Am I Overthinking This? by Michelle Rial

Am I Overthinking This? is a delightful book of 101 infographics. In the introduction, Michelle Rial explains that she was an information graphic designer whose chronic pain removed her from the field… and that this was her response.

This is the perfect coffee table book for the introverted UX designer who thinks way too hard about the little things, like:

  • Where are my hair ties?
  • Is brunch fiscally irresponsible?
  • Are people judging me by my desk?
  • Is it too late to start?
  • Am I a bad friend?
  • How much do I tip for this?
  • How do I stay calm?

Michelle uses everything from water colors to markers to hair ties, matches, and Chinese food take-out boxes to create the info graphics that are in the book.

For example, here’s “Are people judging me by my desk?”

Photo of the book page. The quadrant chart can be broken down to the following desk value combinations. Mess and quirky: you're the creative type. Neat and quirky, you're important. Messy and minimal, you're at happy hour. Neat and minimal, you're storing a lot of resentment in these drawers. The chart axis and labels are drawn on a piece of paper, but each of the values (which fills its whole quadrant) is a post-it note.

If you are an overthinker, or you are an information designer, or you just like charts (or you know anyone who fits any of these combinations) this is a book worth buying. I foresee using it to hand out “advice” to many of my friends in the future.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This was an odd one, in part because it wasn’t a book I chose. Our team has a book club at work and the Radical Candor was the first book we covered, in part because our manager is looking for us to provide each other with more radical candor.

So first: this book is written for managers, and I am not a manager. (I don’t foresee wanting to be a manager any time soon.) If you are a manager, it’s probably a better fit.

Second, well, there’s a lot of Silicon Valley privilege dripping from this book. At one point, Kim talks about how letting poor performers go can be a blessing for both the company and poor performer because the fired employee can go do something like starting that coffee shop they always wanted.

Maybe on a West Coast IT severance package (assuming they move somewhere else) but most people on the East Coast and all points in between lose a job and immediately have to go find another job.

Kim also talks about how things like minority status or being female might make radical candor more complicated, but doesn’t actually talk about what to do about them. Frankly, I don’t think she knows.

So yes, problematic book from multiple angles.

At the same time, this book gave me some tips and tools that I need. For example, Kim puts a lot of emphasis on giving praise, which I don’t do enough. One of the highlights of my year so far was an unexpected piece of praise from my manager for a wiki I’m putting together. I’m trying to pay that forward to the folks I work with, because we all should hear about the things we’re doing right at least as often as we hear about the things we’re doing wrong.

The other thing that Radical Candor provides is a framework for structuring large conversations. When you have a business question where you know gaining consensus is going to be an issue, you can separate the “debate” meeting from the “decide” meeting, for example, to ensure that everyone gets a chance to have their say and at the same time there isn’t pressure to make a decision right now.

don’t think that Kim Scott provided enough direct advice on how to structure a piece of criticism. I think that Crucial Conversations does a much better job in that sense. But I do think that this book gives better examples of why constantly providing just-in-time feedback can help a team move from a place where crucial conversations are necessary to a place where everyone is communicating clearly enough that high-stakes behavior discussions are fewer and far between.

In summary, this is not a book I’d say will have a permanent place on my bookshelf like Crucial Conversations does, but it’s helpful and adds some tools to my toolbox that I didn’t have before.

Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin

I’m a three-time failure at reading the Polar Bear Book.

I’m also a Principal Information Architect with 10 years’ experience.

I’m not telling you not to read the Polar Bear Book. I am telling you that if you want a short, direct, and well-structured book on what Information Architecture is, how to get started practicing it, and real-world examples of prior work, Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin is the book to start with.

It is the IA cohort to The Elements of Content Strategy And y’all know I’m a big fan of that book.

I started this book while sitting in a hospital room watching my husband sleep. It’s readable even under extreme stress. The book starts with the LATCH system of organization, which I had learned… but when I’d learned it through the quasi-apprenticeship of a mutual fund company’s design department, it didn’t have a name. So here I was, middle of the afternoon, snoring and beeping filling the room, and ten-year veteran of information architecture, learning things I didn’t know on page 5.

Your milage may vary (YMMV), especially if you’re one of those younger folks for whom information architecture degrees were available. (We had library science but I was too short-sighted to major in it.)

The book is vibrant and well-structured enough that I could put it down for a week at a time if I needed to and pick it up again and keep reading and understand where I’d left off. (Also, YMMV.)

Plus, this book isn’t afraid to use Star Trek, Ravelry, cooking, self-deprecating spreadsheet jokes, and colorful, useful examples.

To sum up, this book is going on the list of books anyone who asks me how to start a career in UX, along with Don’t Make Me Think, How to Make Sense of Any Mess and Universal Principles of Design.

Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski

Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski (Also available from the publisher, A Book Apart, possibly for cheaper depending on your edition. Support your small press publishers!)

I’ll admit I probably should have read this book back when Luke Wroblewski wrote it, but I didn’t think I needed to. I had attended one of the An Event Apart conferences where Luke presented the ideas the book is based on, and I followed him pretty closely on Twitter at the time, so most of what is in the book I’d learned through other means.

But it’s been seven years, and I’m introducing a new company to mobile design for the first time, so it was time for me to take a refresher course. This book was perfect for that task.

The goal of this book is to teach you what it means to design a website or application first from the mindset of a mobile design. It came about because, before mobile, we designed everything for the computer desktop, and after mobile, that sucked pretty badly all things considered. If you don’t remember the era of m-dot sites and dumbphone sites and total lack of iPhones, well, I envy you a little. (Also, go ask an old person about the Netscape browser wars.)

The book promises no code and to keep things short; it delivers on both promises. At the same time it delivers explanations of why mobile is important, how to think about mobile use cases beyond the idea that everyone is doing things “on the go” (they’re not), and a light but effective introduction to how to think about design elements such as touch areas, hover states, form elements, and page layout in a mobile context.

I hope that A Book Apart commissions a second edition, because the first edition is pushing close to 10 years old, and a lot has changed in the last 10 years. I’m not honestly confident that it will make as much sense to someone who just joined the industry as it does those of us who were hand-coding our Geocities sites back in the late 1990s. But regardless of the slightly dated statistics (and screenshots) and the assumption that none of us know what this “mobile” thing is, the theories and mindsets introduced are sound. It’s still a valuable read all these years later.

Update December 2018: The paperback is sold out at A Book Apart and I’m hoping that means there’s a new edition coming out! In the meantime, the e-book is a good deal.