foundation Certificate.
Clients and students I work with often ask me to recommend a good book on user experience. This is actually a lot harder than you might think. Someone who’s new to the field won’t gain much from a book aimed at experts, and someone looking to improve their sketching skills won’t learn much from a book about usability testing. So here is my list of recommended books along with the people I think they are best suited for.
If you’ve read the books on this list — you over-achiever — you may want to work through this longer and more comprehensive list of user experience books that I hand out to people on my training courses. If you’re looking for just one book, then choose one from the following list according to the scenario that best suits your needs.
Being English and self-effacing, I’ve been careful not to mention my own book on usability. Feel free to mention it in the comments!
Steve Krug’s book is quite rightly a classic. Now in its third edition, this is the book that you would give to a senior manager if she wanted to understand what it is that you do all day. It’s short (under 200 pages), practical and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Although it’s not meant for fully-fledged practitioners, even they will find some useful quotations and stories to communicate the benefits of usability. The book has 13 chapters structured around four key sections (‘Guiding principles’; ‘Things you need to get right’; ‘Making sure you got them right’; and ‘Larger concerns and outside influences’). The original version of this book was published in 2000 but this third edition brings the content up to date, including a chapter on mobile.
The Mom Test, by Rob Fitzpatrick.
The bible for contextual inquiry is the classic book by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt titled 'Contextual Design'. But like any bible, this is a book that's often quoted but rarely read. It's certainly something that everyone who does site visits should read, but frankly it can be tough to get through and if you are about to do a customer visit you may finish the book and still not be sure what you should do next. In contrast, Rob Fitzpatrick's book is light on theory but packed with tips and good advice. I've bought several copies of this book because I keep giving it away to people who are about to carry out a site visit. The philosophy behind the book is that doing bad interviews is worse than doing nothing at all because it leads to false positives. This is because bad interviews are filled with fluff and compliments. In contrast, good interviews result in actionable insight. Fitzpatrick helps you understand that the measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives you concrete facts about your customers' lives. The book has a few exercises to help you turn bad questions into good ones.
The Non-Designer’s Design Book, 4th edition, by Robin Williams.
If you find it difficult to articulate why one design looks better than another, this book will give you the language you need. Based around the memorable acronym ‘CRAP’, the author describes four principles of design that you can apply to everything from business cards to web pages. There are a number of books on the visual design of user interfaces (check the longer reading list) but none of them express the principles quite so clearly as Robin Williams, and certainly not as concisely.
The Design of Everyday Things, 2nd revised and expanded edition, by Don Norman.
I have the first edition of this book, which was titled ‘The Psychology of Everyday Things’, and in some ways having ‘psychology’ in the title was more appropriate (although perhaps less good for marketing the book). Don Norman takes on everything from coffee pots to telephones and explains not just his frustration with the way they expect to be used but provides an analysis of why we struggle with them. He makes the point that ‘human error’ and ‘bad design’ are two sides of the same coin. This is one of the few books on this list that can be read by both experienced practitioners and by people new to the field and still learn something.
The User Experience Team of One, by Leah Buley.
Most of us would prefer to work in a team with other like-minded practitioners but the truth is that many people in a UX role work alone. If that describes you, then you'll love this book. The book is divided into two broad sections, 'Philosophy' and 'Practice'. The 'Philosophy' section covers the basics such as getting started in user research and building support for your work. But I think it's the 'Practice' section that provides all the value. This section has chapters on 'Planning and discovery methods', 'Research methods', 'Design methods', 'Testing and validation methods' and 'Evangelism methods'. Altogether, Buley describes 27 different methods you can apply in your job when you have access to few resources. One of my favourite methods is one she calls 'Bathroom UX': she encourages you to post A4 notices on the inside of bathroom stalls within your company to encourage people to (for example) speak with users.
User Story Mapping, by Jeff Patton.
There have been a few books that claim to show UX practitioners how to work with Agile teams (hint: they tend to have ‘Agile’ somewhere in the title). Jeff Patton’s book is unusual, not only because it doesn’t include the word ‘Agile’ on the cover, but mainly because it’s the most practical text you’ll find on really doing UX and agile the right way. Patton shows how you can apply the technique of user story mapping to drive the entire Agile process. If you’re a UX person on an Agile team, after reading this book you’ll find that you don’t just fit in with your new team but you actually take charge of it and make the team more user centred. If I could have just one book on this list, this would probably be it.
About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design 4th edition, by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann and David Cronin.
You'll find this book on most interaction designers' bookshelves and if you examine a used copy you'll notice that the spine is broken and the pages are falling out because it's been so well thumbed. Definitely a book for someone who designs graphical user interfaces on a day-to-day basis, it's hard to beat the scope and depth of this book. The book is in three parts: Part 1 describes Cooper's 'Goal Directed Design' approach; Part 2 covers 'Making well behaved products'; and Part 3 covers 'Designing Interaction Details'. I have the 3rd edition of this book, which weighs in at just over 600 pages; the latest, 4th edition boosts the page count to 720.
Designing for the Digital Age, by Kim Goodwin.
Most of the books in usability and user experience tend to focus on specialised areas, like user research or interaction design, and so there aren’t many options when it comes to books that cover the entire design process. But whenever I feel that I need a reminder about something, it’s Kim Goodwin’s book that I turn to first. At over 700 pages, this is another door stop of a book but that’s exactly what you want from a reference volume. The book has 26 chapters that cover the full project lifecycle, including project planning, user research, data analysis, defining requirements, design patterns, detailed design, usability evaluation and design communication. It’s worth buying for the chapter on Personas alone.
Sketching user experiences: The Workbook, by Saul Greenberg, Sheelagh Carpendale, Nicolai Marquardt and Bill Buxton.
Sketching is a critical skill for user experience designers because it’s a quick way to convey complex ideas and reduce ambiguity. But sadly, most people think that means they need to know how to draw. Although it obviously helps to be a budding artist, this book shows you how to cheat at creating sketches (for example, by tracing digital photos) and bring your ideas to life. If you don’t have time to attend evening classes at art college, this is the next best thing. It could have been called ‘The Bluffers’ Guide to Prototyping’.
Handbook of Usability Testing 2nd edition, by Jeffrey Rubin and Dana Chisnell.
This is the go to text for practitioners running a usability test. With chapters on moderating techniques, creating a test plan, finding participants and analysing the data, it covers all you need to know to run an effective test. There are a number of books on usability testing, many that specialise in particular areas of running a usability test, but none quite have the scope and practicality of this book.
What did I miss? Let me know your favourite book on user experience in the comments.
Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.
Gain hands-on practice in all the key areas of UX while you prepare for the BCS Foundation Certificate in User Experience. More details
Every month, we share an in-depth article on user experience with over 10,000 newsletter readers. Want in? Sign up now and get free, exclusive access to our reports and eBooks.
Our most recent articles
copyright © Userfocus 2019.
Get hands-on practice in all the key areas of UX and prepare for the BCS Foundation Certificate.
We can tailor our user research and design courses to address the specific issues facing your development team.
Users don't always know what they want and their opinions can be unreliable — so we help you get behind your users' behaviour.