Where To Turn for Background, Context, Ideas, and Inspiration on User-Centered Design

By Patrick Hogan |

John Dove’s article in the eContent Quarterly December 2013 issue “Online Reference Systems: Putting the User at the Center of Design” includes the list of resources below, for which he shares credit with Terry Winograd, Erin McKean, Jodi Wing, and Josh Orum. Though compiled with reference systems in mind, the list includes resources helpful for any Web interface.(Subscribe to eContent Quarterly in the ALA Store. )

Classics of Reference Content and Reference Librarianship

Green, Samuel. 1876. “Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers.” Library Journal 1 (October 1876): 74–81.

Green’s article never really mentions the word “reference,” but it clearly visualizes a set of a dozen or more library patrons and identifies the right service interaction to have with each. In some cases, these imagined patrons learn a skill for future self-service at the library; in others, it’s about quickly pointing out the one book in the library that will delight them or be useful in their research.


Janes, Joseph. 2003. Introduction to Reference Work in the Digital Age. New York: Neal-Schuman.

Before describing the challenges and opportunities that the digital world offers to implementation of good reference services, Janes provides an extensive survey of the history and theory of reference and user services. Especially valuable for the design of online reference systems is his description of the work of Robert Taylor from the 1960s, identifying five elements of context surrounding the reference interview. These are just as relevant to today as they were in the predigital age.


McArthur, Tom. 1988. Worlds of Reference. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

This book covers the history of reference content over the past 2,000 years. Ever wonder who came up with the importance of multiple learning styles and applied those principles to a reference book in the mid 1600s? Ever wonder why people at the pinnacle of their careers often put their great effort into writing a subject encyclopedia that ends up being a seminal work for the next couple of generations of researchers in that field? McArthur’s vision of the future comes from the vantage point of 1988, so it is not distracted by the specifics of Second Life or other fads. Instead, it is based on human principles relevant at any age.


Ranganathan, S. R. 1961. Reference Services. London: Asia Publishing House.

Ranganathan is most famous for his Five Laws of Library Science and is featured in the first chapter of almost any introduction to library science textbooks. After all, he apparently coined the term “Library Science.” Worldwide he is most recognized for his unique classification scheme based on facets. This scheme has had a rebirth of importance since it is the same approach that underlies most “faceted-based” search models of many modern websites and online tools. In this book, Ranganathan says that as he looked forward in his career he knew his success required three things: coming up with a new classification system, implementing such a scheme in a real library, and creating a library with an effective set of reference services. Reference Services was so important to him that he purposely hid it from view in his first several budgets so he wouldn’t have to advocate for it before stakeholders had experienced first-hand how important it was in the functioning of the library.


Classics of User-Experience and User-Centered Design

Cooper, Alan. 2004. The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How To Restore the Sanity, 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: SAMS.

This classic shows why it takes an organizational commitment right from the top of the organization to effectively embrace user-centered approaches to design.


Kelley, Tom, and Jonathan Littman. 2005. The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

Kelley is one of the top industrial designers in our time, who previously authored the bestselling The Art of Innovation. Here he shows that design is a team effort bringing together a diversity of talents (e.g., the “anthropologist”).


Krug, Steve. 2005. Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

If you read and truly implement what Krug suggests in chapter 9 (“Usability Testing on 10 Cents a Day”) of this book, you will make a big difference in the user-centered development process at your organization—and with very little cost. According to Krug, “User testing—done simply enough—is the cure for all your site’s ills.”


Moore, Geoffrey A., and Regis McKenna. 2006. Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers. New York, NY: Collins Business Essentials.

This book shows that many innovative products fail to make it into the mainstream because they don’t embrace solving 100 percent of their users’ needs. Moore’s section on Scenarios, aka “Target Customer Characterization,” shows how taking on “whole product management” requires looking at factors beyond the software, including wrapping the tools inside a set of services so that the buyer gets their problem solved.


Morville, Peter. 2005. Ambient Findability. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Morville, the author of the influential Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, here addresses what has to be a concern of anyone building an online reference resource today: how is a prospective user going to find your wonderful resource? Those who blindly follow the hope of “if we build it, they will come” are almost always cruelly disappointed.


Norman, Donald A. 2002. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

This classic in designing products that have the user in mind has enduring value. Using metaphors like “the handle and the blade,” Norman’s principles are memorable. Readers will be continually amazed to learn from this book that apparently those who have designed such things as a TV remote and many other gadgets in our lives have never read a book on product design.


Tufte, Edward R. 1990. Envisioning Information. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
———. 1997. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
———. 2001. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
———. 2006. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Tufte is a towering figure in the field of graphical display of information. His examples transcend media. All four of these books need to be on your shelf and referred to frequently if you are in the business of designing reference products for libraries. Tufte’s one-day course, offered every year or so on the east and west coasts, is also well worth the time and money— and these four books are provided to every attendee.


Winograd, Terry. 1996. Bringing Design to Software. Boston: Addison-Wesley / New York, NY: ACM Press.

This compendium has essays by many of the early leaders in applying principles of design to software including, among others, David Kelley, Don Norman, Sarah Kuhn, Paul Saffo, John Seely Brown, and Mitch Kapor.


Modern Textbooks on User-Centered Design

Goodman, Elizabeth, et al. 2012. Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research, 2nd ed. Waltham, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Looking for research to back up the principles of design for usability? This is the bible on the subject.


Klein, Laura. 2013. UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Klein, an experienced engineer and designer, focuses on helping startups learn more about their customers, providing an introductory overview of user experience (UX) and discussing ways in which to design an easy-touse, effective product.


Preece, Jenny, et al. 2011. Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction, 3rd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

This is the standard text Terry Winograd uses in the introduction to his popular user-centered design course.

Saffer, Dan. 2009. Designing for Interaction: Creating Innovative Applications and Devices, 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Offering perspectives from an expert on the subject of interaction design, this book shows how to use design research to understand behaviors and motivations and create a design strategy that makes a product stand out.

———. 2013. Microinteractions: Designing with Details. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Saffer shows readers how to design effective microinteractions (the small details that exist inside features), learn the triggers that initiative a microinteraction, and help users understand the rules with feedback by using graphics and sounds.



Hot Studio: http://www.hotstudio.com/thoughts/experience-design
Creative Good: http://creativegood.com/blog
37 Signals: http://37signals.com/svn
NN Group: http://www.nngroup.com/articles
A List Apart: http://alistapart.com/topics/user-experience
Smashing Magazine: http://uxdesign.smashingmagazine.com
Zurb: http://zurb.com/apps