Great Design Books You’ve Never Heard Of

June 26, 2015 in Human-Centered Design
David Bishop
Director of Human Sciences, Chief Human Scientist

There are plenty of interesting and useful books about Human-Centered Design (HCD), web design, interaction design, usability research, and user experience. Declaring a book timeless or an important part of the canon is difficult. Sometimes it’s too early to tell whether a book will continue to be relevant and stand out amongst others, especially if it has recently been published. Also, many books are more tactical (prescriptive, even) than strategic. These can be very useful in the short-term, but quickly become irrelevant as technologies or methods change. So what books, in my opinion, stand the test of time?

I’ve read a few books that don’t seem to be widely known. Granted, they are a bit older and hard to find given that some were published more than 30 years ago. However, they remain my favorites because the subject of design is written on a broader scale than many books and the content is still very much relevant today. Or maybe because I’m nostalgic for a simpler time — before some aspects of User Experience (UX) became highly specialized. In any case, if you’re involved in the practice of design, I highly recommend hunting down these books and reading them.

Responsible product design

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How Things Don’t Work (1973) by Victor Papanek and James Hennessey

This book is a broad critique of consumption, the design of manufactured products, and our throw-away society. The specific designs in this book aren’t as important as the way of thinking, the social commentary (why can’t we share tools like lawn mowers amongst neighbors?), and the authors’ provocation. I really enjoy the straightforward presentation of the authors’ ideas and their use of humor. Yes, some of the recommendations in the book have already come to fruition (Papanek and Hennessey’s ideas of building products from kits are the lifeblood of Ikea’s business), but that doesn’t diminish the overall narrative.

Despite the book title implying that it’s full of critiques, How Things Don’t Work is actually full of alternatives, suggestions and admonitions. (Irony was just as popular in the 70s as it is today). This book also includes my favorite chapter title ever: “No Roast Tonight—the Lights on My Carving Knife Need Realignment.” What a great one-sentence indictment of feature creep, further clarified as the “escalation of product offerings” and “the frantic surge for ‘improvements.’” Papanek and Hennessy skewer useless, maladapted and irresponsible products in a humorous, readable and entertaining way. The humor is critical because the topic is serious and weighty; they’re really talking about the demise of the planet, about the ills of consumerism, and about the dangers of growth for growth’s sake.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I read it, I love it, I lend it, I lose it, and I buy it again. Papanek’s admonitions remind us that the best products directly fill a need, are developed in a responsible way, and avoid extraneous embellishment. These messages are as powerful today as they were 40 years ago as we design mobile phone apps, wearable devices and cloud-based services.

HCD success stories

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Inside Intuit (2003) by Suzanne Taylor and Kathy Schroeder

My copy of this book has notes throughout the first eight chapters that say things like: “a triumph of Human-Centered design!” and “even the CEO is doing field work.” When Intuit entered the market with Quicken, there were already 46 products on the market. They quickly became a leader by setting goals like — “a complete personal computer novice should be able to install the product and print a check within fifteen minutes” — then observing users and improving prototypes until the goal was met.

The company also found new ways to institutionalize regular contact with the customers. For example, Intuit conducted contextual inquiries as part of a “follow me home” program where engineers and marketers observed first-time customers in their homes as they installed and used the product. Additionally, in 1989, everyone in the company answered customer support calls for a half-day each month.

This business book isn’t touted as a user-experience design book; the second two-thirds are about acquisitions, anti-trust battles and notable failures. But I encourage you to at least read the first eight chapters and relish triumphs of successfully executed human-centered design. Skim the rest and you may find a few cautionary tales.

User experience across the ages

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The Elements of Friendly Software Design (1982) by Paul Heckel

Don’t let the title or the publication date fool you. This book is relevant to today’s broader view of User Experience, even though it pre-dates smartphones and mobile devices by two or three decades. The examples are period-specific (a 1929 mimeograph machine; VisiCalc; a language translator from 1979), yet the principles Heckel espouses are still pertinent. “Maintain the user’s interest,” he says, “communicate visually,” and “support the problem-solving process.”

Chapter 3 contains Heckel’s elements: 30 simply worded directives that, if followed, will lead to superior experiences. “Communicate Visually;” “Avoid Frustrating the User;” “Serve Both the Novice and the Experienced User,” Heckel writes. These suggestions are straightforward and useful. You might not expect the details to remain significant today, but the principles are still relevant. It’s easy to extrapolate today’s graphical user interfaces from the text-based user interface examples.

Elements is a readable book, full of wonderful examples, quotes, metaphors and pictures. And no, you can’t get it on your Kindle; you’ll have to borrow mine or find a used copy because it’s out of print.

Back to basics

Today we have the processing power, graphic capabilities, mobility and network bandwidth that would have been hard to fathom when these books were written (and published – on paper!). Yet the basic design principles haven’t changed. Designing usable products is about understanding people, planning for the long-term and taking a holistic view.

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