How to Write an “Essential Reading” List
Because we don’t need another list of 50 books every UX designer or product manager must read.
Every so often a new list of “books every UX designer must read” makes the rounds. They’re generally either super-long or seemingly arbitrary, or both. Too many seem to include every book the author has read or heard of.
Don’t get me wrong. Lists are one of my guilty pleasures. Even the worst list provokes conversations that help build social and cultural connections.
As a lover of sports and music I spent a lot of my younger days hours in un-win-able debates over who’s the best rapper, guitarist, drummer, NBA point guard, NHL team captain, etc. But as endless and annoying as these exercises may be, they’re not meaningless. They helped me think about what I liked and why. They taught me what mattered to the people and communities around me, and where I stood within those communities (newcomer, insider, or outsider, etc).
Tell Us Where You’re Coming From
Recommendations are like gifts; they’re a form of social exchange that can say a lot about the giver and their relationship with the receiver.
Unless you’re generating recommendations with an algorithm or carrying them down a mountain on stone tablets, or literally just throwing together a random list to spam us with content marketing, embrace the personal and subjective side of recommendations. Show your work. Let us recognize and appreciate your quirks and biases. Otherwise we might just make our own guesses as to what those biases are.
Why did you put this reading list together? What kind of readers did you have in mind? How did you find out about your picks? How did your picks influence or help you? How do you think your recommendations will help us?
- Josh Seiden’s Books for UX Managers is personalized in a way that feels like casual suggestions from a friend or mentor. Instead of a massive list of “books every manager must read,” we get more modest suggestions of books to “consider,” “the best book on strategy I’ve encountered,” etc.
- Christina Wodtke shared a list of Drawing Books as kind of a working bibliography within her writing process. It’s a fairly long list, but we know to look at most of the books on it as “could reads” rather than a guilt-inducingly long list of “must reads.”
Place Things in Relation to Others
The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the critic’s task as “placing books in the context of other books.” Almost nobody reads a list of recommendations without any background knowledge. We each have our own influences and favourites. Give us some references to help figure out how closely our knowledge, taste, interests, and needs compare to yours.
What should we not read? How are your picks better than others we might have heard of? Which should we read first? Which could we skip or replace with something else? Which might be interchangeable or redundant?
The Wirecutter does a great job of placing things in relation to others. An article might promise to merely tell you “The Best Wi-Fi Router (for Most People),” and at one level, that’s exactly what it does, but it also tells you how that pick compares to others. They mention niche products like the AirPort Express and Google OnHub. They might also suggest an almost-as-good, cheaper alternative, or a slightly-better, more expensive option. In addition to recognizing that no product is going to be “the best” for every situation, the overall message is, “trust us, we did our homework.”
- A Critical Behavioural Economics and Behavioural Science Reading List is positioned as building on more popular books like Thinking Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, and Nudge. It doesn’t do much more contextualizing than that but at least it provides a bit of a yardstick
- The Best Books for Learning How to Cook is more of an article than a list but the links make it easy to scan for titles to turn into a list. This kind of approach is a bit more work (to write and read) but you come away with a better sense of how someone might navigate the landscape of options thanks to insights like, “A book like López-Alt’s is highly valuable to have around once one has confidence in the kitchen, but Nosrat’s seems much more vital for the purposes of getting to that point.”
As for my own “Essential UX Reading List,” it’s a work in progress. I’ve shared some recommendations privately with people who’ve asked, but that’s it — and there’s a lot I haven’t read yet. Maybe working on a more comprehensive list is a good excuse to look into the rest of everybody else’s recommendations…