Product Manager’s Reading List

During the course of my recent search for a Junior Product Manager, I met some people who were interested in learning more about what it means to be a product manager.

Here’s a recommended reading list – these books got me through the early stages of my prodman career, and now live on my nightstand or workbench. They’re heavily skewed towards Internet product design (less low-tech, less marketing stuff, more design and usability). In my future “funnest job” rant I’ll talk about all of the disciplines that product management intersects, so all of my avid reader can better understand just how biased this list really is.

A Starter Product Management and Design Canon

Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability (2nd Edition)
by Steve Krug
This is the “aha” book for good product design. I will always be grateful to Pete Steinberg for “strongly recommending” that I read this book during my time at Meetup. If you just got assigned to “fix” a website or web-based app, stop sweating: you can read this in a day and sketch out an improvement strategy that will finally earn you that corner office. It starts with solid guidelines and concludes with an easy-to-implement plan for conducting usability testing.
The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web
by Jesse James Garrett
This book is a great complement to Krug’s work. It’s a handy theoretical framework for thinking about web sites/applications. Garrett starts out by sketching a mental model on a napkin, then walks through the explanation, piece by piece, chapter by chapter.
Strongly recommended if you find yourself wanting to be more strategically organized in your thinking. I leaned heavily on this text during the NeuCo redesign, and it was one of my most successful projects to date.
Universal Principles of Design: 100 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions, and Teach Through Design
by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler
I stumbled into this one while browsing Amazon, and was surprised to learn that the text lives up to the title. It’s an easy read (notice a theme?), with one lavishly illustrated-or-diagrammed and clearly defined principle per page. A nice mix of design, usability, and psychology. Reading it cover to cover is a little overwhelming, because it’s a list format, but you can open this book at any page and learn something new.
Getting Real
by 37Signals
Hey, remember those days in the late 90s when pundits predicted that ebooks would spell the end of paper? Well buy this book and print out all 177 pages – let’s kick ’em while they’re down!
First off, this book is a great case study in solid product management (solid sales with no overhead!). Secondly, it’s extremely well written – rather than trying to round out the page count with general blather, Fried and crew make their points and move on. The scope of the book is larger than simple product management, but the geniuses at 37 Signals built their rep on great product design, and this publication is a handy distillation of their sometimes annoyingly arrogant blog (when did they become Libertarians?).
The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Second Edition
by Robin Williams
Yup, another short reference. Even if you aren’t confident in your own design skills, this book will help you identify successful design, and (more importantly) figure out how to improve troubled designs.
Williams focuses on the “CRAP” prinicple (contrast, repitition, alignment, and proximity), explaining each component with plenty of examples, including before-and-after cleanups of bad designs. It’s a little heavy on typography (not so useful in the Web world), but generally a must-read if you want to build attractive, engaging products.
Williams has a companion piece that focuses on Web design, and a compilation volume, but I’m not convinced that they can add more value than this one.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
by Edward R. Tufte
Although Tufte’s prescriptions for Web UIs are generally off-base (sorry, his museum kiosk idea is terrible), the man is a genius about information presentations. Most Web site/applications mix content and information freely, so you should have a solid understanding of info design.
This one is not a quick read, it’s more of a hands-on example of great product design, with page after page of examples from throughout history (focus on printed information design). I’m a bit of a Tufte geek, so this one may not be as useful as the others, but it’ll still blow your mind and expand your thinking about product constraints.
The Elements of Style, Third Edition
by William Strunk Jr. , E. B. White
I’m a little embarrassed to say I haven’t read this book. Hey, back off – “skimming” and “referring to” are not the same as reading, Mr. Glass House! Nevertheless, language is the core of communication, and every good product manager should read this book – it will help you communicate requirements, write better UIs, and choose effective marketing copy. Let’s both promise each other we’ll read it, okay?
Update: I actually read this book, cover to cover (perhaps foolishly). Like anything by Ayn Rand, completing this book will turn you into a jerk for weeks afterwards.

Online Resources

Signal vs. Noise
The 37Signals blog, it’s mostly product observations, generally good, updated very frequently. It also attracts an intelligent readership, so the comments are nearly always a valuable addition to the conversation.
Jakob Neilsen’s Alertbox column
You’ll find yourself bookmarking a lot of these posts. More info on my favorite vanilla-ist in the next section.
Creating Passionate Users Blog
A little too touchy-feely at times, but this blog is generally very insightful and good for getting yourself out of a rut.
Vitamin
I’m still trying to decide if this one is useful, but it has a good pedigree. Seems like a more focused version of A List Apart, which I rarely find useful anymore.
Yahoo! User Interface Blog
I’m still warming up to this one, but it’s a good daily dose of UI thinking. Pretty technical.

Some Books I’m Planning to Read, One Day

When I’m done creating Amazon affiliate links…

Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points
by Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried
Not one of my strong suits (or anyone’s, I guess), handling the alternatively described “alternative flows” warrants more attention: they’re typically a user’s worst nightmare, and they can cripple an otherwise-solid product.
The 37 Signals products are famously easy to use, so I expect this is a useful read.
Prioritizing Web Usability
by Jakob Nielsen & Hoa Loranger
Last decade’s Jason Fried, Jakob Nielsen is a prolific, polarizing figure in the realm of Internet product design. Nielsen is Mr. Usability Guru, but he’s a bit… focused on usability over any other priority. Most prodmen will say “well, I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has some interesting ideas.” Translation: “His dogmatic attitude is a real kick in the pants, but I can’t think of a way to prove him wrong.” I expect that Nielsen’s garage includes a pegboard with outlines of all of his tools and little labels that read “Place hammer here”. The whole setup is probably screen reader compliant.
Before buying this book, I’d check out Nielsen’s Alertbox column and figure out how much you can stomach. I love the guy, but you may not agree with everything he says.
Writing Effective Use Cases
by Alistair Cockburn
A very wise man lent (loaned?) me a copy of this book. I read it on the train ride home, thinking “This seems useful, but it’s a bit arcane. And dry.” Then it sat on my desk until a project manager asked me if he could borrow it. I see the author’s name referenced fairly often, and I’m pretty sure this is an important book, but whenever I think of it, I can’t help remembering my days as a lightweight rower, spooning down a mix of lite cottage cheese and yogurt so I could make weight.
Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do
by B.J. Fogg
Another cheese-and-yogurt book, loaned to me by Scott Heiferman. (I promise I’ll get it back to you!) I actually think this one is pretty good, so I’m hanging on to it. It focuses mostly on HCI, but it gets referenced a fair amount.

Well, that’s it – I hope it’s useful. If you have any suggestions for additional books, drop me a line, especially if they deal with topics beyond product design. I’d like to keep the list trim: for every book here, I considered and dismissed a couple of also-rans. I think the list needs a good marketing resource, but I’m having a hard time finding one.

If you buy any of the books, use the links above – I’ll get some green in my Amazon account, which I’ll use to hunt down more good reads.

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