Web Product Manager Resources

An update of and extension to my product manager’s reading list.

These resources that got me through the early stages of my prodman career. I bought and read nearly anything that seemed relevant to product and interface design, marketing, and production, and continue to update my knowledge wherever possible. The resources on this list are the standouts – many now live on my nightstand or work desk. They’re heavily skewed towards Internet startup product design (less low-tech, less marketing stuff, less bureaucracy, more design and usability).

Measure everything. Get comfortable with numbers. Median vs. mean, etc. It’s tempting to think numbers will suggest solutions; they won’t. But if they’re part of the thought soup you dive into every day then I think they can stimulate creativity. Most importantly they’ll allow you to evaluate success.
3 things you need: Empathy, Strategic vision, Market awareness. (The first is my addition, the latter 2 will be covered by rich mironov.)
I once interviewed a prodman who used to work at Apple. I only wanted to know 1 thing: how did he think the Apple team keeps releasing great products. He said it was focus. Steve Jobs would decide that something was important and everyone would work on that 1 thing. I think most startups tend to go broad out of fear (there’s some good blog posts by Yipit’s founder on this topic), but he was saying Apple goes deep (and makes some spectacular failures along the way). An alternative theory is to go broad until you know what you’re doing (there’s a good post on this on Quora), then go deep, but I think that’s wrong personally.

Most of the Amazon links in this list use my Affiliate account so I’ll receive a commission if you purchase them after clicking a link.

Product Management and Design Reading List

Read stuff from Rich Mironov, Tog, Michael Lopp, Joel Spolsky

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. If you only read 1 product management book for the web, read this one. I will always be grateful to Peter 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 theoretical framework for designing web sites and applications. Garrett starts out by sketching a 2-dimensional 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 when I was running MiG; it was one of my most successful early projects.
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?) reference book. The layout features 1 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: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application
by 37Signals
The link above points to the Getting Real ebook, which is available as a free website or $10 downloadable PDF. If you want to purchase a bound softcover edition, you can buy Getting Real on Amazon.
Another great, short read – 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 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 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 afterward. 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.
Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design
by Jenifer Tidwell
This is a massive encyclopedia of interface conventions. Good desk reference. Also available on the web (see below).
Web Form Design
by Luke Wroblowski
Dry as burnt toast but imminently useful, this book breaks down the performance of various form designs. Strongly recommended for anyone considering building a form on the web.
Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff
Essential business primer for social media (which is nearly ubiquitous in contemporary web products). Very tactical, so read it while it’s still relevant!
Here Comes Everybody
By Clay Shirky
I often recommend this as a companion to Groundswell (above). Written by the social web’s leading academic, it’s far more theoretical than Groundswell and will likely be relevant long into the future. The book starts slow (the first chapter or 2 have a “for dummies” tone) but then gets down to business and lays out many valuable concepts.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
By Robert Cialdini
This is as close to mind control as a marketer (or product marketer) can hope to get – Cialdini describes psychological triggers that drive our everyday behavior. The sales and marketing applications are obvious, but there are many lessons within this book that are valuable for nearly any product design (particularly those with social features). This is one of the best marketing books I’ve read.
The Design of Everyday Things
Very dense and old-school (I think it was written in the 80s) but the concepts are solid enough that they’re still useful.

Recommended prodman websites and online resources

– Read all of Paul Graham’s blog posts. He doesn’t have too many.

– Read the lecture notes from Eric Thiel’s Stanford class. I think there are 13 or so, and they’re awesome enough that soon it’ll be a book.
– Read the startup metrics for pirates slideshare, the long version.
– 2 from First Round:
Andrew posts infrequently and writes well – a winning combination in my book. His essays range from startuppy business models to successful product design, and almost all are awesome.
52 Weeks of UX
Created by Joshuas Porter and Brewer, this site is on week 12 so far and looks like it’ll be a great mini-course on user experience design. Not sure if all 52 weeks will be valuable, but I’m a big Josh Porter fan so I have high hopes.
Signal vs. Noise
The 37Signals blog, it’s mostly product observations, generally good, updated very frequently. It also attracts an intelligent readership: many readers’ comments are valuable additions 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.
Designing Interfaces
This is the companion website to the O’Reilly book of the same title. Great resource for UI design options.
Khoi Vinh’s blog is pretty old school in the vein of Kottke – it covers general life topics as well as interface design, but it’s always an interesting read. A rockstar in the interface design world, Khoi turned me on to grid-based design years ago and I never looked back.
Creating Passionate Users Blog
Sometimes too touchy-feely and no longer active, this blog is a great archive of insightful and inspiring content; good for getting yourself out of a rut.
Clay Shirky’s website
Clay’s thinking focuses primarily on web-based social interactions and is a great resource if you’re working in that area. Particularly recommended is Ontology is Overrated, his (now old) essay on tags vs. hierarchical content taxonomies.
Fred Wilson’s 10 Golden Principles of web app design
While the use of the term “web app” annoys me, Mr. Wilson outlines a great set of criteria for evaluating web-based products. Extra points for providing a textual transcript below the video. See below for a link to Fred’s blog.

Additional product management websites

I don’t visit these sites too often, but they feature prominently in conversations with other prodmen.

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.
Product Planner
A community-generated archive of product flows.
Famed venture capitalist Fred Wilson’s blog “isn’t about products per se, but it’s full of intelligent discussion about many of the very newest, soon-to-be-big sites and apps. Basically, I use it as a ‘what sites should I likely be paying attention to’ tool.” So says Peter Steinberg, product manager extraordinaire, mentor, and now founder of Flashlight Worthy Books.

Websites about writing for the web

The core of most great Internet products is effective, usable copy. These 3 articles clarify common misconceptions and provide a solid foundation for any web writer.

Jakob Nielsen’s web writing articles (especially http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html)
Jakob Nielsen, is really the gold standard – despite the appearance of his own website he is the leading thinker on web usability and most of his statements are backed by direct usability research and quantitative results.
Web Writing for Many Interest Levels
I found this one while Googling for Nielsen’s articles and was delighted by the structured approach to information presentation.
Write Better
on A List Apart
I have mixed feelings about ALA but many people find them useful. This other ALA article is more touchy-feely but potentially useful.

Some more prodman books I’m planning to read one day

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.
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.
Designing the Obvious and Designing the Moment – Robert Hoekman
Both recommended by Josh Weinstein, one of the smartest people I know.

Designing for the Social Web – Joshua Porter
Another recommendation from Josh.

Less-recommended resources

The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Second Edition
by Robin Williams
If you can get the old black, white, and purple edition, I strongly recommend picking it up. The more recent edition has gone full-color and Williams has added her own design examples to illustrate her points. Unfortunately she’s a better teacher than designer, and the examples actually detract from the text (I’ve confirmed this impression with another product manager).
The original book was a great, short reference. Williams structures her design thinking around the “CRAP” principles (contrast, repetition, 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 as useful in the Web world), but generally a must-read if you want to build attractive, engaging products. Even if you aren’t confident in your own design skills, it will help you identify successful design and (more importantly) figure out how to improve troubled designs.
Williams has a companion piece that focuses on Web design, and a compilation volume, but I do not recommend it. Stick with the Krug book (above).
Defensive Design for the Web: How to improve error messages, help, forms, and other crisis points
by Matthew Linderman and Jason Fried
Interfaces’ “alternative flows” warrant 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 expected this to be a useful read, but much of the information seemed dated by the time I got to reading it.
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.

In closing…

Well, that’s it – I hope it’s useful. If you have any suggestions for additional books and websites, post a comment or 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.

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