Reading List for Researchers (and Designers)
Improving as a researcher comes from practice, guidance, and honest critical reflection. Good books also contribute: they’ll give you new tools, better concepts, rich case experience, and strategies for moving your work forward. They’ll help you build a language of practice and highlight new areas of the work worthy of your attention.
This is a reading list designed to help you gain those things. In the spirit of directed provocations, books are grouped into themes representing areas of researcher- and designer-competencies you should look to build. It’s not exhaustive, but focused on being directly useful in design and research around digital products and services.
The Basics: core tools and mindset for research
Start here! But first start with Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things if you’re not grounded in thinking about design. Then, work with each of these books below to build out a foundational set of research mechanics.
Steve Krug — Don’t Make Me Think: People use your software. It should be effortless, and it should make sense. When there are problems, they tend to blame themselves rather than the real culprits (you & team). It’s your responsibility to understand how they respond to your design and address the problems you find. This is the mindset you need for basic, evaluative user testing: the “hello world” of user research.
Erika Hall — Just Enough Research: Don’t do research for the sake of doing research. Erika Hall lays out a rational mindset for the work: as a tool to advance your team’s understanding and drive design forward. This will help you learn what you should be looking for, how to find it (frame intelligent and well-scoped research questions), and how you can involve people in the process so that your research actually works. That’s hard to beat.
Steve Portigal — Interviewing Users: The core skill of user research is talking to people; it sounds simple and proves to be challenging, complex, at times infuriating. Researchers require a broad set of skills to drive good design, but you must start with good data. Running a research project with bad interviews is like making wine with bad grapes: a good process does not imply a good end result. Steve Portigal’s attentive approach to interviewing is everything you need to start with the best possible grapes.
Mike Monteiro—Design is a Job: Like design, research is a job. Research alone won’t get your team to the outcomes you need. Mike Monteiro lays out the larger business context of design work, and what you need to consider to succeed. This includes how to work with clients, how to charge for your work, and how to present and defend that work; in general, how to be a professional. It’s written in a distinctly down-to-earth and no-bullshit style, a real treat.
Process: see how design unfolds, where research fits
Experience in the larger design process helps you understand how research outcomes will be used, and where certain types of insight are most effective. Our research is only as good as the platform of insight it creates for decisions and its timeliness in the process.
Kim Goodwin — Designing for the Digital Age: This tome is an end-to-end description of the Goal Directed Design process. The research portions focus on planning and executing research to develop personas, and their use with scenarios to drive design. There’s also quick look at research methods available to evaluate design. Along with thorough insight into the design process, you’ll get a better sense of where research sits in context of the ultimate goal: building useful, and effective human-centered products and services.
Indi Young — Mental Models: Indi Young provides another view of a generative design process, deeply rooted in the idea of empathy, both as a mindset for researcher and team, and as a driver of good design work. Core research outputs are mental model diagrams, a way to frame people’s point of view on a subject, and the places of need they stem from. Assembled mental models map clearly to opportunities and provide fertile ground for gap analysis.
Josh Seiden & Jeff Gothelf — Lean UX: Seiden & Gothelf recognize that no product exists in a vacuum—the true measure of success is how it fares in a real and messy external world. Lean UX lays out a “live systems” approach to iteratively developing products and services. The approach prioritizes identifying and mitigating risks as well as learning from live-system experiments to quickly discard what won’t work, and double down on what does. Here more than anywhere else, you’ll understand what makes a true minimum viable product (MVP) and how to shepherd concepts into real systems, learning and validating the whole way through.
Honorable Mention: Jon Kolko — Well-Designed: How to Use Empathy to Create Products People Love
Behavior, Psychology: understand how people think and act
Understanding behavior serves design at multiple levels. An attentiveness to the end user’s needs and ways of action lead to humane and useful design. Design has greater impact when the team understands the workings of their organization, and the larger social and political systems their work aims to transform.
Daniel Kahneman — Thinking, Fast and Slow: Thinking about other peoples’ thinking isn’t easy. Daniel Kahneman, doing just that for decades with late collaborator Amos Tversky, wrote a book to help you understand their formidable (Nobel-winning) body of work. Thinking, Fast and Slow reads as a drama between two mental systems, explaining all the ways people act that we might not consider “rational” from an outside point of view. It’s a wonderful read about how we think and decide.
Dan Hill — Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary: Dan Hill lays out a frame & vocabulary for the type of design that deals with messy societal and systemic problems. He also lays out new ways of thinking about what a project is really accomplishing. Sometimes a project is itself a vehicle or platform for deeper systemic changes the designer envisions. It’s an oblique look at the psychology of large systems and organizations, coming from a set of strategies designed to influence those large-system behaviors.
Systems and Concepts: see the deep nature of design work
A conceptual approach to design is an entry point for data literacy and brings to light the units of information on which design really operates. Design problems are more tractable and rightly malleable when they are mapped out conceptually.
Jesse James Garrett — The Elements of User Experience: If you’re new to the idea of user experience (let’s not discuss its [mis]use in describing an occupation here), Jesse James Garrett lays out an early foundation for thinking about products, services, and software systems across five conceptual planes. The framework helps us break apart the core purpose (goals, strategy) of an experience-system from its details (layout, visual style, microinteractions), along with the intermediate layers we use to move from our initial purpose to that implementation.
Austin Henderson, Jeff Johnson — Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design: Understanding complexity in design is difficult, and it’s rare to deeply appreciate how the system functions at a conceptual level, including the [data] structures their design manipulates. Henderson and Johnson’s approach to mapping the conceptual underpinnings of a system help us recognize that the interface can be inconsistent with the system itself, and force a deeper understanding of the system at hand (at the mid levels of Scope and Structure, as per Jesse James Garrett’s five planes).
Christopher Alexander — Notes on the Synthesis of Form: Alexander’s first book takes on the question of how we design. This architectural approach starts by staking out a specific boundary of form with respect to its interactions with the larger contexts in which it’s nested to its system of forces and the boundaries it shares with larger context. The designer identifies all of the forces at play for a given design problem through decomposition (research), and synthetically recomposes those forces to into self-consistent subsystems with clear design needs. These subsystems are recomposed similarly, and further upward, until the designer has addressed the whole of the given scope of a problem. It’s a powerful systems-theoretical look at design, and an impressive precursor to the rich and extensive body of work published by Christopher Alexander.
Visualization and Alignment: give teams a shared view of output as-delivered
An as-delivered point of view (external) is holistic, and quite different from the isolated and fragmented as-designed point of view (internal). Aligning functionally or experientially silo’d teams around real user-outcomes is increasingly difficult. Creating shared understanding is a collaborative and constructive act, showing new ways to push our work forward.
Andy Polaine — Service Design: From Insight to Implementation: Good researchers help align the team on the larger systems context in which a product or service will live. The mindset and tools to help frame design and user experience in context are being developed and extended in service design. This book will introduce you to the range of elements service designers consider, and the tools you can use to help your team consider the end-to-end product or service experience from a user’s point of view: “outside in” as opposed to a default and often-myopic “inside out.”
Jim Kalbach — Mapping Experiences: Experience maps are presented here as a class of artifacts speaking to their functional use: alignment diagrams. This book breaks down the artifact itself, the process of running a mapping project itself, and talks about the value in each of a number of currently-popular experience maps (e.g., service blueprints, mental models, and so on.) Perhaps most impressive here are the tactical insights around running mapping workshops — transferrable to any research effort that may require workshopping.
Final Thoughts + a Grab Bag
Proust might have said the best books will show us where to take up a path, but that we should not look to blindly follow. In his words:
As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place…
Indeed, this is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of beautiful books… that for the author they may be called Conclusions, but for the reader, Provocations. We can feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends.
This enrichment we gain from good books is of course not limited to a field of professional practice. For your potential personal enjoyment, here’s a list of a few more good reads, not as broad as it should be, uncategorized and under-described. Take a shot:
- Andrea Wulf — The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
- Zachary Mason — The Lost Books of the Odyssey
- Alain de Botton — The Architecture of Happiness
- Loren Eiseley — The Unexpected Universe
- Anne Carson — The Autobiography of Red
- Keith Johnstone — Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
- Kermit Lynch — Adventures on the Wine Route
- Candice Millard — Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
- Jack Gilbert — The Great Fires
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This reading list is also cross-posted on the Instacart Tech Blog.