August 2020

15 Essential UX/UI Design Books to Read in 2020

— Growth cycles in UX design can be hard to keep up with. These are our essential books designers should be reading to stay ahead.
15 Essential UX/UI Design Books to Read in 2020

Whether you're new to the design world, or an experienced user experience designer, it can be overwhelming to keep up with the multidisciplinary nature of product design & UX design. Unless you're working in a large design team, chances are you're expected to wear a lot of hats; lists of roles or disciplines that are important to ensure we're designing the right products, the right way, that users will love.

UX design has come a long way in 2020. Most businesses are embracing great user experience as a valuable competitive advantage, and today’s consumers expect (and accept) nothing less. Design finally has a seat at the table. But it’s a massive area of intellectual enquiry. It's not uncommon for employers and product managers to expect a wide spectrum of skills from even a junior UX designer—visual design, website design, UI prototyping, copywriting, UX research, lean UX principles, product design and management, brand design, user empathy and psychology, HTML/CSS, interaction design, mobile app design, data analytics and communication skills can all fall under the umbrella of "UX design".

This can be particularly daunting if you're studying or transitioning into UX/UI design from graphic design, print design, or even web design. As soon as you've mastered one tool, framework or technology, something else comes along. If you're working in a small team, the burden to be a unicorn UX designer is even heavier. You might already be wearing some of these hats, while other roles might be shared with product managers or developers. 

As designers, we're never 100% satisfied with our skillset or work. We're our own worst critics. Even the most experienced designers struggle to execute on their ideas, evolve, and self-train in this changing industry. You probably experience imposter syndrome. Personally, my comfort zone falls apart in 6-month cycles of growth and imposter syndrome sinks in. I'm a big fan of Seth Godin's blog, and this one observation on why creatives are so prone to imposter syndrome has always stuck with me:

“The big reason is that we're all impostors... You're not imagining that you're an impostor, it's likely that you are one. Yes, you're an impostor. So am I and so is everyone else.” —Seth Godin, on Imposter Syndrome

Even the best designers are just "hacking" it most of the time and learning new skills as they go. It's OK to feel overwhelmed by the number of things every designer needs to learn. The best approach I've found to move past imposter syndrome is to embrace it and adopt a mentality of incremental improvement—make a habit of improving your skills by 1% every day. Once you realise you're not Jack and you're never going to be a master of all of these trades, you can instead focus on becoming a life-long learner.

In improving yourself, don't just browse trends on Muzli and Dribbble and pigeon-hole yourself to design principles books and courses, learn about psychology and business, follow broader blogs on design thinking and user psychology, and don't shy away from learning difficult new skills and tools in your spare time that you might not even use in your day-to-day gig. Reading across a broad range of subjects is a great way to open up new horizons, train your brain and expose yourself to parallel ways of design thinking and problem-solving. If you can turn reading and improving your skills into a daily habit, the compounding effect over just a few years will put you decades ahead. The simple step you've taken to research this list puts you ahead of 95% of designers in your position.

How to get the most out of design books

It may seem strange to be compiling a list of (mostly) paper books for a digital-focused profession. I'd highly recommend picking up a physical copy wherever possible. How often are you going to flick through and refresh on your pirated copy of Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think if it's buried in .../dropbox/03_resources/books/design/Don't Make Me Think - Steve Krug.pdf?

If you truly want to get the most value from any of the books on this list, commit to reading and absorbing them. The $20-30 investment is worth it in the long-term if it improves your game by just 0.1%.

“A really good book costs $10 or $20 and can change your life in a meaningful way. It’s not something I believe in saving money on. This was even back when I was broke and I had no money. I always spent money on books. I never viewed that as an expense. That’s an investment to me. I probably spend 10 times as much money on books as I actually get through. In other words, for every $200 worth of books I buy, I actually end up making it through 10%. I’ll read $20 worth of books, but it’s still absolutely worth it.” —Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList

Once you've read a great design book, keep it in eyesight from your work station for easy reference. Set up a bookshelf at work where your colleagues can learn from them as well. It will make you look well-read and I promise a great book from this list will be more useful there.

There are thousands of UX design books on the market today and countless lists of long “must-read UX books” that recommend the same titles. Alan Cooper's About Face and Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things are incredibly valuable resources, but it's equally important that designers broaden their perspective across other learning disciplines to improve their thinking and capabilities. Also, technology, design thinking and even psychology are rapidly changing, so it's worth visiting new research and ideas as well as the classics. This is not a comprehensive list, but instead, an essential list that covers the key books UX/UI designers can read to get an edge in 2020.

User Friendly is a timely call for a new design philosophy for the digital age to embrace UX and make computers more user friendly. Released in late 2019, there has been a lot of hype around this book—co-author Cliff Kuang is not only a seasoned UX designer, but an award-winning tech journalist and a fantastic writer. User Friendly is an essential and modern primer on how design is shaping our behaviour, thinking, and world.

More than a reference book for designers, User Friendly is told through an interesting historical lense that reads more like a novel. It maps the secret rules of the designed world and explains how these rules have changed society. It's a fascinating blend of research, professional design experience and common sense real-life examples that exposes the underappreciated history of design—it will change how you think and approach user experience design and the world around you.

My favourite quote from User Friendly

You have to know why people behave as they do—and design around their foibles and limitations, rather than some ideal.

This is a book written by a developer-designer duo, Adam Wathan & Steve Schoger. It’s written primarily for developers. Here's an example to explain what I mean. That being said, I think it should be required reading for every designer and everyone working on digital products. It's by far one of the most practical and valuable resources for any UI designer I've come across. Ever looked at your work-in-progress and thought, “I know this looks terrible, but I have no idea why”? The obvious answer you're missing is probably in this book.

Most UX/UI design books that claim to focus on "best practices" miss the mark by focusing purely on high-level principles, design process, colour theory, and user research. It's very rare that a book dives deep on the UI side of things and how to actually design digital products, with practical tips and real actual examples. Not just theory; no fluff; 100% signal; 0% noise. Because it's primarily written from a developer's point-of-view, it explains concepts clearly and suggests common sense tactics to make your design more user friendly.

Adam Wathan & Steve Schoger are very active on Twitter and within the design/dev community and Refactoring UI is a digital product success story in itself.

My favourite quote from Refactoring UI

Whenever you stumble across a design you really like, ask yourself: "Did the designer do anything here that I never would have thought to do?"

Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is the creatives equivalent of Can't Hurt Me by David Goggins. It's an ass-kicking manifesto on “breaking through blocks and winning our inner creative battles”. It's also one of the most recommended books on this site.

Pressfield took a radically different, no-bullshit approach to writing this book. It focuses on every creatives' arch-nemesis—The Resistance—and how this enemy can stop us from achieving anything if we let it.

"Why do so many people fail in their artistic endeavours and creative projects?" Pressfield asks. The answer: "Because each of us has to defeat an incredibly strong inner enemy."

More than just a self-help book to overcome procrastination, The War of Art is a call-to-arms on professionalism, artistic integrity and drive, whatever your field may be. It's essential reading for any artist, writer, UX designer or creative professional.

"Steven Pressfield has written the most important book I've ever read on creativity and why it doesn't happen. The resistance is the most profound force in the life of the artist, the writer and the leader, and Steve has given it a name and called it out." —Seth Godin, author of This is Marketing

My favourite quote from The War of Art

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

When you reach for your phone, does your finger ever reach for Instagram or Twitter without you consciously meaning to? This is the power of habit-forming products. The world's most successful digital products, like smartphones, social media platforms, apps, websites, make us form these habits.

What made the iPhone the most profitable product in the world? Why does the average person check their smartphone is 110 times a day? As of the fourth quarter of 2019, Facebook has almost 2.5 billion monthly active users. What is it about these products? According to Nir Eyal, it's because they make use form habits, wedge themselves into our lives, and offer variable rewards.

Nir Eyal is a behavioural design and consumer psychology expert with a focus on helping businesses change user behaviour and retain customers. Hooked is a distillation of his knowledge, after years of research and working with clients. It's a fascinating read and insight into why we do the things that we do. Eyal explores the 4-step framework that makes these products so successful, with practical insights to create user habits that stick.

“When it comes to driving engagement and building habits, Hooked is an excellent guide into the mind of the user.” —Andrew Chen, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz

My favourite quote from Hooked

Users who continually find value in a product are more likely to tell their friends about it.

In 2009, Simon Sinek gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time title “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”. The simple concept presented in this talk ultimately led to Sinek's bestselling book, Start with Why, which explores how individuals can create sustainable change by actively inspiring others.

“Leadership is the ability to rally people not for a single event, but for years. In business, leadership means that customers will continue to support your company even when you slip up.” —Simon Sinek, Start with Why

Great leaders in any team can get things done and create sustainable change over long periods of time because they inspire others to reach their goals. This is a valuable trait to have in your career and life. If you're a great leader, you'll create loyal followers that will stick with you through difficult challenges.

Whether you're an entrepreneur, a designer creating products people use, or interested in learning why we do the things that we do, Start with Why is an invaluable read.

“The basis of this book is so important to anyone looking to increase their influence, profits or impact. People won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the WHY behind it. When you start with the why, everything else falls into place. This book is so impactful, I consider it required reading.” Tony Robbins, author of Unshakeable.

My favourite quote from Start with Why

There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a book that has altered how I approach and think about problems in my life. It builds on the idea that we're Strangers to Ourselves and that we're governed by two completely separate brains; our fast thinking (automatic) brain and our slow thinking (conscious) brains. You'll be surprised which one has the wheel most of the time...

Thinking, Fast and Slow also reminds a bit of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thinking in Antifragile. It dives into how the mechanisms of human thinking works, and how we're lured into poor judgement, hopeless memory and bad decisions by our fast-thinking systems. Thinking, Fast and Slow reveals when we can and cannot trust our intuitions. We can all benefit from a little more slow thinking.

One interesting insight is that Kahneman ends his books with a conclusion on the importance of improving our decision-making and the role that technology can play for that in the future. Ray Dalio comes to the same conclusion in his incredible book Principles.

If you're a marketer or UX designer, it's super insightful in helping to predict irrational user behaviour.

My favourite quote from Thinking, Fast and Slow

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.

Most UX/UI designers I've met didn't plan to be in this profession, they just kind of landed here on their creative path. I've met UX designers that used to be architects, marketers, bartenders and developers. It's easy to lose sight of the fact that design is a job; treat it that way. Design is a Job is a great resource for anyone wanting to get into design, or designers who want to understand how to treat design as a more serious career (not just something they enjoy doing). Monteiro calls it “a guide to making a living as a designer”.

Whatever type of design work you do, it exists in a space between human attitudes, perceptions and physical artefacts. Whether you're a design professional interested in transitioning to freelance work, running your own studio, or just improving your current approach to the craft and client/work relationships, there's good advice in this book for everyone.

My favourite quote from Design Is a Job

Confidence doesn’t come from knowing you’re right—it comes from being okay with failing.

After Steve Jobs left Apple, the world wondered how the company would continue to make great products. Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda is the rare remarkable insider’s story that reveals how Jobs and the design team utilised a Darwinian approach to ideation and creativity. Apple's processes are worth studying—they've created some of the most profitable products of all time.

Creative Selection is a fascinating insight into the design thinking behind Apple's creative powerhouse. It will inspire you to think differently about your design process from the teams that changed the user experience of entire industries.

My favourite quote from Creative Selection

Taste is developing a refined sense of judgment and finding the balance that produces a pleasing and integrated whole.

How well do we really know ourselves? Turns out that the conscious mind is the tip of the iceberg when we're deciding how to act and behave.

We know very little about the brain, and most of the time, we can't decipher our most basic human motivation levers and decision-making models. Timothy D. Wilson is a Social Psychology Professor at the frontier of exploring the evolution of the idea of the unconscious.

Strangers to Ourselves really gets in the weeds here and will change the way you think about how you think. Drawing on years of psychology research, Wilson argues that our unconscious minds are much more capable of driving our behaviour than we previously imagined in Freudian or Behaviorist branches of psychology.

If you're a UX designer, marketer or entrepreneur, this book contains some invaluable insights into human psychology, one of the major components to be attentive to when crafting user experiences.

“[Wilson’s] book is what popular psychology ought to be (and rarely is): thoughtful, beautifully written, and full of unexpected insights.”—Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers

My favourite quote from Strangers to Ourselves

Just as we possess a potent physical immune system that protects us from threats to our physical well-being, so do we possess a potent psychological immune system that protects us from threats to our psychological well-being. When it comes to maintaining a sense of well-being, each of us is the ultimate spin doctor.

Building a StoryBrand is one of those great books you'll find yourself re-referencing again and again, applying it to your business, design, and even personal branding. It will teach you to think of your customers as the main character in your story and how to talk about your brand so that they will listen. Because customers don't care about your story, they care about their own.

Knowing how to craft a compelling message and integrating that message into your product design and marketing is easier than you may think. Building a StoryBrand is efficiently packed with useful information and frameworks to help you create a story that will capture customer attention. An incredibly useful skill for a UX designer, copywriter, marketer or entrepreneur.

"[StoryBrand] was very impactful because I've started using this process for understanding and clarifying my brand story. It proved really, really valuable... I suggest you read this book." —Ran Segall, founder of Flux Academy

My favourite quote from Building a StoryBrand

In every line of copy we write, we’re either serving the customer’s story or descending into confusion; we’re either making music or making noise.

Chip & Dan Heath research the "stickiness" of ideas. This is a concept that builds on Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point — why do some ideas stick in the mind, while others don't? In Made to Stick, you'll learn what makes some ideas more effective than others. Equally important, it provides insight into the real power of bad ideas and why they stick, despite being wrong. And how to avoid these traps.

Think of this book as a self-help book for your ideas. Chances are, if you've read this far, you have a lot of ideas and information swirling around in your head. It can be hard to pin them down and figure out what's good, and why they're good. Made to Stick will help you thin your ideas down to an essential few and pull them apart to decide what to focus on. Simplicity is the key.

Heaths' framework will help you as a designer to focus on the highest-impact ideas and to better communicate with your target audience. Invaluable skills when designing user experiences.

“It will join The Tipping Point and Built to Last as a must-read for business people.” —Guy Kawasaki, author of The Art of the Start 2.0

My favourite quote from Made to Stick

The most basic way to get someone's attention is this: Break a pattern.

Universal Principles of Design is an in-depth encyclopedia of design, user psychology and mental models. It's so broad that it's applicable across any discipline, making it a fantastic resource to broaden your design knowledge and understanding with just one book.

Even the best designers occasionally lose sight of the fundamental principles of design. Even though this design book was originally published in 2003 (a lifetime ago in the technology space), most of the principles and concepts applied in practice contained in this book are still relevant today.

My favourite quote from Universal Principles of Design

Simplicity is achieved when everyone can easily understand and use the design, regardless of experience, literacy, or concentration level.

When we design, we solicit responses from people. We want them to do something. 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People is a solid design-psychology hybrid book that teaches you how to be more effective at guiding these responses.

Tackling some central UX design thinking questions such as "what grabs and holds attention on a page or screen?" and "how do you motivate people to continue on to the next step?", Susan Weinschenk guides you through practical steps to increase the effectiveness, conversion rates, and usability of your UX design.

Like many good UX books, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People is not written to be read continuously. Instead, it will prove far more valuable over time as you reference it and build on your foundational knowledge of design thinking and UX design knowledge.

My favourite quote from 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People

People are very willing to click multiple times. In fact, they won’t even notice they’re clicking if they’re getting the right amount of information at each click to keep them going down the path. Think progressive disclosure; don’t count clicks.

I've always felt that good typography is the most undervalued and underappreciated elements in modern product design. Text is never just text. It often goes unnoticed in good design, but good type design can elicit emotion, guide attention and even create a typographical identity.

The designers at Mailchimp valued to the power of typography and typographical identity in their recent rebrand when they selected an old-style serif, Cooper Light, as their primary typeface. Cooper Light was originally released over 100 years ago, and the slightly ironic choice (for a tech company) has become synonymous with Mailchimp's brand in just a couple of years.

Bad typography, by contrast, sticks out. Even to non-design oriented folks, bad typography is easy to spot, reflects badly on the brand and leads to a poor user experience.

Often (and I'm the first to admit I do this), designers fall back on trends rather than carefully considering the best typography for a design. Partly, because good typography skills are difficult to master. Paired with great copywriting, understanding the basics of effective typography is a powerful force multiplier to help you stand out and improve user experiences.

The Visual History of Type traces the evolution of typeface design over the last 200 years. As much a beautifully-design coffee table as an exhaustive and thorough history of type, The Visual History of Type is a great primer for levelling up on your typography knowledge.

"This is my favorite type book that I own—yes, even more so than Bringhurst. It’s not about typography; it’s about typefaces. But it is a monumental work that showcases the evolution of type from the days of Gutenberg to modern times, and reading it will expose you to the entire history of typography and give you a new perspective on graphic design." —Jeremiah Shoaf, founder of Typewolf

If you're interested in a more practical book dedicated to improving your web design typography, an honourable mention goes to Better Web Typography for a Better Web by Matej Latin which I highly recommend!

My favourite quote from The Visual History of Type

This book has been recommended on many UX design book lists before, and for good reason. Jake Knapp wrote Sprint as a distillation of his insights from 100+ design sprints run with Google Ventures.

It's a working methodology that helps UX designers, product manager and teams solve huge problems in just five days. Think of it as old-school design thinking on crack. When Sprint was published in 2016, it overhauled many dated project management processes in lieu of Google's faster, smarter approach. Knapp's goal with this book is to help you design and build better products faster.

“Sprint offers a transformative formula for testing ideas that works whether you’re at a startup or a large organization. Within five days, you’ll move from idea to prototype to decision, saving you and your team countless hours and countless dollars. A must read for entrepreneurs of all stripes.” —Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

My favourite quote from Sprint

It’s what work should be about—not wasting time in endless meetings, then seeking camaraderie in a team-building event at a bowling alley—but working together to build something that matters to real people. This is the best use of your time. This is a sprint.
Read 500 pages…every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.