I made the following in October 2018 when I was at Intercom. At the time, I was mentoring a few junior designers and thinking about how to scale the design team’s beliefs and practices as well as what good product design writing is. It was my attempt at a crash course in product design. I’m sharing this now in case it’s valuable to other people, especially if you’re starting out in the field or trying to learn about software product design in general.
It’s rather Intercom-dogma-heavy, so take of that what you will. I won’t attempt to critique it now, but I will say a lot of it is still helpful to me and part of how I work. I will also admit that I haven’t read some of the books on this list but they were referenced by and suggested from multiple sources.
I’ll try to keep this updated (especially if I do read those books!). I probably have much more to add here about research from my work since 2018.
See list background, goals, and principles at the bottom of this article.
Part 1 — Start with the problem
Discussion and topics
- How do you work with PMs?
- How do you start a project and plan your design process? What should you anticipate?
- How much time should you estimate and what factors should you consider for that estimate?
- How do you gather information and evidence?
- How do you work with researchers and analysts?
- How do you interview and build relationships with stakeholders?
- How do you evaluate and apply insights from data, research, and internal interviews? What information is most important? What evidence is most valid?
- Why do you need to frame the problem (for your design process)? How should you do so?
- What is product thinking?
- Paul Adams (Intercom): How we design
- Julie Zhuo (Facebook): How to work with PMs, What to expect from PMs
- Tom Broxton (Facebook): A sense of where you are
- Margaret Gould Stewart (Facebook): Six steps to building domain expertise in a complex industry
- Carolyn Wei (Facebook): Finding our way: Four lessons about enterprise research
- Nielsen Norman Group: You are not the user
- Julie Zhuo (Facebook): Metrics vs. experience
- Nielsen Norman Group: When to use which user-experience research methods
Part 2 — Writing is design
Discussion and topics
- Why do we write?
Writing help us learn to internalize problem, analyze design decisions, and build effective arguments.
Writing creates documentation that is accessible to other people, people who are new to the team, new to the company, or new to design.
- What is content strategy/design? How do you incorporate content into your design process? How do you work with content designers?
- Nicole Fenton: Words as material
- John Saito (Dropbox): How do you design a design doc
- Tiffany Eaton: UX is grounded in rationale, not design
- Andrea Drugay (Dropbox): How to improve your design process with copy docs
- Biz Sanford (Shopify): Words and the design process
- Steven Sinofsky: Writing is thinking
- Google Docs
- Dropbox Paper
- iA Writer
Part 3 — Everything is connected
Discussion and topics
- What is systems thinking and related concepts (mental models, information architecture, object-oriented UX)? How do you apply systems thinking in your process?
- What are our design principles? How should you make design decisions?
Other topics include
- Storytelling, customer journeys, flows
- Accessibility, ethics/human impact, bias, diversity
- Service design
- Emmet Connolly (Intercom): The full-stack design system
- Shek-Man Tang (Intercom): Applying systems thinking in product design
- Sophia Prater: Object-Oriented UX
- Christina Wodtke: 5 models for making sense of complex systems
- Tim Sheiner (Salesforce): Designing digital products with mental models
- Paul Adams (Intercom): Creating systems not destinations
- Abby Covert: How to Make Sense of Any Mess (E-book)
- Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems
- Indi Young: Mental Models
- Christopher Alexander: A Pattern Language
- Christopher Alexander: The Timeless Way of Building
- Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City (Book)
- Stewart Brand: How Buildings Learn (Book)
- Google Draw
- Pen & paper
Part 4 — Creativity is a team sport
Discussion and topics
- What does collaboration look like?
- How do you present at design critiques? How should you give feedback?
- How do you internalize and respond to feedback?
- How can you explore solutions with a group and run creative workshops/sprints? How do you avoid groupthink?
- Cindy Chang (Intercom): Designing workshops that work
- Gustavs Cirulis (Intercom): Running productive design critiques
- Nielsen Norman Group: How to deal with bad design suggestions
- Tanner Christensen (Facebook): Four things working at Facebook has taught me about design critique
- Ryan Singer (Basecamp): Fogging thinking in design (and how to cut through it)
- Nielsen Norman Group: Functional fixedness stops you from having innovative ideas
- Gustavs Cirulis (Intercom): When collaboration becomes a chore
○ Jon Steinback: A list of creative exercises for creative teams
- Invision: Enterprise Design Sprints
- Google Ventures: Sprint
- Ed Catmull: Creativity, Inc.
- Tom Greever: Articulating Design Decisions
- David and Tom Kelley: Creative Confidence
- Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen: Thanks for the Feedback
Part 5 — What you ship is what matters
Discussion and topics
- How do we reach the highest bar in our craft and execution? How do we get the details right and improve the quality of our designs?
- What are the materials of our craft? How can we better understand and work with them?
- How do we work with engineers throughout the design process?
- What are the best ways to explore, sketch, and prototype throughout the process? What kinds of deliverables should we produce throughout the process?
- How can we identify and think through all use cases and edge cases?
- Jasmine Friedl (Facebook): How to make your not-so-great visual design better
- Brendan Fagan (Intercom): There is no hand-off in product design
- Julie Zhuo (Facebook): The 5 most common mistakes in design
- Scott Hurff: How to fix a bad user interface
- Alastair Simpson (Atlassian): Why prototyping is a must for designers
- Julie Zhuo (Facebook): How to work with engineers
- Ian Schoen (Salesforce): Making design core to the agile process
- Dan Saffer: Microinteractions
- Development environment
- Intercom: Inside Intercom (Product & Design)
- Julie Zhuo: Year of the Looking Glass
- Google Ventures: Design
- Nielsen Norman Group: Articles
- Luke Wroblewski: Writings
- A List Apart
- Boxes and Arrows
- Signal vs. Noise: Design
- Alan Cooper: About Face
- Kim Goodwin: Designing for the Digital Age
- Steven Krug: Don’t Make Me Think
- Don Norman: The Design of Everyday Things
- Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics
- Rosenfeld Media books
- A Book Apart books
As our design team grows, the need to educate designers not only new to Intercom but also new to the profession grows. To build a strong design culture, we also need to teach non-designers about how we work. In any curriculum, reading materials reinforce principles and practices alongside hands-on work, through perspectives and examples from practitioners across the field. More generally, reading materials define concepts, teach the language of the field, codify practices, and serve as references.
Supplement hands-on project work with reading and introduce our most important design practices to new designers.
How I chose the readings.
New designers have to learn very quickly. The reading is designed to follow the course of a 6-week (cycle) design project. As a designer goes through the phases of the design process, their reading will help them understand each phase, from broad to specific, definition to delivery, exploration to execution.
- Essential reading — This is a short list of articles that are small enough to digest and discuss in a week.
- Further reading — This is more comprehensive and allows the designer to delve into those topics on their own.
The reading list should help answer the question of how a designer translates strategy and goals into products and solutions. Resources should cover the “how to” of design and why we do things the way we do them.
- Case studies
- Concrete concepts, methods, and rules
Topics not included:
- Specific tool/skill/technique
- Specific trends and patterns
- Design principles or systems
- Design theory and critique
- General career, profession, industry
Resources on the list should be authoritative, substantive, and current.
- Authoritative — Written by experienced design leaders.
- Substantive — The author covers more than just a single point — you can’t deduce the substance of the article from the title alone. The author includes specific examples, either from personal experience or reasonable critique. The writing is high-quality.
- Current — The resource is still relevant for today. Articles are written in the last 5 years. It’s not trendy.