30+ Best UX Design and Research Books of All Time
The “A” List: We frequently receive requests from colleagues, clients, and journalists for recommended reading lists on topics covering our expertise in UX design, usability research and human factors engineering. These requests prompted us to pull from our research library (yes, we still have real books) 30+ books which our professional staff felt should be considered primary conceptual literature for anyone well-read in the theory and practice of UX design and research.
A Surprising List: When we pooled the selected books for inclusion, we were a bit surprised. Most of the selected texts were published some time ago… in some cases, our selections were out of print. This set us to thinking: Why did we end up with books representing the best theory on UX design published before the term was even invented?
The answer resides in the fact that UX design, as we define it, encompasses a vast field of human-machine interaction variables covering cognitive processes, decision-making, task design, information architecture, graphic design, interactive brand development, market research, retail store design, product design, web design and at least a dozen other primary fields of expertise.
Where to Start: UX design is by definition a vast and overlapping set of expertise areas that find focus based on the nature of a specific UX design problem. Therefore, to be well-read on this subject actually requires reading very diverse professional literature. The following 30+ books are those we consider the best general expositions on a given topic area that we know from professional experience is functionally or theoretically applicable to UX Design and Research.
It may come as a surprise to those of you who came to UX in the last decade that there was a vast and teeming world of man-machine science and related research before there was anything like the iPhone or even the Internet. Our list is as much about the history of man-machine design as it is about the future of UX.
Please Note: We have reviewed many UX-specific books for this list but have found that most of the new texts, including several popular books on UX design, are not nearly as useful as the original texts on which they are based. Most of the books on our list can be easily found online at Amazon.com or at other online sources. Many are out of print but not out of sight. If you purchase any of these books from Amazon or any other source, we do not receive any compensation. If you have books you feel we missed, send us a comment and if we agree with your suggestion it will be added to the list with a citation. We view our list, like our associated list of important recent papers on UX, as a living entity. Finally, if you are an author and your book(s) is not on the list, please do not send us a snarky comment. We will simply ignore it.
Charles L Mauro CHFP
Mauro New Media
Information Foraging Theory
Peter Pirolli, 2009.
Summary: Most UX professionals have never heard of Information Foraging Theory (IFT). This excellent short text written by Peter Pirolli of PARC is one of several theories in psychology drawing upon “evolutionary-ecological theory in biology.” IFT explores the idea that “human information-seeking mechanisms and strategies adapt to the structure of the information environments in which they operate. This is to say that we forage for information on the web in much the same way that a fox forages for rabbits in a given habitat. Yes, this is actually true and IFT explains why and how with supporting discussion and, if you desire, mathematical models as proof. This idea has fascinating implications for user experience and user interface design. (Some math in parts but highly readable)
HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks
John M. Carroll, 2003.
Summary: This is the best current text on basic theoretical models of human-computer interaction (HCI) and UX design and optimization. This relatively new text focuses on the development and extension of HCI/UX as a formal science. It presents an excellent overview of all current important HCI/UX design frameworks focused on objective measurement of human performance. In other words, the science behind UX solutions that work cognitively for users of such devices. The book contains extensive statistical data and some advanced math related to system UX performance modeling. Many case studies bring into focus the value of science in UX design and research. (Lots of math and statistical concepts… but understanding why a given UX solution works is a cognitive science question, anyway. Aside from the math, the text is an essential read for UX professionals.)
Managing the Customer Experience
Shaun Smith & Joe Wheeler, 2002.
Summary: Smith and Wheeler illustrate their book with real examples of companies that have successfully followed their mantra: “Experience is everything.” The text addresses both “branding” and “experience”– what they are, how they are different, and how to use them both to enhance management and marketing. The book is based on UX as a fundamental measure of success. There are dozens of other books of similar content but more verbose.
The Design of Business
Roger Martin, 2005.
Summary: “Design Thinking” has become a buzzword in many industries in recent years, but how does it actually help promote success in business, science, and the arts? This book provides useful case studies and practical guidance to use this new way of thinking to more easily access the path to innovation. Written by a Harvard professor, the text is dry in places but strong on case studies. UX is a central theme linked to the design thinking methodology.
The Usability Engineering Lifecycle
Deborah J. Mayhew, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 1999.
Summary: Deborah has several texts in circulation, all of which are good references. This new book is an excellent “how to” covering development and execution of usability programs. It covers the topic of “user-centered design” well and incorporates many excellent examples and case studies. There is also an updated chapter on cost-justifying usability that is easy to understand and apply. Minimal detailed reference to UX, but the principles apply to all interface design problems.
Watches Tell More than Time
Del Coates, 2002.
Summary: Written by a leading UX product design expert, this book draws upon the author’s findings related to aesthetics, psychology, information theory, physiology, anthropology, and design to create a comprehensive resource for determining effective corporate strategies and optimizing UX/product designs. Coates defines the basic laws of good design as they apply to anyone who wants to understand why superior UX and product design is often the key to success. This a very interesting book in light of the Apple iWatch. Del makes extensive use of the watch as an example of product design UX attribute modeling. (No math and many excellent examples covering a wide range of products)
Task, Errors and Mental Models
Jens Rasmussen; L. P. Goodstein; S. E. Olsen; H. B. Andersen, 1988.
Summary: This is one of the seminal texts on cognitive complexity and the relationship between user skill acquisition (how users learn your UX solution) and UX design complexity. The early thought leaders in man-machine system design wrote several chapters that have been cited in hundreds of other publications. This text contains some of the most important early thinking on “search” and how the user’s mental model of the real world impacts search success and related UX design. (Some math)
The Multitasking Myth
Loukia D. Loukopoulos, R. Key Dismukes, Immanuel Barshi, 2009.
Summary: Multitasking is an essential UX design challenge. This relatively new book delves deeply into the cognitive processes and the related myth of multitasking related to our interactions with technology. This text is written essentially from the standpoint of pilots, cockpit automation, and accidents caused by engineering solutions that made the assumption that users of technology can multitask. We know only too well now that what looks like multitasking to an engineer is really rapid task switching with a massive negative impact on user performance. (No math)
The Psychology of Menu Selection
Kent L. Norman, 1991.
Summary: Yes, there is actually an entire textbook written on the cognitive processes behind computer menu design and related testing. The various problems one encounters when designing all manner of UX menu structures are covered. The examples are a bit dated but the science is highly relevant to UX design problems today. (Some minimal low-level math)
Josef Muller-Brockmann, 1961.
Summary: The essential text for the design of graphic grids related to UX screen-based interface solutions, written by the father of the graphic layout grid, Josef Muller-Brockmann. While the examples are from printed matter, the theory and practice are rock solid for the design of consistent and robust UX screen-based solutions. It is interesting to note that the best screen-based solutions today (iPhone, for example) are based entirely on the root grid systems first developed by leading European graphic designers for printed books. While this book addresses graphic layout as a primary topic, the underlying concepts apply to UX design framework production. There are literally hundreds of UX design books that copy Brockmann’s concepts. This is the original. (No math, just great examples)
The Psychology of Human-Computer Interaction
Stuart K. Card, Thomas P. Moran, Allen Newell, 1986.
Summary: The single most quoted and cited text in the history of human-computer interaction design. These three scientists wrote the book on how to define and measure human performance in HCI applications. This book is based on their work at Xerox PARC and is the cornerstone of human behavior modeling in UX design solutions. The text is the essential exposition of the GOMS method for modeling UX human-computer interactions. Generations of UX/HCI scientists built on this original work. The basic process model (GOMS) has been applied to thousands of complex UX/UI design programs over the past 20 years. (Considerable math and statistics… but hey, HCI (UX) is a science, not an art, after all).
Apple Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktop Interface
Apple Computer Inc., 1987.
Summary: No self-respecting UX design professional should be without a copy of the ORIGINAL publication of the Apple Human Interface Guidelines for the original Mac and Apple II. Published in 1987, it is still the best simple exposition of HCI as a formal application area to a consumer product (early GUI-based personal computer). If you can find the original text, it is worth the search. It is so interesting to read the general UX design principles and to realize how faithfully Apple carried them through decades of near bankruptcy, several generations of whacked-out management, the passing of Steve Jobs, and finally the creation of the world’s most valuable company. Apple was UX-centered from the beginning. (No math in sight)
Summary: Even though Ricky Wurman is best known for founding TED and his mansion in Newport, RI, this text is believed by many to be an essential read for UX design and strategy. The book covers a very wide range of topics related to information design and presentation. It is a uniquely compelling, visually interesting book and arguably his best effort. The book is like Tufte, but without the attitude that design is unimportant. The book is an overload of relevant UX design concepts covering information design and interpretation. Many recent UX books attempted to built on Wurman’s approach and content structure. None did it as well.
Summary: While we are on the topic of Tufte, one must have read, studied, argued and adopted at least one of his early books as a primary UX reference. These are our favorite 2 books in a long line of self-published texts of very fine quality. Tufte, a Professor of Statistics (and other disciplines) at Yale, is all about the minimum ink required to tell a statistical story graphically, known for the quote “Above all else show the data.” The texts noted here are replete with wonderful examples of information graphics used to present compelling statistical stories. Book 1 first introduced the famous image of Napoleon’s march to Moscow during the First World War and his devastating retreat. That information graphic, created by Charles Minard in 1869 depicting the number of men in Napoleon’s 1812 Russia campaign army, their movements, and the temperatures they encountered on the return path, is surely one of the seminal information graphic images of all time. You should purchase the original texts if possible. All of Tufte’s books are beautifully printed and sturdy as rocks. You do not have to agree with his theory to respect his books. These two are especially worth owning. (No math, just amazing images and very clear discourse)
Designing for Situation Awareness
Mica R. Endsley, 2011.
Summary: This important book is about: Attentional Tunneling, Requisite Memory Trap, Workload, Anxiety, Fatigue, Data Overload, Misplaced Salience, Complexity Creep, Errant Mental Models and Out-of-the-Loop Syndrome. Need we say more? Sound like the current UX problems you face today? The theory behind this book is essential to understanding UX design problems where one encounters complex combinations of users, devices, environmental factors, training requirements, and rapidly changing interactions among all of the above. Situation Awareness Theory (SAT) is rapidly replacing older theories about how we interface with systems to solve complex problems. Some say understanding SAT is an essential UX design skill. This book is a primer in SA theory and practice. (No math, lots of interesting case studies)
Measuring the User Experience
Tom Tullis and Bill Albert, 2008.
Summary: This is the seminal text on UX testing. While the focus is on screen-based web interfaces, the overall principles and methods apply to any UX problem. The authors cover all critical UX testing methods including basic statistics and related processes. The book is an essential read for any UX design professional. A second book, Beyond the Usability Lab, expands on this text to include online UX testing methodologies. Disclaimer: we wrote a chapter in the second text but receive no compensation if purchased. (Some math and statistics but without such the book would be useless)
Cognitive Systems Engineering
Jens Rasmussen, Annelise Mark Pejtersen, L. P. Goodstein, 1994.
Summary: This is the definitive text on understanding and making use of mental models in the design of complex UX solutions. This is one of the most widely cited texts in the HCI field by an acknowledged team of world-class experts in HCI. This book is required reading for anyone involved in UX design related to work environments or large-scale UX programs involving combinations of devices, users, and work environments all tied together by complex computer interfaces. (No serious math to speak of)
Cost-Justifying Usability: An Update for the Internet Age
Randolph G. Bias & Deborah J. Mayhew, Academic Press, Inc., 2005.
Summary: In an appropriate disclaimer, we wrote a chapter in this book. However, we do not receive any fees when it is purchased. This is the only extensive text on the cost-justification of usability related to UX/UI design. Randolph and Deb have put together an excellent text that has a great deal of useful data on why usability engineering is not only good for the customer but also excellent for the bottom line. This should be on the shelf of anyone practicing or promoting usability engineering.
The Design of Everyday Things
Donald A. Norman, Currency/Doubleday, 1990.
Summary: Donald Norman with his partner Jakob Nielsen have written many informative books. If you really want just one for your bookshelf I suggest this text. This text is easy to read, focused and very engaging. Essentially it presents an interesting view of the good and bad of design. I would recommend it to anyone interested in reading about user-centered design (UCD).
Human-Computer Interaction and Complex Systems
George R.S. Weir & James L. Alty, Academic Press, 1991.
Summary: For anyone out there who really wants a look at the upper end of the human-computer interaction literature, this text is for you! This text is an excellent overview of human-computer interaction design for complex systems. However, it is helpful if you have a degree in math. The focus is almost exclusively on cognitive modeling for process control.
The Humane Interface
Jef Raskin, Addison-Wesley, 2000.
Summary: Jef has written an excellent text on user interface design. This book is especially helpful if you are interested in a step-by-step explanation of user interface design methods such as GOMS analysis, interface efficiency measurement, and Fitts’ Law. The book contains many interesting examples covering a wide range of industries. The strongest point of Jef’s book is in the definition of usability engineering methods as they apply to all types of interface design problems.
Intelligent User Interfaces
Joseph W. Sullivan & Sherman W. Tyler, ACM Press, 1991.
Summary: An excellent text for anyone with some basic coursework in psychology. This text covers several critical aspects of user interface design including multimodal communications, models, plans, goals, and dynamic presentation design. Included are many case studies with information that can be transferred to UX design.
A Designer’s Art
Paul Rand, Yale University Press, 1985.
Summary: Over the last 35 years, Paul Rand was the seminal figure in the creation of visual branding for large corporations. He created many famous designs including the corporate identities for IBM, ABC, UPS, and NEXT, to mention a few. This text covers his design philosophy and presents many examples of his work. An excellent book by a world-class expert presenting core visual design principles backed up by the best solutions on the planet.
Summary: I am often asked by corporate CEOs, “What is the real business value of good design?” My response is often taken from this text, which is composed of a series of short chapters written by corporate leaders and designers from the 1970s. By far the best chapter was written by Thomas J. Watson, Jr., Chairman of IBM. The title of his chapter “Good Design is Good Business” says it all. This text is out of print but can be found at used bookstores. Yes, the photographs are out-of-date but the basic message is even more relevant today.
Building Strong Brands
David A. Aaker, The Free Press, 1996.
Summary: This is the best text on brand building by one of the acknowledged experts in the field. Almost every principle presented in this book can be mapped onto UX design. Too bad more UX professionals have not read this book. There would be dramatically fewer giveaways and much more focus on quality customer experience design. Aaker’s other books are re-do’s of this material.
Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping
Paco Underhill, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Summary: My friend Paco Underhill has created a very interesting and engaging book that attempts to explain what aspects of the retail shopping experience affect what products and services we buy and how we buy them. Although not truly a scientific presentation, it is based on many years of careful and structured observational research of shoppers navigating retail environments. A must-read for UX professionals.
Task Analysis Methods for Instructional Design
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.
Summary: This book is the best-detailed text on task analysis (TA), the cornerstone of online user interface design, and instructional development. The authors include very detailed descriptions of what TA is and how it applies to instructional design. The principles presented in this text map directly to customer acquisition, retention and migration issues. Please note: this is a detailed and extensive discussion of the topic and is not light reading. If you really want to understand what goes into doing this stuff the right way, this is the book. No mention of UX per se.
Writing Better Computer User Documentation
R. John Brockmann, John Wiley & Sons, 1990.
Summary: A bit out-of-date but still an excellent text for anyone creating online documentation. Again, there is no mention of UX, but a still good presentation of methods and best practices covering user documentation. A significant portion of this book is dedicated to online documentation.
New Rules for the New Economy
Kevin Kelly, Viking Press, 1998.
Summary: If you are going to read only one book about the “New Economy,” this is it. Hands down, Kevin Kelly nails it. Dozens of books that followed Kevin’s text are simple reinterpretations of his work. This book attempts to put into context what the “New Economy” is and why it is important. At the very least, it is well written and interesting reading.
The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid, Harvard Business School Press, 2000.
Summary: Written by one of the few true masters of human-technology integration problems, this book makes for generally excellent reading. John and Paul explore the overall role of social context in the creation of effective information technology solutions. Chapter Seven, “Reading the Background,” covers the social context of “paper documents” and their role in understanding how users actually file and organize information… not exactly an IT solution but very insightful.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Thomas Kuhn, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996.
Summary: This book by the man who created the term “paradigm shift” is an outstanding text on how new ideas form, grow and mature to consume prior established ways of thinking and solving problems. The core theories behind this text form an excellent model for the growth of UX. Note: this text was written several years ago and does not mention UX.
The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution
C.P. Snow, Cambridge University Press, 1959.
Summary: For those of you who are really into the last word, or as it were, the first word, this book is really worth reading. The text is based on a famous lecture given by C.P. Snow at Cambridge University in 1959 in which he delineates that widening the gulf between science and art. Many have said that this is the seminal text that defines the increasing split between human needs and technology-based solutions.
Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon, Econo-Clad Books, 1996.
Summary: A must-read for anyone who thinks they know or want to know how the Web really came about. This text is slow in some places and riveting in others. At the end of the day, this book tells the story of who put “Inter” in the net. Note: I am talking here about the Internet, not the “Web;” this book documents the Internet “pre-Web.”
Weaving the Web
Tim Berners-Lee, Harper San Francisco, 1999.
Summary: The first half of the book is a terrific read covering Mr. Berners-Lee’s protracted and oftentimes extremely difficult task of creating the primary interaction model for the Web. It is hard to believe that he kept the project alive in the face of such opposition and poor funding. The second half of the book covering his view on the next evolution of the Web is much less interesting but still worth a quick review. For an excellent historical view of the Web’s early development, read this book and “Where Wizards Stay Up Late,” also on this list.
Failure is Not an Option
Gene Kranz, 2009.
Summary: No UX design problem rivals the early NASA lunar expeditions. Nothing has come close to requiring the same level of creativity, systems design, engineering and human factors science. This book by Gene Kranz, the former Flight Director for the NASA lunar missions including Apollo 13, is the best historical read on the science of function allocation. Function allocation is the science of creating UX solutions that utilize the proper balance of machine automation and human skills and intelligence. This is probably the single most complex UX problem we face today. The book is a riveting read on how the combination of human intelligence and amazing advanced and unproven technology combined to achieve success. But the most interesting part of this book and the most relevant is how NASA dealt with failure in deep space during the aborted Apollo 13 mission. As anyone who struggles with a complex UX problem knows, it is human intelligence that is the most valuable asset any technologist has when things go wrong… very wrong. (No math… just great storytelling by the man at the center of the Apollo 13 problem)
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