Cindy Brummer, Author at General Assembly Blog

7 Must-Read UX Design Books

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If you search on Amazon for books using the key phrase “UX design”, more than 1,000 titles will appear. That’s a lot of titles to wade through if you’re looking to read about user experience! One of the most difficult parts of making a list of the best UX books is that there are so many awesome ones out there. I could write a must-read list that goes on forever.

I chose the following UX titles either because they have played a significant role in the way I view my place as a UX designer or because they address foundational design topics that every UX designer should understand. I’m leaving out a fair number that have been published in all aspects of design, from usability and research to interaction design and how to present and speak to your design decisions. This reading list is intended for you to use as a starting point.

1. Badass: Making Users Awesome by Kathy Sierra

Kathy Sierra’s book is all about the strategy for creating successful products and services. Badass: Making Users Awesome looks at how to look at a product or service from the user’s perspective.

So instead of relying on marketing tactics that might be unethical, we can create products that lead users to champion them with their friends and family. A win for everyone!

The design and layout of the book is unlike that of most — it lays out the argument with a lot of visuals. And it’s an easy read. This has led to some negative reviews complaining that the book is just a PowerPoint PDF. Lay that aside, and the message is strong. It’s a great look at the point-of-view statement and how a well-written one can be influential in creating awesome products that users love.

When you read this book, it will start to make sense why some products do really well in the market and why others don’t. It will help show you how to shift your design strategy so that it can be successful too.

2. Just Enough Research by Erika Hall

Erika Hall’s book on UX research is a joyful and informative read you could probably finish in a single day. 

This slim how-to manual, published by A Book Apart, walks the reader through the basics of user research, from talking to stakeholders in an organization through analysis and reporting. Hall’s writing style makes the topic — which can be dry in other books — fun and approachable. 

She’s also realistic in her advice to readers. She recognizes the constraints in time and budget that all UX designers face in their day to day jobs, so she proposes how best to navigate these situations and what alternative methods to employ.

Just Enough Research’s current edition was updated with a new chapter on surveys and why designers must be very careful about using these often-abused metrics in their research.

Even if you aren’t a UX researcher, this book explains how you can implement research in your process and spot your own biases so you can design a better user experience.

3. The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

The Design of Everyday Things is a standard on most design-reading lists for a reason. This book was originally published in 1988 with the title “The Psychology of Everyday Things”. It was revised in 2013 with a major update to some of the examples to make it more relevant to today. 

Norman’s book lays the landscape for usability in human-centered design. In it, Norman lays out how human psychology affects everyday actions, why it’s natural for humans to make mistakes, and how technology can help rather than cause errors. Norman also explains human-centered design and proposes principles for good design.

I listened to this book on Audible, and a PDF accompanied the audio book so I could view the examples, which are especially helpful in understanding affordances and signifiers.

Vox produced a great video about one of the examples in the book — how doors are designed well, and how they are designed badly. If you’ve ever struggled with figuring out a door, sink, stove, switches, or other interface — the problem isn’t you. It’s the design.

Norman’s classic book explains why bad design happens, what good design is, and the constraints designers face when designing.

4. Designing with the Mind in Mind by Jeff Johnson

Sometimes designers follow a set of rules for designing user interfaces without understanding why certain patterns and methods work. This book changes that.

Jeff Johnson’s Designing with the Mind in Mind lays out the perceptual and cognitive psychology that are the foundation for intuitive interfaces.

For example, how does human perception work? How is the eye structured and how do we read? What can we do as designers to ensure that people can see the information we design?

Johnson walks through an explanation of human vision, attention, memory, and decision-making for a deep-dive into why we perceive the way we perceive. After reading this book, UX designers will have a better idea of why we have design rules so they can make educated decisions about tradeoffs between budget, time, and competing design rules.

5. About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design 4th Edition by Alan Cooper, Robert Reiman, David Cronin, and Christopher Noessel

About Face completely changed the way I think about interaction design. Admittedly, I’ve only read sections of the book, due to its length. Still, it’s a reference when I have questions about how to approach interaction design and UI design.

This book is broken into three parts. It starts with introducing goal-directed design and how to approach digital projects. Then it moves through designing for behavior and form. Lastly, it looks at the differences in designing for desktop, mobile, and web applications.

My read of the book focused on designing for behavior, and my biggest “ah-ha” moment came when reading about optimizing for intermediate users. Much of the struggle designers have is in how to manage the different needs between beginners and experts. This chapter explains that we should focus on intermediates. We should guide beginning users to become intermediates as soon as possible, and aim to provide opportunities for advanced users to use our products without holding them back.

This book includes a number of other useful concepts to consider when designing user interfaces. At 659 pages, it might be a little too much to read in one sitting, but it should be in the designer library.

6. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Steve Krug’s classic book introduced me to usability and usability testing, and launched me into my current career as a UX designer. Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability is now in its third edition. 

It’s short, easy to read, and a great manual for designers just getting started in usability testing. Krug wrote it based on his 30 years as a usability consultant for organizations including Apple, NPR, and the International Monetary Fund. Even if you already understand why you should do usability testing, chances are you work with people who don’t understand. This book is a great gift for those people. It explains why you should test, how to keep it simple, and how to keep it from being a budget suck. The newest edition has a new chapter about usability for mobile websites and apps, and all of the examples are updated.

If you want to take it a step further, consider Krug’s second book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. This book explains everything you need to know to get started with usability testing with little or no cost. It includes how to recruit, how to conduct a test session, and how to involve your team. 

7. Change by Design by Tim Brown

IDEO CEO Tim Brown explains design thinking and how it should be used at every level of a business. This isn’t a manual for designers. It’s geared towards people outside of the industry, but I included it on this list because of the examples.

IDEO is a well-known human-centered design firm, and the examples Brown provides are straight from IDEO’s project list. While sometimes it feels more like a sales pitch, the case studies are interesting examples of how design thinking is applied.

UX designers who read this book can look at design thinking from a perspective outside the industry and use the examples to explain how design thinking can be used in every industry and in every discipline — it’s not just for designers.

Conclusion

I couldn’t include all of my favorite user experience books on this list. There are just too many amazing titles, and I already have about three times as many on my “to-read” list. These must-read UX design books are a great place to get started if you’re looking for some summer reading to help you advance your design career.


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What is UX Design?

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That’s an understandable question. “UX” has become a buzzword that UX designers are often asked to define. The discipline of user experience is broad and reaches across many other design disciplines so its meaning can seem elusive. And for UX designers, it can be hard to explain in a few words. But let’s try.

UX Design Focuses on the User

User experience design focuses on designing for how a user interacts with an organization, whether through its services, products, website or more. This kind of design centers on the user — their needs, goals, frustrations, and motivations.

Who is the user? A person! What type of person? That depends.

UX design seeks to understand the person who will be using the product, website, or service. This is really important for a specific reason: Rather than expecting a person to adapt to the specifications laid out in a website, app or service, a UX designer considers the needs of the person they are designing for, and creates an intuitive interface that adapts to the user.

UX design is human-centered. This type of design is a mindset. It keeps the user at the center of what we do so that the user’s experience can be the best possible.

What’s great about this approach is that users who have a positive experience when they interact with a company or organization are more likely to reward that organization through additional visits, sales, or referrals. A positive user experience can be an economic driver, benefiting everyone.

UX Design’s Origins

We can see some principles of UX design that reach as far back as 4000 BC. Feng Shui is the Chinese philosophy of arranging a physical space to optimize the flow of energy. Much like a UX designer might design an app interface to be intuitive and easy to use, Feng Shui experts arrange the physical space of a room.

We can see other principles of UX design throughout history. When computers entered the scene, human-computer interaction and usability became important disciplines to help people have better experiences.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when Don Norman, a cognitive scientist working at Apple, named this field “UX design.” Norman, who authored The Design of EveryDay Things, felt that earlier disciplines of usability and human-computer interaction were too narrow. He wanted a term to describe a role that would encompass a broader range of skills to design human interactions.

Multiple studies from organizations such as McKinsey & Company, the UK Design Council, and others have found that companies that prioritize design see financial benefit. This is partly why so many people have taken an interest in UX.

Since user experience design is broad and encompasses several different disciplines, it’s understandable why so many people have questions about what UX design includes and how it relates to visual design, user interface design, or marketing.

Common UX Design Myths

Unfortunately, misunderstandings about user experience design have led to assumptions and confusion. You’re likely to run into an employer who believes they understand UX design, but in reality, they only know about one part. Or, you might have a client that says, “I just need some UX.” 

It’s the UX designer’s job to figure out how to educate and inform those around us so we can eliminate these misconceptions.

Myth #1: UX is the same as UI design.

This is the most common misconception I run into. Organizations still think of UX as being focused on the user interface. They don’t always understand that the UI can improve with solid user research, information architecture, and usability testing.

User interface design is a small piece of the overall UX puzzle. Before a UX designer even begins to design the interface, they should have solid research and an understanding of what problem they are trying to solve. Designing a user interface before researching user needs can lead to assumptions that confuse or frustrate your users.

Myth #2: UX is just for digital products.

User experience has been embraced in the digital world, but it’s not just for websites and apps. The foundations of user experience design can be applied across a broad range of industries and be useful for developing services as well as physical products.

Myth #3: UX is just usability.

Usability is an important component of UX design; it uncovers flaws and defects in the product or service. However, it’s just one part of UX design’s seven major sub-disciplines:

User research
A UX designer spends time empathizing with users through interviews and observational research. 

Content strategy
Quality content is a core component of a successful design. Designers must audit and create clear content that people find useful and helpful.

Information architecture
Content must be organized so that it’s understandable, finadable, and meaningful. Information architecture helps users understand their location within a design and what to expect. It informs many parts of the UX design, including the content, interface, and interactions.

Accessibility
By designing for accessibility, a UX designer ensures that all users can access and interact with a service or system regardless of their personal abilities. Accessibility is more than just checking for color contrast. It’s about designing to accommodate a wide range of people.

Usability
Nielsen Norman Group defines usability as “a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use”. It also refers to using testing to improve the user’s experience as they interact with your product or service.

Visual design
Users are more likely to have a positive experience with a design that they enjoy using; that are aesthetically pleasing and consistent. UX designers often also need to ensure that the interfaces they design are beautiful and visually clear.

Interaction design
UX designers who work on a product or system must also consider how that system behaves. Interaction design considers how the system behaves when the user interacts with it so that the user can understand what to do.

As you can see, UX design covers more than usability alone. Depending on the specific role or organization, UX designers may need to have other skills as well.

UX Design Process

A UX designer often manages all of these sub-disciplines as part of the total UX design process. This process is not linear. In fact, it can feel quite messy. It typically looks very similar to a design thinking approach and has five key phases:

1. Empathy

In this phase, a designer seeks to understand the people they are designing for. By developing empathy with the user base, the design team can learn about frustrations and motivations that will help them create better solutions later on. 

UX designers use these tools as part of the empathy phase:

  • User interviews
  • Surveys
  • Observations
  • Stakeholder interviews
  • Empathy maps
  • Proto personas

2. Definition

During the definition phase, the design team figures out the problem they are trying to solve. Armed with a solid understanding of the user, the design team creates insights from that data to address their core needs. The design team should try to spend as much time as possible in this phase, because it’s a key step before ideation begins.

UX designers use these tools as part of the definition phase:

  • Affinity diagram
  • Point-of-view statements
  • User scenarios
  • Customer journey maps
  • Storyboards
  • User personas
  • Heuristic evaluations
  • Competitive analysis
  • Problem definition

3. Ideation

Once the problem has been identified, the UX design team can start developing ideas to solve that problem. Ideation is all about generating lots of ideas. It’s important to start by thinking of all the ideas you can before narrowing them down to those that are feasible.

UX designers use these tools as part of the ideation phase:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Mind mapping
  3. User flow diagrams

4. Prototyping

The UX design team then decides which of the ideas generated in the previous step to prototype. Prototyping allows the team to communicate the idea, advocate for ideas, and test feasibility. A prototype can be simple or complex. It should be created rapidly so that the idea can be tested.

UX designers use these tools as part of the prototyping phase:

  1. Low-fidelity prototypes
  2. High-fidelity prototypes
  3. Site maps
  4. Interactive prototypes

5. Testing

In the testing phase, a UX design team is trying to find out whether their prototype works or not. This is a time for evaluation. And it’s time to go back to the users to see how the prototype meets their needs.

UX designers use these tools as part of the testing phase:

  1. Usability testing
  2. Testing recommendations and report

Because this approach is non-linear, sometimes a UX designer will loop back and forth between phases. A UX designer doesn’t always use every tool within all of the phases, but they’ll typically use at least one or two.

What does a UX designer do every day?

A UX designer’s job will vary depending on the role or company. Some companies look for generalists who have experience across all or most of the sub-disciplines described above. Other roles will be more specialized. A UX designer may focus on research or just on prototyping if needed, depending on the position.

Typically, a UX designer works with a team. Sometimes the team will have other UX designers, a product manager, and developers. This team may be responsible for designing products used by customers or internally within the company. Sometimes a designer will work on a single project for months at a time, or they might juggle multiple projects, especially if they work for an agency.

A UX designer is responsible for creating the deliverables of the phase they are working on, keeping their work on time according to the project schedule, and presenting their work. They may need to present to the rest of the design team, internal stakeholders, or clients.

Deliverables created for these audiences can vary. According to a 2015 article from Nielsen Norman Group, UX designers were most likely to create static wireframes and interactive prototypes, followed by flow charts, site maps, and usability reports. When presenting work, interactive prototypes were most common. These deliverables are the most accurate representation of the final product.

In addition to creating wireframes and prototypes, a UX designer may:

  • Plan user research
  • Identify the target audience
  • Interview and survey users
  • Analyze qualitative and quantitative user research
  • Create a content inventory
  • Design a style guide or add to a design library
  • Conduct usability testing
  • Analyze usability testing results

Summary

UX design is like an umbrella that covers multiple areas, and a UX designer is expected to be familiar with all areas. Because UX design is so broad, and because the term itself has become popular relatively recently, it’s often misunderstood. 

At its foundation, UX design is about putting the user first. By empathizing with the user, a UX designer can create products and services that anticipate and meet users’ needs. The process isn’t linear; UX design is an iterative process that continues to loop back with the user to test and improve the design team’s ideas.

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9 Top Prototyping Tools for UX Designers

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The right tools can speed up your UX process and enable collaboration.

Prototyping is one of the key phases of the design thinking process, and UX designers have a wealth of tools to help them create rich prototypes.

Prototyping tools not only help UX designers create something real enough to test with users and stakeholders, but they can also speed up the process—especially if design tools are used throughout design, and not just before handing off to development. 

Why UX Prototyping?

When UX designers prototype designs early and often in the design process, they can understand how real people will react and use the product. Then they have an opportunity to iterate and make their designs even better. This iterative process of prototype, test, and repeat leads to stronger ideas and designs that are more likely to succeed in the long run. UX prototyping also has many other benefits:

Interactive prototypes help designers explore ideas.

By prototyping interactions and animations, designers can flesh out ideas that show what they want the final design to look like. It helps designers externalize the ideas in their head so that they can smooth out the rough edges of an interaction. 

“Prototyping is the conversation you have with your ideas.”

— Tom Wujec, TED speaker and founder of The Wujec Group 

Prototyping tools enable real-time collaboration.

Tools can also help teams collaborate more effectively. Many app prototyping tools allow designers to easily share files with teammates for feedback and real-time collaboration.

Using prototyping tools also helps designers communicate the design vision to stakeholders and other team members. Showing, rather than telling, strengthens the communication and lowers the risk that other people won’t understand.  

Drag and drop tools help us expedite our process.

There’s a reason UX focuses on rapid prototyping. Moving quickly lowers risk and overall cost of a project. Prototyping moves more quickly using tools that use drag and drop interfaces. 

Many prototyping tools allow designers to add interactions with a simple click. When designers can spend more time thinking about how to improve the design, rather than struggling with manual tools, the design process improves.

What to look for in a prototyping tool.

With so many UX prototyping tools available, how do you choose? Here are some things to keep in mind as you decide.

Can you try it for free? 

Some UX prototyping tools have a trial version to let you take the application for a spin before committing. This is a great way to test drive the tool and see how it works with your design process.

Adoption

How many people are using the tool? How large is the community that supports and contributes to tool plugins or support forums?

Some of the newer tools will have far fewer users than those that have a well-established user base. If you’re wondering how good a tool is, adoption rate can tell you a lot. Tools with a lot of users tend to be strong.

Learnability

How long will it take for you to learn the tool? You might not have a lot of time to spend learning a new interface. If you struggle with a prototyping tool, you might want to move on to another one. When you find a tool hard to use, you’re less likely to use it later on. Focus on finding one you feel comfortable with. You also might want to explore a prototyping workshop like this one. 

Integration into your process

At the end of the day, any UX design tool should fit your process, or at least allow your process to easily adapt to it. If it’s not easy to add to your process, it won’t be valuable to you. 

Top 9 UX Prototyping Tools

Fortunately, UX designers don’t have to look far to find a good prototyping tool. There are so many options out there. Here are just nine of the top prototyping tools to explore. 

Sketch

Sketch is one of the most mature prototyping tools available for UX designers. It was released in 2010 and grown into one of the most common tools for UX designers. Designers use it for creating digital interfaces from websites to apps and icons.

Sketch allows designers to create vector graphics, user flows and interactive prototypes, and teams can sync through a shared cloud workspace. Sketch enables the entire workflow, and it also has a number of helpful integrations with programs like Invision, Zeplin, and Flinto. 

It is only available for Mac users.

  • Learn more about Sketch
  • Prototyping with Sketch 
  • Sketch tutorial

Figma

Figma is a cloud-based design and prototyping tool. Designers use it to create user interfaces for websites, apps, and smaller devices. It’s similar to Sketch, but it can be used cross-platform. In other words, you don’t need a Mac to use it.

Individuals can use Figma for free, although the free plan has some limitations. You can only add two editors and create a maximum of three projects.

Figma has a number of strong features for creating UI designs. Once you are ready, you can turn your designs into a prototype by creating connections between frames. UX designers can set the interaction, apply animations, customize overlays, and more.

Figma prototypes can be previewed using the Figma Mirror app or desktop app. Figma also has a library of tools that connect it to a number of other applications for productivity, design, and delivery to development teams.

  • Figma guide to prototyping
  • Figma prototyping tutorial
  • Take a Figma tour

Adobe XD

Adobe XD is Adobe’s answer to UI design and prototyping. Similar to Sketch and Figma, it includes familiar tools for creating wireframes, prototypes, and interactions for websites, apps, and other digital screens. 

It can also be used across platforms, and collaborators can access and use it on Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.

XD released new features in 2019 to better enable team collaboration, including coediting, document history, and share mode. Like Figma, XD also allows designers to import Sketch files. And now, designers can also turn existing Sketch libraries into cloud documents in XD.

XD’s prototyping interface is also similar to Figma, and designers can create connections, overlays, animations and more.

  • Prototyping in XD 
  • About Adobe XD
  • Get Adobe XD

Webflow

Webflow is a relative newbie on the scene, but more and more designers are using it in their day to day practice. Webflow gives designers the power to create entire websites and apps without coding. Once you’re done, you can export the project into production-ready code.

It’s possible to host an entire project on Webflow, which means you just need to navigate on the website, and you’re in. You don’t need an app to preview or test your design. 

There are a few things to consider. Webflow works only in Chrome or Safari. Also, while you can get started for free, you’ll need a membership to create more than two projects.

Webflow can also take some getting used to. It doesn’t move as quickly as other prototyping tools, but it can save you time once you’re ready for development.

  • Webflow crash course
  • Webflow interactions 

Invision

Invision has come a long way since it was first released. At its core, Invision is a prototyping tool that allows designers to upload screens and quickly create interactive prototypes. The Invision prototyping tool won’t let you create designs directly in the app. However, its UI allows designers to sync screens from Sketch or Photoshop or import static images. Then, using the Invision build tool, you can arrange and build links between the screens by creating clickable hotspots. You can add transition states and mobile gestures, and even create hover states for any design element.

Designers can share their prototypes across devices or in real-time for live sketching. It’s an intuitive collaboration tool that lets you easily share a link to the prototype with teammates and clients, who can leave comments on any specific area of the design.

Invision’s strength is in its speed and versatility. It has a low barrier to entry, so designers who have never used prototyping tools can quickly create and share working prototypes.

  • Invision prototyping 
  • Create interactive prototypes with Invision

Balsamiq

Balsamiq Mockups is more of a wireframing tool than a prototyping tool. That said, it’s a great first step into quickly creating low-fidelity mockups.

Balsamiq is a drag and drop tool that’s easy to learn and fast to use. It doesn’t have any fancy animation capabilities. But it does allow you to link between screens to create a basic prototype and check for flow and functionality. Designers can also export screens and upload them into Invision to create interactive prototypes.

Balsamiq offers both a cloud and a desktop version of the tool. The cloud version pricing varies based on space requirements and how many projects you create.

  • About Balsamiq
  • Creating Balsamiq prototypes

Axure RP

Axure RP is a very robust tool, and design teams can use it for wireframing, diagramming, and creating interactive prototypes. 

Teams have the ability to view your design mockups from mobile devices as well as annotate and create animations.

Axure RP has dozens of features, and it tends to be built more for application software teams.

  • About Axure prototyping

Framer

Framer is a prototype platform ideal for team collaboration. It has a new web platform that enables browser-based design, much like Figma.

Framer allows designers to create simple transitions and microinteractions, as well as advanced animations. No code is required, so it’s easy to get started using it. Plus, you can try it for free.

  • About Framer
  • Framer tutorials

UXPin

UXPin is often overlooked, but has a lot to offer UX designers for website or app prototyping. It includes vector drawing tools, the ability to create components, and the ability to collaborate in real-time with your team.

It also has some additional features that make it really special, like its accessibility features, which check for WCAG contrast standards. On the code side, it has the ability to sync React.js components to UXPin, so you don’t have to redraw patterns.

UXPin is available cross-platform, and it’s free to sign up.

  • About UXPin
  • Prototyping with UXPin

Things to keep in mind

Simply by creating prototypes, designers can quickly gather valuable feedback from usability test participants, teammates, and clients to iterate and continuously improve the design. 

Remember, these aren’t the only prototyping tools available for UX designers, and it’s important to explore and find the right tool that fits your process. If you haven’t started prototyping yet, try out one or two tools that look promising. Most tools have a free option so you can see what works best for you. 

New to UX? Create designs that consider users’ needs and practice prototyping this remote User Experience Design workshop.

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