Designing products is a dream job for many, probably yours too.
No matter how experienced and knowledgeable you are in product design, we all can use a fresh perspective to our design eye. In order to help you achieve that, I’ve gathered a number of books that I find extremely helpful for product design.
What follows isn’t like other Product Design reading lists. Instead, what I’m attempting to do is create a reading list that gives you unique perspectives of the most groundbreaking decade the industry has ever seen: 2010-2020. I chose one hot title from each year for a total of 11 titles; some you might know, others perhaps not.
The goal is to better inform you, and prepare you, for the decade to come.
Let’s start from the beginning:
2010 – Storytelling for User Experience: Crafting Stories for Better Design
by Whitney Quesenbery & Kevin Brooks
“The place of storytelling in the Usability Engineer’s repertoire in many ways you would think is a natural one. However, as most usability professionals are trained engineers & scientists, the process of developing a story around their process/product may not come so easy. Most engineers are interested in facts and figures and not the softer stuff of storytelling.”
Product Designers in the 2020s are extremely familiar with user stories.
We’ve all got tried-and-true methods loosely based on them. We use these to formulate and articulate ideas for new software features, so a wide array of professionals get on the same page. As the 2010-2020 decade kicked off though, product designers were still pretty fringe because the world was like Humpty Dumpty and hadn’t yet fallen off the proverbial wall into the next technological paradigm of UX.
This was the year the iPad was born, among other things, but fundamentally it was when the lingering gaps between consumers and tech products began to disappear at a rapid pace no one had seen before.
At the forefront, were vanguard UX stories.
Sure, today there’s ‘a cloud-based, real-time app for everything’ with plenty more coming but in 2010 the last bricks of the human-to-human 2.0 bridge were merely being mortared in place.
This book wasn’t a mega-hit or New York Times Best Seller, but for product designers this book is as valuable today as it ever was. You get a well-structured guide on improving product design through the art & science of storytelling with a slant or angle towards UX design.
- Chapters 1-5: In the first section you’ll see the basic groundwork laid out in terms still valuable and relevant today. In fact, recent reviews are just as stellar as earlier reviews from 5, 6, 8+ years ago.
- Chapters 6-10: These chapters take you through the practicalities of putting properly formulated and tracked UX stories to use.
- Chapters 11-16: Along with the first two sections, this is where people well outside software or product design find value in the author’s general storytelling expertise.
The read really gives you background and context on why Product Design and UX today are such a tremendous part of the process.
2011- Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
by Simon Sinek
“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”
This is a controversial book that’s compelled 13,000+ heavily-mixed reviews on Amazon alone so far; critical and complimentary alike. If you were to go through a few hundred of them, you’ll find they break down into two core points:
- You could potentially skip the 256-pager (in Paperback) and instead watch his original TED talk that went viral entitled on TED’s YouTube channel as “How great leaders inspire action | Simon Sinek.” On the other hand, just as many say the book is extremely helpful but should have been substantially condensed.
- For the rest, this work is a refreshing and inspirational way to reinvigorate yourself with the knowledge that to be successful you must have a solid Why.
For Product Designers like us, simply having the Why isn’t enough. We don’t base strategies PURELY on ‘Why’ but it can help us keep perspective when that’s the easiest thing to lose.
For some of us, keeping our eyes on the core reason of a product or product idea can be challenging. Instead, we get lost in the minutia of procedural work. Maybe for you, Sinek’s TED Talk will inspire you to read the book, like armies of others in our field, and give you some insight into why this decade shaped up the way it did.
2012 – Essential Scrum: A Practical Guide to the Most Popular Agile Process
by Kenneth Rubin
“This book covers BOTH the basics as well as providing you with an explanation of the framework so that you can begin applying scrum principles with your teams and projects. This is an EXCEPTIONALLY written manual on how to perform and ensure that you are adding value to your teams.”
Ah SCRUM; learn it; love it; live it.
Do you know a single serious Product Designer who isn’t at least familiar with this framework for adaptive teams to tackle adaptive problems? While not the only approach out there, SCRUM helps countless organizations stay productive, stay on point, and give customers products designed with the highest possible value.
For anyone who feels they could use brushing up, or just want to have this guide handy in their digital reader, it’s a you-won’t-regret-it purchase for sure. Consider Essential Scrum a must-have part of any personal collection of ‘scaling agile’ books.
2013 – UI is Communication: How to Design Intuitive, User Centered Interfaces by Focusing on Effective Communication”
by Everett N. Mckay
“This book cuts through all the noise in the UX field and provides a clear action plan to design a product from scratch. As a bootstrapped founder, I found this book very actionable and I was able to make rapid progress in my project.”
Simply put, if you are a big reader in the UX field, or you are looking for a dependable book on the subject – wish granted!
While it doesn’t have the rave reviews it deserves, and it’s a bit pricey, McKay delivers a professional, thoughtful, and foundational discussion of UI design. For Product Designers, the insight is invaluable.
2014 – Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
by Nir Eyal & Ryan Hoover
“Mincing no words, this book is really about messing with your head; the new age fad of companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Amazon/Google as well. The central idea is to play mind games and keep you addicted to free services offered by these companies, and basically raise/tend/ream you in this walled garden keeping you captive without your acknowledged consent.”
If you’ve ever worked on a product with elements of gamification or gamification has been a big part of your career — or perhaps you yourself are enraptured and entrenched in gamification-induced addiction — then you probably already own this title. From the review we included above, and that’s just a snippet, you can tell this is a touchy subject.
Why is social media so addicting?
Why do people check their phones thousands of times a day?
Why are app-based games monetized the way they are?
Why do so many different kinds of SaaS options these days have elements of gamification?
If you want to know why and where this all sort of came from, read Hooked!
In short, the super-basic Hooked Model (Basic Gamification) works like this:
- Trigger: Something needs to trigger the visual and reward-based systems of gamification. It could be signing in. Signing up. Creating an avatar. Whatever it is, the ‘loop’ needs to be initiated. From there it becomes a series of repeated steps and triggers.
- Action: Now that users are in the loop, what’s an easy win you can give them for using the triggers? What’s some simple stimulus you can give them on the emotional/psychological level? And we’re talking about the lizard brain here, not the outer rationalizing mind. This is where the Tweet comes from, or the Like, or upvoting, etc. If you’re in the SaaS world, you likely have some version.
- Variable Reward: How are users rewarded for taking actions? Friends. Followers. Shares. Big flashy colors, badges, money, admiration, quaky celebratory sounds, and so on.
- Investment: Oh no, to increase the dose or to ensure you can get the fix so to speak, now you need to penny up. Once you take this step, you enter a new loop or you experience another layer of Trigger-Action-Variable Reward-Investment.
If you’ve never had the privilege of being exposed to these authors and their work and you’re a Product Designer, needless to say this one is going to be a real eye-popping, career-boosting, personally-empowering page turner.
2015 – The Best Interface is No Interface: The simple path to brilliant technology
by Golden Krishna
“This essential book will hopefully mark the moment in history when we say ‘ENOUGH!‘ to screen saturation and usher in a more meaningful cohabitation with technology.”Kevin Farnham, Founder of Method
By the half-way mark of the decade, for any budding startup the imperative of getting, “…out of the rut of bad, unintelligible, frustrating design,” was paramount. If you represented a product seeking an edge on innovative envelope-pushing design, you were attempting to break a tremendously thick mold. Because of such a mountainous explosion in technology over the first five years, serious stagnation was afoot!
Turns out too much design… CAN …be a bad thing.
The competition of 2015’s digital landscape was pushing this truth to the extreme.
If you need a philosophical, witty, and entertaining treatise on breaking out of design ruts, this book is right up your alley.
And no, it’s not a guide. It’s not going to teach you any nifty coding tricks. It’s not going to really give you a method to further your Product Design career, but it’s going to give you some hard-hitting wisdom and ideas you can use to fuel your more rebellious designer self for decades to come; for life!
2016 – Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, & Braden Kowitz
“Enter the constrained design of the Sprint. As defined in this book, the Sprint is highly-structured enabling a laser-sharp focus on defining the problem, generating solution options, deciding what to explore, building a prototype and finally testing the prototype with enough real customers to get valuable feedback and learning.”– Peter Hundermark
We’re talking of course about the Google Ventures sprint process created by Jake Knapp.
If you’ve ever been involved with a strategic product innovation team or startup incubator-type platform, you’ve likely already implemented elements of their system. While there are connections and relations to the conventional SCRUM framework, Sprint allows you to get right into the action, validate quickly, and produce results.
Warning: most will suggest you get a trained mentor to help implement a Sprint for your first time!
2017 – Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success
by Sean Ellis & Morgan Brown
“In an increasingly erratic business landscape, where new competition can emerge overnight, customers’ loyalties can shift unexpectedly, and markets are constantly being disrupted, finding growth solutions fast is crucial for survival. Hacking Growth provides a compelling answer to this urgent need for speed, offering companies a methodology for finding and optimizing new strategies to increase their market share and quickly.”
In many ways Product Designers have become Growth Hackers. This trend really began to gain momentum in the latter part of the decade when the competitive landscape was literally off the rails.
Since then this book, and the growth hacking movement in general, have gone VERY mainstream. That’s not to say you won’t find a big box of treasures in this original work. As Product Designers are at the forefront of building connections between products and people, these insights from yesteryear are tools of the trade.
2018 – Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process
by Ken Kocienda
Love him, hate him, or, well, maybe you don’t really know him…one of the most important legacies of Steve Jobs is as a Product Designer’s hero:
He made design in modern tech cool before it was cool; an inspiration of designers and startup teams to ditch the status quo and REALLY focus on the product.
Not just the product, but the user. To put yourself in the user’s shoes like a crazed method actor.
This book is a genuine insider-look from outside the limelight during the glory days of Apple as they were designing what would end up becoming one of humanity’s most groundbreaking technologies — the iPhone. Ken Kocienda was a 15-year veteran Apple engineer and designer, hence, why you’ll get invaluable perspective from multiple angles on how one of our greatest companies puts products together.
For the more informed Apple nerds out there, this would be an inside view of the ‘2nd Steve Jobs Era’ which will dissuade you from trying too hard to emulate Apple. Put down the guides. Unplug from the status quo tech blogs. Unhinge from mainstream startup and refocus…on the product!
2019 – Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations
by Tim Brown
“It is the quintessential introduction to Design Thinking by one of the most relevant designers who’ve contributed to it. It is not a Design Thinking guide. It is not a toolkit. It’s an overview that tackles the mindset, and the aim of this groundbreaking strategy for problem generating and problem solving.”– Reader review.
Not much more needs to be said than this – if you consider yourself a part of the ‘Design Thinking’ crowd, or the term is a part of your regular vernacular, then you should have read this book already.
Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, who basically created the concept, put the brunt of this work together in 2009. It has since been revised and updated. However, many of the original examples are in there which gives it a timeless flavor; without doubt a part of history in our industry.
2020 – From Chaos to Concept: A Team-Oriented Approach to Designing World Class Products and Experiences
by Kevin Collamore Braun
“If you are newer to the field, simply follow along and you’ll be on the road to success. For experienced UX professionals, the many tips and examples serve to confirm one’s own experience and bring new perspectives.”
For our 2020 pick, we went with something fresh off the presses and already seeing a good reception.
When it comes to the many steps involved in effectively designing SaaS products, the author does a prompt and polished job addressing the planning, product design, development, measuring, testing, and iterating phases.
What an incredible way to look at the 2010-2020 decade, from classic UX design to the modern ‘From Chaos to Concept’ perspectives. I hope you enjoy this list and that there were at least a couple of discoveries that you’ll add to your reading list.
Take the next step: Top 16 Tools for Product Designers
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I become a product designer?
To become a product designer, you need to understand the basics of the industry (books in this list are great), while also honing your skills with courses and entry-level jobs.
How can I get into product design?
The best way of understanding the fundamentals of product design is by reading the books we’ve listed in this article, written by the best product designers of our day.
How can I design a new product?
You can use tools such as Sketch, Adobe XD, and Figma to design a product. But to design a “good” product, you’ll need to comprehend the basics of product design.