Building Freetrade

Nine books every product designer should read

Caitlin Rich

December 27, 2020

Caitlin Rich

Principal Product Designer Caitlin Rich shares her top reads to help inspire good design and keep user experience front of mind.

I'm sure any designer can relate to those days where things are just not clicking into place.ย 

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Perhaps the obvious solution feels overly complicated, a round of user testing leaves you scratching your head or a project you've poured your heart into is going to take months to build (that the roadmap just can't spare).ย 

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Here is a list of the most significant books I've read at various points of my career that have helped me push through these days.ย 

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If you need support flipping a difficult problem on its head or a reminder of the basic principles of design which may have been temporarily forgotten, these reads should get you through.

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Understanding comics

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A very clever comic book all about comics, though its real value is its teachings on how we comprehend visual language.ย 

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While this book is directly related to comics, there is so much that can be applied to interface design.ย 

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It provides brilliant insight into how our brains interpret (or misinterpret) visual cues and how these cues can be as equally important as words.


The Design of Everyday Things

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Just as the book above helps decipher visual language on a page, The Design of Everyday Things focuses on how visual language affects our interactions with the world around us.ย 

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It stresses how human error can rarely be solely blamed, and usually occurs as a result of poor design.ย 

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Norman picks apart his frustration with doors that are unclear if you should push or pull, fridge controls that result in you unintentionally freezing food and expensive washing machines with multiple functions that are left unused due to confusion.

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While first published in 1988, the revised 2013 edition introduces how these concepts relate to the digitised environments we all know, hate and love.


Alchemy

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Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense is a humorous read about how some product, marketing and design choices don't make rational sense, but for some reason, just work.ย 

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For example, how did RedBull dominate the soft drinks industry by introducing a drink that tastes worse than Coke or Pepsi but is priced eight or nine times higher?

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While this book is aimed at advertisers and marketers, it highlights the importance of thinking outside the box when it comes to user and customer experience.ย 

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Sometimes what seems the most obvious solution is not the best course of action.


The Mom Test

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One of the most common pitfalls in user research is asking questions that lead a participant to answer in line with what you want them to say, rather than what is really in their head.

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"The mom test" is about structuring questions in a way that even your mum will tell you if an idea is terrible, rather than the usual; "that's nice dear, we believe in you".

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It teaches you how to avoid accidentally pitching ideas to your customers and how to dig into the facts behind what they are saying, ignoring the compliments and opinions.


Sprint

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Detailing the "sprint" process used at Google Ventures, this book provides step by step instructions on how to come up with and validate ideas in just five days.

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Breaking each day down into a set of activities, it allows you to define the problem you are trying to solve, get input from a range of people across the business, narrow these down with stakeholders involved, prototype the solution in the simplest way, and get feedback from your customers.

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In reality, half the book should be dedicated to just how to clear your team's and CEO's calendars for a week, though there are some great ideas for workshops and proof that you can get a lot done in very little time.

The Art of Looking Sideways

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This giant coffee table book is not one to read cover to cover (seriously, it's huge), though perfect to pick up and flick through when you've found yourself butting against a creative block.

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There is no linear story or narrative of any kind, just a visual feast of pictures, graphic design, colours, quotes, fonts, photographs, poems, musings, and notes.ย 

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Every time you pick it up, you'll find something fascinating that you haven't seen before.


Deep work

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Not directly design-related, though this book helps you bring out your most productive self when tackling complex problems.

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In a world filled with Slack, emails, meeting requests, Zoom and constant notifications, the book makes us wonder how we get anything done at all.ย 

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If you ever needed to be convinced to clear an afternoon of meetings out of your calendar for deep focus time, this will do it.

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It provides a good set of rules to live by, to get the most out of your workdays, and really does inspire you to make big changes to how you schedule your calendar.ย 

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If you're tackling a big project and feel like you're not making significant progress, this will help.


Lean startup

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The must-read for anyone new to working with startups, this book takes learnings from lean manufacturing and applies it to startups and digital products.ย 

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It talks through the importance of validating your ideas as quickly as possible, building the most lightweight option to help you learn, and iterating often.

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It inspires you to strip features down to a minimum viable product (MVP) and get them into the hands of your customers rather than implementing the "perfect" solution, which often turns out to be not so perfect the more feedback you get along the way.

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My favourite quote that will always stick with me is, "Customers don't care how much time something takes to build. They care only if it serves their needs."

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Important information

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This should not be read as personal investment advice and individual investors should make their own decisions or seek independent advice. This article has not been prepared in accordance with legal requirements designed to promote the independence of investment research and is considered a marketing communication.


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