15 Books That Helped Shaped My Approach to UX

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15 Books That Helped Shaped My Approach to UX

I was enjoying a quiet moment alone on the back patio during Thanksgiving break with my family and came across a WIRED article that referenced the book Bowling Alone in relation to the election results. I was immediately transported to my first year of grad school in 2005, when I was assigned to read the book for a class. Robert Putnam was somewhat of an obscure academic at the time, but in thinking about his work in relation to our contemporary moment, I realized that time has revealed him to be quite sage (as it does many things).

It’s odd to attribute such great influence to a single book, but Bowling Alone had a huge impact on my perspective and professional focus. And as I sat on the patio and reflected on that, I found other books starting to come to mind that were equally influential — surprisingly not design books (though, there are so many to reference that maybe I’ll follow up with another post) but books deeply concerned with the study of technology, society, and human behavior.

As we round out the year, reflecting on the events of the past few months and looking ahead to 2017, I wanted to share this reading list of non-UX books that have influenced my perspective on and approach to all things UX.

Perhaps you’ll find something here that calls out to you for a read over the holiday break:

Rise of the Creative Class by Richard Florida (nonfiction)

This book was pretty popular when it was first published in 2002. Florida, an economist who before publishing this book focused largely on regional economic development, used research to investigate the growing influence of creativity in people’s work and how seeking creativity has shifted the composition of our communities, the way our organizations operate, and how we relate to each other. He suggested then that about 30% of the American workforce saw themselves of members of the "Creative Class," with unique lifestyle factors that value the cultivation of creativity in all facets of life. As a leader of a company focused on creative design and technology, I still find the lessons in *Rise of the Creative Class *useful.

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace by Lawrence Lessig (nonfiction)

Another book I read in the early 2000s, Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace argues that computer code is as influential a force in regulating our conduct online as legal code is in governing our behavior in the real world. Lessig goes into great deal discussing the laws, the norms, the market, and the architecture of online behavior. This book takes a deep dive into the limitations of our current copyright laws in governing online production, sharing, and replication (copying). Long before Lessig decided to run for President on a platform of campaign finance reform, he was a foremost scholar on modern copyright law and parlayed that into founding the Creative Commons and later writing *Remi*x, which inspired even Stephen Colbert to give remixing a try.

Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (philosophy)

For a man who once wrote in his diary that he would never become an academic, Marshall McLuhan became one of the world’s foremost scholars and teachers on media analysis. Understanding Media was the result of McLuhan deciding to investigate why, in his early years of university teaching, he felt so distanced from his students experientially, though they were only a generation apart. This book explores McLuhan’s concepts of how media affects the shaping of our perceptions and, therefore, our identities. He was among the first scholars to view media as a technological extension of the body, which is a concept that has gained so much more relevance and attention today. McLuhan looked at our use of our physical senses and the consequences of unconsciously applying them to interactions with media. This book was written in 1964, and McLuhan passed in 1994, but not before leaving a solid legacy in media analysis that still influences me (and many others) today.

Rhythm Science by Paul D Miller (aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid) (nonfiction)

I’m not really sure how to describe Rhythm Science, other than to say Paul Miller is a conceptual artist who wrote an odd, wonderful book on the way we see and interpret patterns — cultural ideas and objects — and use technology to manipulate them into new creations. Miller explores how technology is a bridge between creators and their outside world, acting as a tool for finding disparate elements and mixing them into new materials — much like the turntable allows DJs to do with music. When I first read this, about a decade ago, the book came with a pretty cool CD (I know, what!?) of music DJ Spooky created as a companion to the book. And the book itself was created as a design piece, chosen as one of the "50 best books designed" by AIGA. I would definitely put it on my “essential reads for designers” list, and especially “essential reads for designers who also happen to love music.”

America by Jean Baudrillard (philosophy)

Postmodern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, who died in 2007, was known for his love of America. He* really* loved America. No, he really, really loved America — so much so that he wrote a book about his travels here (I’ll get to that in a minute). If you don’t know Baudrillard, he is one of the most influential postmodernist philosophers of our time. Among his most widely known works, his essay "Simulacra and Simulations" has somewhat of a cult following because it inspired the Wachowski brothers to write The Matrix films. America is one of my favorites books — if you want to journey into the interior of a great philosopher’s mind (one of the most picturesque interior mindscapes out there), while also journeying across our great country through his experiences, then this is the book for you. Be forewarned that you will turn the last page and being disturbed by how constructed our national and cultural identities really are by the material substance of the world around us and how we dutifully enact our own material existence like cogs in the proverbial wheel. This book is heavy, but not long. It is really engrossing and luxurious introspection, which is one of my favorite things. Good pictures, too.

Quiet by Susan Cain (nonfiction)

Here’s the thing about Quiet. This book is about introversion (which I appreciate as an introvert, though I am not a huge fan of oversimplification or introvert memes), but what I liked most about it is an appeal to more listening and independent work. Our near-obsession with "creativity" (except you, Richard Florida!) and “innovation” has risen to almost cult status — and what I have seen, as an unfortunate result, is the turning of this surface kind of creativity into paralyzing group-based processes that actually serve to stifle great ideas and work. How many “creative brainstorm” sessions have we sat in that are totally unstructured and unproductive? Or meetings where we get stuck swirling on ideas with no clear path forward? Many, many, many. Too many. Independent thought, investigation, conceptualization, and problem-solving is perhaps the most important input to creativity — doing the work of bringing fully formed ideas to the table before coming to the table. And that is not just the domain of introverts. So while this book is a lot about interpersonal dynamics, I think there’s a lot to be inspired by in rethinking how we go about structuring our creative relationships and work. (Okay, maybe this one was a stretch, but there you have it).

Utopia by Sir Thomas More (philosophy)

At the time Thomas More wrote Utopia, Europe was experiencing a Renaissance. Fewer than 100 years prior, Gutenberg had invented the printing press and created new avenues for knowledge transfer and the application of that knowledge to invention. The press disrupted education. It changed the fields of law and medicine. It challenged dominant religion and paved the way for humanism. It was the wellspring of a new intellectual life.

When I first read Utopia, it struck me how closely More’s writings and attempt to construct an ideal society was tied with the radical disruption, and shifts in daily life, that were being brought about by the invention of a new information-driven technology. I read it at a time when the internet was just coming into maturity — more than 500 years after the printing press was invented. Even so, I couldn’t help draw parallels between the radical disruption that happened in pre-Renaissance Europe leading to that intellectual and artistic flourishing and the similar disruption which we were experiencing in the first 10 years of the internet’s public life. It felt exciting — and I wanted to play a role in shaping the future of our digital experience.

Before I was a user experience designer, I was a newspaper editor who was caught in the digital tidal wave that all but dismantled local newsrooms across the country. I remember hearing one of my editors say, after a heated debate about the internet and how it would affect our careers: The printing press created journalism and the internet will destroy it. I cite Utopia as an influential work not only because of its content — in many ways, designing a society is the ultimate user experience challenge — but for what that book represented about the historical moment within which it was written. I always borrow from that time period when doing deep thinking about the future of our digital lives as we increase in our connection with and through the web.

I already have spent too much time lingering on Utopia *(the longest time on the shortest book), but I would cheat and say reading *Utopia is best coupled with learning more about the human experience following the invention of the printing press. For that, I’d recommend Jaques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (if you can get through all 912 pages... or even lift the thing... it weighs an impressive two pounds).

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (fiction)

I couldn’t create an influential book list without throwing in at least one fiction piece. And, to be honest, for shaping my UX thinking it was a three-way tie between Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, which I think of as brilliantly articulated user experience design through narrative, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, whose virtual world is cited as being the inspiration for Second Life (kudos to you if you remember what it is and that it once was more popular than Facebook), and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Since Pattern Recognition was the first of the three that I read and the one that led me to explore the genre of near future techno-dystopia (yes, I may have made that term up), it takes the win.

Published in 2003 and set in the post 9-11 present, the story takes a hard look at consumer culture and esoteric hipster life, particularly related to niche internet communities. I remember being wholly engrossed by this story, in which a "cool hunter" named Cayce Pollard (who has a physical aversion to consumer brand names and iconography) travels from London to Tokyo to Moscow in search of the anonymous creator of an online video collection called "the footage." There’s more going on in the story and I can’t do a description justice, so you can check it out the synopsis on Amazon or elsewhere on the web. But, I’ll close by saying I loved how much this novel explored our radically shifting digital world through its bizarre twists and turns — and painted a world where culture creators rule everything.

Marginalia by H. J. Jackson (nonfiction)

This book is amazing. It tells the story of how margins appeared in books. The short story is:

  • Paper used to be expensive. Really expensive. So books were printed all the way to the edges.
  • Books also were really, really expensive. So most often they were shared among and borrowed from friends, not purchased new.
  • As friends shared books, they also wanted to share ideas and notes as they passed them along. So they began squeezing notes into the space between printed lines.
  • Sharing of writing in books also allowed the spreading of unconventional and subversive ideas, without public exposure.
  • As readers kept writing in books, publishers decided to start allowing for space around the edges of printed pages — conservatively at first, then more so as paper cheapened and printing became less costly.
  • The more people wrote, the bigger margins got.
  • And that, my friends, is why we have margins in books and still write in them today.

I can’t express how well this book explores a modern technology of the time (the book) shifting its composition to accommodate the needs of its users. That is UX in its most primitive form, and I love it.

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam (nonfiction)

What I took away from this book by Robert Putnam was strong evidence for the fact that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from relationships, communities, and civic engagement — not directly tied to, but greatly influenced by the dawn of internet technology. I read the book in 2005, one year after Facebook launched on Harvard’s campus. I was a Georgetown grad student with a .edu account and my younger sister, who was an undergrad at Virginia Tech, sent me an invitation to sign up for an account on the fledgling social platform. During my studies and for years after, social technologies seemed to be lauded as a panacea for the growing disengagement that set off Putnam’s alarm bells. I think we’re still in progress in gaining an understanding of the disrupting influence of social technology in our lives. Though we don’t have the answers — and the rapid pace of change has made some of this book seem antiquated — I think it is still a very relevant read. I revisit this book often and use it as a guiding compass for thinking about how experience-driven technologies can be used to re-engage us with community and civic life.

Battle for God by Karen Armstrong (nonfiction)

I’ll be honest. This book disturbed me. Given the outcome of our election, it disturbs me even more — I have talked more about this book in the last two months than I have since I read it a decade ago.

Battle for God asks a very important question: If we are more secular than ever and have greater access to information and technology than ever, then why has fundamentalism become an overwhelming force in every major world religion? I think you can read this book and apply the question of fundamentalism beyond the frame of religion — extremism in all forms of thinking has grown and been exacerbated by social technologies. I always return to the question about how the expansiveness of our information economy may be contributing to a narrowing of our identities and beliefs. While this book is not directly related to user experience, it brings up a lot of ethical questions for those of us who are the chief craftspeople of the information age.

How We Learn by Benedict Carey (nonfiction)

User experience is about designing interaction and information structures in a way that increases user understanding and system learnability over time. A good user experience is simple to learn and adopt. User experience design is about enabling users to recall repeatable patterns of interactions so that usage becomes familiar and habitual.

At its core, UX is a discipline grounded in behavioral and decision science as much as it is in creative design. So, naturally, a deep dive into the science of our memory, cognition, and how we construct meaning is like an operating manual for designing great human experiences. For me, How We Learn (among other books concerned with human learning, memory, and decision-making) also has become somewhat of a manifesto. In my many years doing UX, I have seen the term "user experience design" co-opted as a newer, more trendy name for graphic design — which only scrapes the surface of the discipline. True UX has deep foundations in understanding human thought and behavior, which this book capably explores.

The Naked Crowd by Jeffrey Rosen (nonfiction)

This book takes a deep look at our individual privacy rights in the age of deep surveillance (or, data collection, if I am to use a softer term). Rosen is very concerned about the ability of power entities — like national governments — to agitate social anxiety to the point that we willingly surrender our privacy rights. The question of data collection and online behavior tracking is central to user experience design and an issue that all ethically minded digital professionals should keep top of mind. Particularly because we are operating in uncharted territory and largely unregulated space, I find consulting experts in individual privacy is helpful in making sure that, as an experience designer, I never fail to consider privacy ethics in my work.

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (nonfiction)

If you are in the user experience profession, you have to read this book. If you are in any profession, you have to read this book. Scott McCloud wrote a 215-page comic book on the theory and development of comics as a narrative form, and the foundations of visual communication. It goes into the effects of iconography on perception, how readers participate in bringing closure to content "between the frames", how words and pictures interact, the dynamics of time, the psychology of design treatments like line and color, and more. In fact, this book is so relevant to UX work that I am regretting putting it at the bottom of the list (but please don’t read into that — despite the fact that Scott McCloud would say you definitely will). Don’t think, just read.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (fiction)

User experience relies on taking the time to do deep, empathetic exploration of our individual users and their needs. To get it right, you have to develop stories and characters. You have to grow to love them and want to see them succeed. It has deep roots in narrative storytelling, so I think fiction — especially heavily character-driven fiction — can be useful to any UX designer in learning to better flex their empathy and storytelling muscles. I’m not making this up, either — research has shown that reading fiction improves empathy (this might be my confirmation bias speaking, but I really do think they’re onto something).

In order to train my empathy muscle, I read fiction whenever I can. I write a little bit of it, too. And I have never read a book that does empathy quite as well as Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog. So that’s why it’s on this list. And you should read it — because when you do, you’ll know why it made the list.

… and that’s the end of the books-not-about-UX-that-influenced-my-UX-thinking list. Naughty or nice — I think they’re all great gifts. Have a lovely holiday and a very happy New Year. See you in 2017!

I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: http://endofbig.com