“What are some good books about product management?” is a frequent question for designers and engineers, especially those who are first-time founders. While there are any number of volumes you can peruse about agile development, team building, roadmaps or whatever skill you want to acquire, the art of product design is more elusive. If you’re really going for 9th level blackbelt Caine kung-fu, you need to head off the beaten path and find not tips, tricks and tactics, but inspiration and anthropology. Absorb truths about science and people to identify needs based on the human condition, not a market analysis.
Here are five of my essential product design books that have nothing to do with product design:
1. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini
If you don’t own this book don’t even read further. Please just buy it. It’s essentially a guidebook to hacking people. Folks who enjoy behavioral economics books like Nudge, motivation analysis books like Switch or neurological economics like Thinking Fast & Slow will LOVE Influence.
Breathless praise aside, Cialdini identifies key principles of persuasion such as social proof, reciprocity, subservience to authority figures, desire to act in a consistent manner and perceived scarcity. Once you understand these biases it’s very easy to start noticing them in everything from advertising to politics to web design. Sure you might perform a bunch of multivariate testing to figure out what the right text is on your signup page but (a) if you don’t know what human decision heuristic you’re trying to appeal to and (b) don’t understand why the best performing designs work the way they do, then you’re really just a statistician when you should be an anthropologist.
Free bonus content! Amazing example where Cialdini changed the wording on a hotel room sign to increase towel reusage by 25% over alternative phrasing. Seriously, once you’ve grokked this stuff, you’ll start to look at the world around you as just one big underoptimized mess.
2. Selfish Gene – Richard Dawkins
If you want to quickly remove the romanticism from your relationships, just tell your partner that the only reason you’re monogamous is that humans have long gestation cycles and babies have high mortality rates if left unattended. Do I know how to make you want sexy time or what?
Richard Dawkins popularized evolutionary biology – the concept that living beings are unknowingly controlled by a single truth: we make decisions based on what will yield the highest probability that our genes will spread. That basically our life is one big decision tree with the ultimate goal to successfully carry forward our DNA. Makes sense right? Without such an impetus your race dies out eventually. That’s an even worse outcome than someone abandoning your website!
Why does Selfish Gene make my product design essentials list? Because if you buy Dawkins’ argument you start to understand human needs deeply a la Maslow. You start to look at products and features in a VERY different way. For example, and you’re going to need to take a leap of faith with me on this one, here is how I view Twitter through the lens of the Selfish Gene.
Retweets make me feel good –> I feel good because my stature is being elevated within the ecosystem –> Males of elevated stature are more likely to get the fertile women and breed –> Breeding carries on my genes.
That shit cray, right? Basically when you’re designing products don’t forget that PEOPLE are sitting at the other end using them. Selfish Gene gives me a scientific true north to factor into design: Am I getting beyond “how does this make you feel” to “does it tickle the neanderthal DNA at a microcosmic level.”
3. The Great Good Place – Ray Oldenburg
Professor Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to describe the need for communities to maintain a public gathering spot outside of work and home. These locations were deemed essential for the social vitality of a community because they would engender democracy, comraderie, cross-pollination of ideas and so on. Historically town squares, taverns and churches served as reliable third places. Then we started to see a transition towards retail establishments attempting to play this role – malls of course but Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has also been quite vocal about creating this environment in their coffee shops.
The Great Good Place matters to product design because of course these same needs are now expressed often through online communities. And since we don’t shed our offline selves when we’re in front of a computer, there are many lessons here directly related to social apps or any technology which seeks to create a sense of community and intimacy. (A slightly broader choice here would have been The Death and Life of Great American Cities by urban studies pioneer Jane Jacobs, but we’ll save that for the follow-up “Five More Books….”)
4. Why We Buy – Paco Underhill
Subtitled “the Science of Shopping,” if you’re interested in what compels us to make a purchase, Why We Buy is for you. Exploring retail design strategies such as why greeters are within five feet of the door, you’ll smile every time you enter a store and are able to recognize the trickery. These tactics will only get more sophisticated as retail technology improves via mobile device tracking, loyalty programs, offline cookies and so on.
Why do I believe this book applies to technology product design? Because you are ALWAYS TRYING TO SELL SOMETHING. Getting a user to click a certain button, share with a friend, come back to your app — these are all conversions just like getting someone to buy a box of cereal at the Whole Foods. Sure you’re trying to do it respectfully, honestly and with an eye towards long term customer relationship, but in the moment every decision is a sale. If you look at your product design and can’t answer the question “what am i trying to sell here and how does everything the user sees help steer them towards close” then you likely have room for UX improvement.
In revisiting the Amazon comments, it seems this new edition has some poorly written chapter on the Internet. Perhaps just skip that section and try to draw your own connections between web design and offline retail.
5. Harold and the Purple Crayon – Crockett Johnson
A little boy draws the world he inhabits with his purple crayon. This simple picture book is the ultimate metaphor for product design. Don’t be constrained by what you see in front of you. Don’t ask “is this really possible” prematurely. Just imagine how it should look and use your talents to create that reality. When students want to know the traits a great product leader should possess I give them five. Three are simply the cost of entry — smart, creative, energetic. The other two are more rare: curiosity and empathy. The desire to understand what you don’t yet know and the ability to feel people’s needs and reactions at an emotional level are so fundamental to product design. [btw, "what was your favorite book as a kid" is a great question to get to know someone. people will usually light up when waxing nostalgic about happy moments of childhood.]