SoftServe Design
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SoftServe Design

Inside the life of a designer at SoftServe — on the bookshelves

Our go-to books for user research

By Skipper Chong Warson, Snizhana Bezhnar, Mina Djenko, Ilse Dominguez, Dario Espinosa, Eva Hernando, Halyna Hurla, Konstantin Minov, Lina Perepelitsa, Andrii Rusakov, and other members of the SoftServe design center of excellence (COE)

A Spanish version of this article is available here.

With members of the SoftServe design team (and company) spread around the globe in the U.S., Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, Romania, U.K., and Singapore, along with our more recent locations in Mexico, Colombia, and Chile, it’s more important now than ever before to connect with our coworkers while focusing and iterating efficiently. And the trappings and rituals of remote work are all around us — video calls, online workshops, and digital whiteboards. As a result, we have been able to peek furtively inside parts of our coworkers’ home/work spaces — replete with human interruptions (spouse, partner, kid(s), and other people), artwork/family photos/snapshots, plants, a pet with a flickering tail wandering in and out of frame, as well as assorted shelves of memories and references.

So, this got us thinking and led to the question, As designers, what books do we keep on our shelves? Whether they’re digital books, physical books, for showing off (part decoration or flex), ease of personal reference (lots of furtive page flipping), or all the above.

With all of that in mind, we’ve put together a list of books as compiled by the SoftServe design COE around the subject of user research. What follows is a list of 14 titles. Let’s get into them — presented alphabetically according to the primary author’s last name.

USERPALOOZA: A Field Researcher’s Guide by Nick Bowmast & Mat Tait (Buy from Amazon)

Nick Bowmast’s USERPALOOZA is a great place to start for someone who’s just getting into field research or wants to put a research practice into action, drawing on more than 15 years of his experience as a designer and offering what we find to be the most practical of advice. The language is clear and concise, while the illustrations are delightful (credit to comic book artist Mat Tait), bringing the points to life. In addition, many real-life examples are supplied about how best to bring customers’ “voices, experiences, and realities to bear on the way [a designer brings] a product or service” into the world.

InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing by Svend Brinkmann (BookshopAmazon)

The book’s third edition retains the structure of the previous edition, providing an introduction to interviewing as research, a conceptualization of a research interview, and a discussion of the seven stages of an interview investigation. We appreciate this academic treatment of the subject and how it zeroes in on the foundational aspects of research interviewing. It’s a top-notch reference for preparing, designing, and conducting interviews. The text also discusses newer developments in qualitative interviewing — including practical, epistemological, and ethical issues along with narrative, discursive, and conversational analyses.

Hidden in Plain Sight: How to Create Extraordinary Products for Tomorrow’s Customers by Jan Chipchase (BookshopAmazon)

This book, which could be mistaken for a travel memoir, is jam-packed with design insights that can be discovered through research. The author, a Frog alum who owns his own design and innovation firm, writes about his observations of people around the world in a variety of modes and places — while purchasing shoes, cell phones, fast food, Amish crafts, and pornographic material in public places like bus terminals, cafes, and barbershops from Cairo to Chongqing and from San Francisco to Shanghai. Chipchase covers specific design research lessons and methodologies along the way while confessing that he didn’t focus on making a broader point to “offer new perspectives that can help you bring the world into focus. The way to make the most of this book is to live a full life and, armed with a new way of looking at things, ask smarter questions along the way.” It works for us.

Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research by Elizabeth Goodman (BookshopAmazon)

The centerpiece of this book is a set of research techniques that would enable UX practitioners to better see the world through the eyes of their users. It’s primarily written as a reference guide with a ton of practical information in real-world product development (read: tight budgets, abbreviated timelines, higher-ups’ objections). Drawn from the fields of human-computer interaction, marketing, and social sciences, the research methodologies are clearly outlined with instructions about how to use each one. The books makes for a perfect guide — whether you’re a novice who wants to become better acquainted with the fundamental principles behind user research or a seasoned professional looking for new ideas or a refresher.

Just Enough Research by Erika Hall (Buy from Amazon)

This book is packed to the brim, a bit like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style but for design research. Clocking in at 154 pages and self-described as a cookbook of research methods, it’s at once essential, informative, and refreshing. In her Medium writeup on the second edition, Hall explains, “Bad design gets out in the world not because the people working on it lack skills, but often because the decision-making process is broken. Fixing that is a team effort that has to go bottom up, top-down, and all the way across.” For that reason and with the new chapter on surveys, those working in the realm of human-centered design should have this book front and center on their reference shelf.

Universal Methods of Design, 125 Ways to Research Complex Problems, Develop Innovative Ideas, and Design Effective Solutions by Bruce Hanington & Bella Martin (BookshopAmazon)

This book is a Swiss army knife of design methods, synthesis/analysis techniques, and research deliverables — 125 in all five design phases, from phase 1 (planning, scoping, and definition) through 5 (launch). Of those, 45 are part of phases 1 and 2 (exploration, synthesis, and design implications so a good chunk of those are in the neighborhood of user research. Each method is laid out on two pages, making it easy to reference and consume. The first page has a concise description of the method followed by a list of topical tags. On the second page, you have some visual representation of the method, other related methods, and the relevant phases for design application. Indispensable.

UX Research by Brad Nunnally & David Farkas (BookshopAmazon)

One thing that we learned while putting together this list was that every UX book from publisher O’Reilly has a bird on the cover. Why? Not sure. We also know product designers and UX practitioners are often tasked with design research, conducting formal and informal research to clarify design decisions and how they might align with organizational needs. Often, there’s an air of mystery around research, with the feeling that you need some prognostication from the great beyond to reach a state of insight. Really, anyone can conduct product research. And with this quick reference guide, you can learn the vernacular while becoming familiar with methods and processes to carry out research in an informed and productive manner.

User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story, Build the Right Product by Jeff Patton (BookshopAmazon)

This book, the second O’Reilly bird in our series, details story-mapping techniques and explains why they are essential to create products to meet user needs. Patton, who popularized the titular method, asserts that user story mapping is not simply about creating a set of written requirements but a more extensive way of thinking. Using sticky notes and sketches to outline the interactions that the team expects users to go through, story maps are intended to spark collaboration and conversation among Agile team members while focusing on the outcome and the impact of the products we might be creating. Taking a philosophical view of the importance of project outcomes, Patton writes, “The truth is, your job is to change the world.” No pressure.

Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal (BookshopAmazon)

Interviewing is a foundational user research skill and tool that most believe they already possess. Everyone can ask questions, yes? Well, we would say it’s more important to ask the right questions. A user interview is a complex activity and there are many things that must be taken into account — beginning with the way you prepare for the session (writing out the list of questions) to getting better at the interview (common interview problems) to documentation (note taking, recording) to how that information can be reported back (analysis and synthesis). The author, using examples from his practical experience to show how interviewing can best be assimilated into the design process, has put together a practical guide and an invaluable source of knowledge for anyone who conducts and wants to improve this essential skill.

Quantifying the User Experience: Practical Statistics for User Research by Jeff Sauro (BookshopAmazon)

Many in our field see design as a series of qualitative activities but this isn’t Sauro’s view. This book is, first and foremost, a practical guide about using statistics to solve common quantitative problems in user research. It runs you through the greatest hits of statistical knowledge and tools necessary to measure and quantify the user experience — after all, the impact of good and bad designs can be described in terms of conversions, completion times, completion rates, and sales along with other metrics. This book is recommended for researchers and practitioners who want to be able to compute margins of error or to determine appropriate sample sizes for research. And there’s a nice bonus: Excel formulas and functions as well as web calculators for analyzing data.

It’s Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-in for User Experience Research Projects by Tomer Sharon (BookshopAmazon)

UX practitioners understand the importance of user research, but it can be challenging to persuade others of that value. Often, stakeholders are skeptical or downright hostile about user research; they might ignore the results of research or even reject the need outright. Thus, it’s essential to not only conduct proper research but also correctly position it correctly for building an allied front. Topics discussed include the identification of research opportunities by developing empathy with stakeholders and planning research with stakeholders, offering ways of teaming up with stakeholders, strategies to improve communicating out results, and nine (9) signs that indicate research is having an impact on stakeholders, teams, and organizations. Written from the perspective of an in-house UX researcher, this book provides dozens of case studies and visuals from international research practitioners. It also includes 30 video interviews with world-renowned experts conducted specifically for It’s Our Research.

Validating Product Ideas: Through Lean User Research by Tomer Sharon (BookshopAmazon)

Most product designers are well-geared for divergent (flared out) and convergent (focused) ideation, but it can often be unclear if this is the best way to position/approach their work. In the interest of filling in that gap, this book focuses on answering three simple questions: What do people need? What do people want? Can people use the thing? Through this framework, it’s possible to validate theoretical ideas and concepts with user research and then use that base to build the best possible product. Interestingly, in the introduction of this book, Sharon identifies the “primary audience is product managers and startup founders with no experience in user research” and then “designers and researchers who are interested in leaner ways of conducting user research”. But we would say that no matter who you are, Validating Product Ideas gives readers a clear yet fast(er) methodology that answers the most critical questions about their users while skipping some of the underlying detail, factors, options, and common dilemmas of user research.

Continuous Discovery Habits: Discover Products that Create Customer Value and Business Value by Teresa Torres (BookshopAmazon)

There’s a correlation between an organization’s success and how they’re able to give customers what they want. But we, as humans, are fickle and constantly evolving what we want. In this book, Torres walks through the methods of conceptualizing opportunities, distinguishing between your business outputs and your customer outcomes — the notion that when you focus on outcomes over outputs, you automatically put your customer at the heart of your business. And to do that (focus on outcomes), Torres makes a good case for continuous interviewing which requires automating the recruiting process. This is an excellent reference guide for creating better products that set you apart from your competitors through continuous discovery.

Think Like a UX Researcher by David Travis & Phillip Hodgson (BookshopAmazon)

There’s lots of chatter these days about the importance of mindset and likewise, this book challenges common preconceptions about UX research, encouraging readers to think beyond the boilerplate and obvious approaches. Topics include how to plan and conduct UX research, analyze data, persuade teams to take action on the results, and then building a career in the field. Each topic is summarized with short questions and exercises, highlighting the approaches that must always be questioned and adapted to suit individual projects. This is a good book both for both the novice in user research and an experienced user researcher.

TL;DR: Along the ever-growing number of books on user research, many are good, and if you needed to pick just two, we’d grab Universal Methods of Design by Bruce Hanington & Bella Martin with Just Enough Research by Erika Hall as a close second.

And that’s our list of the top 14 user research books. Do you agree? Disagree? Did we miss a book that you have found to be most useful in your work? Let us know in the comments.

In a few weeks, we will share our next installment of what’s on our bookshelves around user experience or UX design. Stay tuned.

Thank you to Leonard Reese.

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Skipper Chong Warson

Design director at SoftServe, coach, and host of How This Works. Formerly at thoughtbot SF, Fjord NYC, Shep (acquired), and PBS FRONTLINE among others.