I read the first edition of Contextual Design back in 2015. As I read it, I was surprised to see how relevant the book’s information was about user research (it was published in 1997). I told my team, “I can’t believe people have been saying the same things about research since the ‘90s!”
My boss smiled. Then, he told me, “The magic community has a saying—to learn a new trick, read an old book.”
It turns out, my boss’s son studied to be a magician. Whenever his son wanted to learn a new trick, the instructors often told him to read older books since the industry had documented so many tricks over the years.
That’s when I realized older UX books could be just as useful for my learning as newer books—and I was probably missing out on valuable information by reading mostly new books.
The Case for Older UX Resources
There are many reasons to consider using older books to learn about UX. Here are a few of them.
Most Content Is Evergreen
When you read an older UX book, the examples may be dated, but the concepts and principles usually stay relevant.
I felt this way about Why We Fail by Victor Lombardi, published in 2013. The book provides case studies about software products that failed, why they failed, and what designers can learn from those failures. The examples seem dated now, but I consider it an instrumental (and often overlooked) UX book. While tools, approaches, and technologies have changed since 2013, today’s designers still make similar mistakes the book outlines.
The book How to Make Meetings Work, written in the 1970s, also surprised me. My students used this book as a resource at Center Centre when learning how to run productive meetings. They loved the book. One student told me he couldn’t put the book down after reading sections of it for coursework.
Running effective meetings is a skill most UX designers need. The fundamentals of good meeting facilitation don’t usually change over time. This book will likely remain relevant for years to come.
Authors Often Omit Content from Newer Books
I’ve spoken with UX authors who leave information out of their books because they think it’s common knowledge. They’ve told me things like, “everyone already knows this,” or “this example is so cliché.”
Maybe they’re right. Maybe their audience thinks certain information is cliché. But I often wonder if authors unintentionally omit information that seems obvious to them but could be significant to the reader. Not everyone in the design field knows what the authors know.
There may be a nugget of wisdom in an old UX book that could serve you well—and you haven’t read it yet because authors of more recent books have left it out.
Get to the Core of an Idea
There’s a saying, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Much of the content we read may seem new, but it comes from ideas that have been around for many years. Reading older resources gets you to the core of something before it was rehashed (and possibly watered down or altered) by someone else.
In his fantastic presentation, Meta Information Architecture: Let’s See How Far Down the Rabbit Hole We Can Go, Ren Pope encourages you to build a reading list of books that aren’t explicitly about information architecture (IA). He says books outside of the IA discipline add depth to your knowledge of IA. You can take this approach when building your knowledge about design in general, not just IA.
You can take Ren’s approach down an even deeper rabbit hole. Someday, I plan to read most of the resources on St. John’s Reading List. Many of these works have been around for centuries or longer.
Reveal Overlooked or Forgotten Wisdom
I’ll never forget a point the author made in the first edition of Observing the User Experience—don’t go into a research study with an agenda. That means don’t go into a research study with your mind made up about something you’re trying to prove.
For example, I wouldn’t go into a research study thinking, “My boss assumes our users need X. I don’t think they need X. I’ll launch a research study to prove to him they don’t need X.”
Instead, I would approach the situation with this mindset: “My team can’t agree on what the users need. I’ll suggest we run a research study so we can collect the evidence we need to make an informed decision.”
I’ve remembered this advice throughout my career. I keep it in mind as I begin each research study. I haven’t read that advice anywhere else since. (It’s possible others have said it or written about it. But I haven’t seen it stated in such a compelling way since.)
Appreciate Advantages We Have Now
Older resources can help you appreciate the advantages we have now. For example, some older user research books recommend getting transcriptions of your user research sessions. Those books also caution you about the cost of transcription. Transcription services used to be prohibitively expensive for many design teams.
Older resources would also caution you about transcribing research sessions on your own. It takes a minimum of several hours to transcribe one hour of research content. DIY transcription can be tedious work that eats away hours of your time.
Nowadays, transcription services are much more affordable, making them a viable option for more design teams. Understanding such limitations from the past can help you appreciate the options we have available today.
Older Books Can Be More Affordable
Older UX books often cost less. While some older books cost more because they’re out of print, a brief online search will often yield an affordable used copy. You can also borrow someone else’s copy of an old book (designers, in my experience, tend to hold onto their books for years). I’ve even seen older UX books at used bookstores.
When to Use a Newer Resource Instead
There are certainly advantages to reading newer UX resources instead of older ones. Here are several of them.
Find New Ideas
Obviously, newer resources can inform you about new ideas and fresh approaches.
Most new ideas are a combination of old ideas that haven’t been used together before, yet they can be very useful. Not all of us realize we can combine A, B, and C in a certain way to make D, even if we’ve been doing A, B, and C for years.
Jake Knapp’s popular book Sprint is an excellent example of this. There isn’t much new information in the book. You can find all the techniques in the book in other resources. What makes the book so great is the various UX practices he combines to create a design sprint.
Keep Up with Current Thinking
As with any industry, best practices evolve in UX design. Reading newer books helps you understand the latest approaches designers take when tackling industry challenges.
For example, even though design systems have been around for a long time, you wouldn’t find much information about them in older resources. That’s because they didn’t become a widespread tool until a few years ago. If you need to learn about design systems, you’d probably need a recent resource like Yesenia Perez-Cruz’s book, Expressive Design Systems.
Another more specific example is user research reports. Many older UX research books recommend writing a report to share research findings with your team. However, most researchers now know that reports aren’t effective in communicating findings. So newer UX books either don’t mention them or they advise you not to write them.
I often pair reading an old UX book with a new one so I can keep up with current thinking while having access to original thinking and methods.
See What You Can Do with Recent Technology
As technology evolves, the tools at our disposal evolve. I mentioned the first edition of Contextual Design earlier, which was published in 1997. That book doesn’t explain how to do remote research in today’s world.
Remote research was difficult to conduct back then, especially usability testing. Most people didn’t have high-speed internet access, video conferencing tools, and screen sharing software—elements that make remote usability studies possible today.
Laura Klein gives a great example of the technological limitations designers had to navigate to conduct remote research. In the Remote User Research episode of her podcast, she explains how back in the 1990s, her team mailed disposable film cameras to research participants. The participants took photos of their work environments and mailed the cameras back to the research team. Then, the team developed the film, put the photos on a CD-ROM, and used the photos as research materials. This process was costly and time-consuming.
In today’s world, most participants could simply take photos with their phone and share them with the research team electronically. Current technology makes remote research much more feasible and efficient.
As I mentioned already, pairing an older resource with a newer one on the same topic gives you a breadth of information on a skill. The newer resource can expose you to current methods that weren’t possible with older technology.
Learn UX within the Current Cultural Context
Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive, was game-changing when he wrote it in the 1960’s. I read the book a few years ago. While the core content of the book is useful, Drucker’s style distracted me. For example, he refers to all executives as “he” (assuming all readers are cisgender men) and refers to administrative assistants as “secretaries” (instead of administrative assistants).
I understand the book is a product of its time. I tried to keep that in mind while reading the book, but the dated elements distracted me and made it difficult to learn the core components of Drucker’s approach.
Unlike older resources, newer resources often reflect the current cultural and economic context. They can do this while repurposing old content, such as Drucker’s guidance, and framing it in a way that’s useful and relatable to today’s audiences.
Mark Horstman’s book, The Effective Manager, does precisely this. Drucker’s work influenced the team’s work at Horstman’s company, Manager Tools. Horstman applies much of Drucker’s guidance in his book, infusing Drucker’s principles into current workforce practices.
Julie Zhuo’s The Making of a Manager also takes some of Drucker’s concepts and explains them in the context of managing a contemporary design team. (I highly recommend both of these management books, by the way, if you’re a manager or considering becoming one.)
Keep Up With Techniques That Become Outdated Quickly
Certain topics like front-end development and interaction design patterns evolve regularly. For that reason, I usually read resources that are less than two years old to learn about these topics.
When I was learning interaction design skills circa 2009, I read a book that was lauded by the UX community (at the time) for its innovative design patterns. I would not recommend that book now. It prescribed many pattern implementations that are not accessible to assistive technologies like screen readers. The patterns also relied on hover states, which don’t apply to touchscreens (you can’t hover on a touchscreen).
(By the way, Interaction design books that focus on principles are usually fine. Bill Moggridge’s Designing Interactions is a great classic that remains evergreen to this day.)
You’re New to the UX Field
If you’re new to the UX field, it’s probably a good idea to start by reading recent UX resources. You probably don’t have enough knowledge to identify what guidance is outdated and what guidance is still applicable in an older book.
You’re Not Familiar with a Topic
If you’re new to a specific topic, starting with a newer resource may be beneficial so you can learn the latest thinking. If you have time, you can read a newer book and pair it with an older book to get a well-rounded understanding of the topic.
For example, if you want to learn more about designing accessible experiences, Shawn Lawton Henry’s Just Ask is a great book. You can read it for free online. Since it’s an older book, I would pair it with a newer book like Laura Kalbag’s Accessibility for Everyone.
You’re Short on Time
You may face tight deadlines or other constraints that keep you from reviewing lots of resources on a topic. If that’s your situation, reading a newer book is probably the best use of your time.
Go Forth and Balance Your Book Diet
I’ve heard the term “balance your book diet,” which means reading a variety of books to get well-rounded information. That’s probably what the magic instructors meant when they told my boss’ son, “To learn a new trick, read an old book.”
While an older UX book may seem dated or less appealing, it can contain overlooked or forgotten information. And it can provide the opportunity to learn something new to you. So go forth and read an older UX book. You may be surprised by what you take away from it.
Here are some of the older books I mentioned throughout this article. Feel free to start with these or build your own list:
- Contextual Design (first edition) by Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt
- Why We Fail by Victor Lombardi
- How to Make Meetings Work by Michael Doyle and David Straus
- Observing the User Experience (first edition) by Mike Kuniavsky
- The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
- Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge
- Just Ask by Shawn Lawton Henry
Thanks to Tom Kerwin for his input on this article.