Ask Women in Product: What Books should PMs be Reading?

What books should be on the liberal arts reading list of every product manager who works on B2C products? By liberal arts, I mean fields such as social sciences, history, behavioral psychology, political science, philosophy, design, art, and the like. For each book that you name, can you provide a brief explanation of why that particular book is important?

Photo by Kari Shea via Unsplash

Editor’s Note: To answer this week’s question, we asked a few Women in Product to tell us about their must-reads. Like all reading lists, this one is far from complete, so we hope to expand it with new entries over time.


Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett [Amazon]

Review: An entertaining, approachable toolkit for thinking by a formidable philosophical mind. Dennett outlines 77 thinking tools with examples; perfect for dipping into. Some are standards of philosophy (reductio ad absurdum, for example), others are Dennett’s own (delightful) inventions. While Dennett applies these methods to big topics such as evolution and free will, they are equally helpful for more mundane, everyday dilemmas.

Ideal for: Product Managers, Software Developers, Managers

Excerpt or Key Insight: “Try to acquire the weird practice of savoring your mistakes, delighting in uncovering the strange quirks that led you astray. Then, once you have sucked out all the goodness to be gained from having made them, you can cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity. But that is not enough: you should actively seek out opportunities to make grand mistakes, just so you can then recover from them.”

Contributed by: Janet Brunckhorst


Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug [Amazon]

Review: Though the book talks about web experience and usability in general, the concepts mentioned in the book are vastly applicable to any interactive design. The book makes a clear case for stripping away, whenever possible, anything that is not helping users get a clear idea of what is going on. Reading this book has helped me sympathize with my users and helped me make every product decision related to user interaction a clear, self-explanatory one.

Ideal for: Product Managers, Web Designers

Subject: Web Usability, User Experience

Excerpt or Key Insight: Krug’s 3 laws of Usability: (1) “Don’t make me think.” (2) “It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambiguous choice.” (3) “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what is left.”

Contributed by: Amy Lin

The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman [Amazon]

Review: A great read that inspires you to pay attention to the need of users and apply cognitive psychology to make product designs as simple and natural as possible. Besides learning how and why some products delight their users, you also see how and why some designs are frustrating. A great combination of Dos and Don’ts, the book increases your awareness and sensitivity to design considerations and will help you avoid making the same mistake(s).

Ideal for: Product Managers, Web Designers

Subject: Product Design

Excerpt or Key Insight: The rules are simple: make things visible, exploit natural relationships that couple function and control, and make intelligent use of constraints. The goal: guide the user effortlessly to the right action on the right control at the right time.

Contributed by: Amy Lin

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses Jesse Schell [Amazon]

Review: Product and software designers have a lot to learn from game design. The games industry pioneered the practice of playtesting, wherein you simply watch people play the most recent build of your game to figure out if it feels right. This practice is substantially different from how most product teams think of usability testing, which is often oriented around a conversion funnel. If you’re looking just at someone’s mouse during user research, and not at their face or listening to their tone of voice, you are missing out on 80% of the findings.

The Art of Game Design is a seminal game design textbook, and it reiterates the polymath nature of product design. There are tons of lessons for everyone who makes stuff, and it reiterates that making a decision beats not making a decision by a country mile.

Ideal for: Product Managers, Product Designers, Game Designers

Subject: Game Design, Psychology

Excerpt: “Some people are quite disconcerted by this combination of snap decisions combined with sudden reversals. But it is the most efficient way to make full use of your decision-making power, and game design is all about making decisions — you need to make the best decisions possible, as fast as possible, and this slightly eccentric behavior is the way to do it. It’s always better to commit to an idea sooner, rather than later — you will get to a good decision much faster than if you bide your time considering potential alternatives. Just don’t fall in love with your decision and be ready to reverse it the moment it isn’t working for you.”

Contributed by: Merci Victoria Grace


Fifty Inventions that Shaped the Modern Economy, Tim Harford [Third Place Books]

Review: This is not a book about the “greatest” inventions and it’s also not a book that stack ranks all inventions. Rather, it’s a book filled with short stories about inventions you might not have thought of as being important, and yet, they’ve changed the way we live our lives.

As Makers, we often think we must tackle every step in a user’s process to change the status quo. In Fifty Inventions, Harford shows us that there has been a history of inventions that we now might take for granted, but which have impacted societies and provided a springboard for future inventions. Examples include stories about the S-Bend (think toilet pipes), Management Consulting, and IKEA’s BILLY Bookcase.

Ideal for: Product Managers, Software Developers, Designers

Subject: Product development, product design, business

Excerpt or Key Insight: Harford has published a few articles on the BBC website to promote his book, so you can get more sneak peeks at a few of the inventions (e.g., Paper, the Barcode) there.

Contributed by: Tricia Cervenan

Behavioral Psychology

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely [Amazon]

Review: A great introduction to cognitive bias (i.e., why people make irrational decisions). This book provides an overview of psychological concepts and how they can be applied in real life, such as how anchoring and relativity could help with pricing strategy.

If this type of book is your cup of tea, check out The Upside of Irrationality by the same author, which sees irrationality in a different light.

Ideal for: Product Managers, User Researchers, Web Designers

Subject: Behavioral Economics, Applied Psychology, Consumer Behaviors, Behavioral Psychology, Cognitive Psychology

Excerpt or Key Insight: “The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object. Greater labor leads to greater love. Our overvaluation of the things we make runs so deep that we assume that others share our biased perspective. When we cannot complete something into which we have put great effort, we don’t feel so attached to it.”

Contributed by: Amy Lin

Social Sciences

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford [Third Place Books]

Review: Messy is full of stories that illustrate how we have a tendency to create systems and order, and yet there are times when things and situations that are untidy, unordered, and imperfect can lead to beautiful art, technological advances, and a focus on the factors that are important.

Harford mixes research with anecdotes to help readers consider an alternate perspective on how to interpret the world around us. It’s particularly compelling because he expertly weaves examples in art, business, and technology from the recent past as well as from centuries ago. The chapters feel like a series of quick reads rather than a 400-page book where the reader has to wait until the end to grasp the point.

Ideal for: Anyone

Subject: Behavioral Economics, Diversity, Psychology, Business

Excerpt or Key Insight: I’m particularly a fan of the chapter on automation as it addresses the dangers we face by only thinking positively about products like the self-driving car. If you’d like to take a sneak peek at that particular story, Harford published a portion of it in The Guardian in 2016.

Contributed by: Tricia Cervenan

The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis [Amazon]

Review: I cried at the end of this touching story about love, friendship, and behavioral economics. Michael Lewis (of The Fifth Risk, Moneyball) ably summarizes the theories and interwoven careers of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, researchers who won the Nobel Prize.

Ideal for: Product designers, product managers

Subject: Collaboration and behavioral economics

Excerpt: The point, once again, wasn’t that people were stupid. This particular rule they used to judge probabilities (the easier it is for me to retrieve from my memory, the more likely it is) often worked well. But if you presented people with situations in which the evidence they needed to judge them accurately was hard for them to retrieve from their memories, and misleading evidence came easily to mind, they made mistakes. “Consequently,” Amos and Danny wrote, “the use of the availability heuristic leads to systematic biases.” Human judgment was distorted by . . . the memorable.

Contributed by: Merci Victoria Grace

Editor’s note: You’ll also find a steady stream of reading recommendations in the #reading-room channel of the Women in Product Slack workspace. Not yet a member? You can apply to join.

Last updated: February 11, 2019.

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