26 Books I Learned from in 2020 that Might Benefit You, Too

In the last few years, I have been trying to balance my art, design, and reading, and find a better way to “export” the knowledge I’ve gotten from my book collection.

As someone who works in experience design and a fellow good human being, I believe people in my profession can’t and shouldn’t just design future experiences with design knowledge alone — having a broader, more balanced world view and an understanding of other disciplines is critical for a more holistic, responsible, inclusive, and equitable design practice. We bear the responsibility and privilege to bring into the world futures we want to see ourselves and our future generations in. And one way to broaden our world view is through learning from the time-tested knowledge others have distilled into publications.

Below are my book list and brief notes (some briefer than others). Discussions and book recommendations are welcome!

Leading with a teaser of the first 8 books I started my year with.

It’s a long list. You have 3 choices:
A. Read on.
B. Bookmark and read later.
C. Jump to the finale to see my top 5 recommendations.


#1 The Content Trap by Bharat Anand

One big idea and analogy that stuck with me — though usually tragic at the moment, natural forest fires also lead to “out with the old (woods), in with the new (diversity)”. Similarly, companies shouldn’t focus on content alone but on how content across different channels will compound and create a synergy that leads to sustained success.

#2 User Friendly by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant

With many noteworthy examples, the authors highlighted the importance of our role as user experience designers in shaping interactions and perceptions in the world. One such example is design through metaphors.

#3 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B Peterson

Listening to this book was like listening to a wise friend sharing their wisdom in life. One “rule” that was particularly memorable to me was “care for yourself the way you care for others”. An example from the book was people making sure others take their medications but slacking on their own self-care. I tend to advocate so much for others’ well-being but brush things aside when my own well-being needs care. This is a good reminder for me to take my own advice and not compromising on important things. Now when in doubt, I ask myself “what advice would I give to someone who comes to me with this situation?”

#4 Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD

I enjoy science literature and this one makes the research and knowledge on sleep very accessible. While I know about the importance of sunshine and the circadian rhythm, this key information is new to me: drinking alcohol close to the evening or before sleep will hinder the retainment of information that you want to learn or memorize — yeah, maybe you’ve already known that — but drinking in the day when your body has enough time to process the alcohol significantly minimizes alcohol’s effect on your memory. I’m now very mindful of my alcohol consumption when I need to retain knowledge from my evenings. (Does this mean I have switched to day-drinking?! Hmmm…)

#5 The Making of A Manager by Julie Zhuo

You don’t need to be a manager or want to be a manager to benefit from this book. You can benefit if you care about your work culture, the wellbeing of your team, your personal growth, and/or want to give better feedback to others to help them grow. Julie made a number of salient points about work dynamics and her practice of becoming a better manager. I relate a lot to her management/people style — friendly, approachable, and initially uneasy about giving hard feedback.

I benefited from this book precisely at a moment in my career that I had to initiate some hard conversations and give feedback to people above my level.

2 big takeaways from the book:

  1. There are different types of managers and people being managed. So communicate early on to establish the fitting management relationship with each of your direct reports. Do they benefit more from their manager being hands-off or more prescriptive? The relationship also evolves as the manager and their reports grow in their career.
  2. Address the elephant in the room and be candid. Sometimes I avoid pointing out the dense fog permeating uncomfortable situations to avoid awkwardness or uneasiness in my work relationship. After all, I tend to usually look at the bright side and find a way to grow in adverse situations. Julie’s anecdotes helped me overcome my uneasiness with speaking up & out and also let me realize that when I let something uncomfortable or harmful continue to slide, I’m not doing anyone a favor — not me, nor others. So I encourage you to speak up when you are in a tough situation, too — be candid, and preferably directly and in private.

#6 How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert

This book is beginner-friendly and helps people build a framework for organizing information. If you are looking for something to onboard you to how to organize information, this book is short and approachable. I enjoyed the worksheets in the book that helps you make sense of “the mess”.

#7 You Look Like A Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane

We read this as part of the Punchcut Book Club. Mostly very friendly and easy to understand content about artificial intelligence. And I think the style of conversational writing was intentionally very approachable. Janelle broke down big concepts of AI into relatable ideas — like knock-knock jokes, Daleks (fellow Doctor Who fan here), building toasts, escaped cockroaches, invisible giraffes, etc. I wish I got more clarity on Chapter 3 around the architecture of complex neural networks. This book was approachable, engaging, and mostly easy to digest as an introduction to artificial intelligence. A fun read!

#8 Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz

A scintillating read with FBI-trained negotiation strategies and tactics applicable to every day & business scenarios. I am a huge fan of any FBI & criminal investigations type of content, so the stories were especially fascinating to me as well.

A few memorable takeaways:

  1. Ask “how am I supposed to do that?” to tactfully invite collaborative thinking and obtain support from someone you are negotiating with. (I’m still working on this.)
  2. Understand the communication type of people you are talking with. E.g., the “analyst” type embraces silence and processing time while others might be more prone to fill the silence with constant talking or striving for agreements or consensus.
  3. Be specific in the numbers you ask for (also applies to salary). I’ll leave this intentionally unexplained so you can read the book to find out.
  4. Find the rare black swan which might be the secret to your successful negotiation — a hidden key unfulfilled need that requires your due diligence. This reminds me of the need to consider people’s personal wins and organizational wins when selling a product/service — something I learned from my professional selling classes in college.

#9 The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener

Recognized as one of the founding literature in machine learning and artificial intelligence, this book was worth reading. However, it was very difficult for me to get through due to the author’s writing style. Sometimes I had to re-read pages, again and again, to mentally make sense of them. I’m still in the process of understanding the thesis…working on it.

#10 Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman

This book was very illuminating. I picked this book up for one thing — how to design information (architecture) — but took away so much more: communication, questioning, and experimentation, all of which benefit all aspects of my life. It helped give me clarity in my thoughts and I took away a very memorable strategy of information organization — LATCH: organizing information by Location, Alphabetical order, Time, Category, and Hierarchy 💡

#11 How to Speak Machine by John Maeda

Underwhelmed by this book. I was hoping to see Maeda dig deeply into computational topics, but my expectations were not met. The book seems to be more geared towards beginners who are just formulating their “computational” world view, or maybe I’m just not the target audience. Despite a mismatch between expectation and reality, one salient takeaway was around programming — something that lives on a massive scale can make people operating it feel so powerful that they start to detach from reality, especially on an emotional level, and that’s why one must also learn to speak human before and while working with machines.

For those on the fence about checking this book out, my suggestion is…you can probably invest your energy somewhere else that critically examines computation & machine learning. If you want to speak human, look into research, social sciences, cognitive sciences, behavioral sciences, etc.

#12 Interface by Branden Hookway

This book’s not just about digital interface, but interfaces as a dynamic relationship between entities. There is a lot of great stuff and actually related to this turbulent time — e.g., the true definition of law isn’t expressed in terms of who are governed by it, but of who is exempted from it. The author examined interfaces from fields of study such as fluid dynamics, politics, philosophy, religion, design, and data science, illustrating that interfaces both differentiate and augment the entities involved.

I recommend it, with one big critique as a caveat — the content is great but its style feels like a modern man writing in obscure language at times. If you are interested in the philosophy of interfaces and feel like chewing through the dense language, give this book a try.

#13 Indispensable by Meredith Whipple Callahan

Picked this book up because I’m mentoring younger designers outside of work now and hoped to leverage some insights from the book. I didn’t get too much out of the book at this stage of my career but think beginners can really benefit from the collective insights throughout the book. One thing I liked about this book was that the author alternated the genders of the bosses and employees in each chapter to reduce bias. 💡

#14 Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro

I LOVE this book! This should be a must-read for designers, technologists, and people whose industries don’t yet have an ethical code. “Ruined by Design” is highly timely and relevant with poignant analysis and critique on the ethics (or the lack of it) problem in the tech industry, and offers suggestions for designers to evaluate their participation in unethical practices and ways to drive change ✊

Main points that I love: Designers are gatekeepers in the experience we bring into the world. You are not just hired for your skills but also for your council, so speak up! BE GOOD TROUBLE — stand up for what’s right and back others up when they do. Don’t let corporates hide behind “it’s not violating our guidelines” and perpetuate immoral and/or unethical behaviors. Also intriguing: the idea of a union for designers.

Highly recommend the audible book.

#15 Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Noble

This book has been enlightening because it shed light on a black female perspective of the injustice in the age of algorithms. The fact that the author had to justify the research methods she used in a bulk of her first few chapters — rarely heavily communicated in other similar publications — speaks volumes by itself. This is a book to remind all of us to check our privileges even when we think we are being mindful. This also makes me really think about the importance of “don’t design for us without us”. Definitely worth a read/listen.

#16 Ways of Seeing by John Berger

I picked this book up in 2018 because it was cited by a sizable number of sources in my thesis research on social media. It’s is a companion book to a BBC series of the same name and has been used as a university text. In it, the author offered commentaries on the visual arts — in particular, the projection of our own experiences in what we see, female nudes, oil painting, and the use of photography in publicity. Of course, this is only ONE perspective on a few select areas of the visual arts. Some points were salient but some felt very…debatable or at least needs to be updated today. Wish I had read it earlier, maybe around high school or before the social media craze. Not too much chemistry between us now, unfortunately. A 3 out of 5.

#17 How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil

🤯 So much unfamiliar information to take in and I ended up taking naps after every 20 pages or so until the last 1/3 of the book because that last part wasn’t as technical. A good read to understand how a leading figure in the AI field explains the origin, methodology, and his vision of the future of AI. I only have a cursory understanding of his data evidence and thought experiments. Crazy to think that when I’ve finished this book (it is the year 2020), it’s already 8 years out of date. Nevertheless, his explanation starting from our biological brain to a work-in-progress digital brain, and then to discussions on consciousness and free will was engaging and offered a clearly optimistic view on the future of AI. (Perhaps my view on it is more…cautiously-not-taking-a-side-yet. Just doing research and trying to understand it a bit more at a time.)

#18 Ways of Hearing by Damon Krukowski

Lucid and compelling. The book discusses the production and usage of music and sound as well as their relevance in the contemporary context from 6 lenses: time, space, love, money, power, and noise. Intriguing as we increasingly emphasize an immersive, multi-sensory, and multi-modal future where sounds and voices are engaged beyond screens.

Not sure if it was because they mentioned from the beginning that this originated from a podcast, my auditory sense was keenly engaged when I was reading the book — or at least my brain tried to imagine how the texts were narrated.

#19 Recommendation Engines by Michael Schrage

From The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series

Finally a book I read that’s hot off the (MIT) Press. I’ve actually read it in the month that it’s published in!

An excellent read. The content was relevant and engaging, and the knowledge approachable:

  1. Recommendation’s about choice.
  2. Recommendation helps people decide, explore, compare, and discover.
  3. The constant tug-of-war between “explore” and “exploit”.
  4. Cool to learn about how systems and services use data to customize.
  5. Explainability builds trust.

Perhaps due to its “essential knowledge” nature where brevity is a goal, critical notes were missing regarding recommendations that have been problematic (e.g., YouTube’s conspiracy downward spiral even when viewing time became the new key metric) and who are left out when their data don’t make it to the data inputs that train the algorithms (e.g., stores that don’t have many reviews don’t get recommended in Yelp, as mentioned in “Algorithms of Oppression”).

Last but not least, this line from the introduction resonates deeply with me — “History is as important as technology here; humans are as vital as the machines.” I constantly feel uneasy about people being fixated on the shiniest thing (technology alone) and forget that so much of experience creation relies on decent humanity and putting people first.

#20 Manipulation by Michael Leary, Gillian Edward

I downloaded this book as a result of blindly trusting recommendations on Amazon, which turned out a big fail. While the content on dark psychology and manipulation techniques (so you can watch out for manipulations) was interesting and informative, the rest of the content did not stand out to me as exemplary. I definitely don’t recommend the audible version because the narration was horrible and unprofessional (coughs, restarts, sounded condescending & uninterested, etc). 😬 I suggest checking out other better alternatives in this domain.

#21 Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez

A fascinating read, and alarming, at the same time, about the missing “ gender data gap” that renders many female and female experience invisible. Short summary: the author covered many aspects of our lives — history, social, design, medical & healthcare, politics, etc — to powerfully illustrate that the “(white) male default” does not work for half of the world’s population so much so that it can cause serious harm to women. The voices and data of women need to be included and taken seriously.

Sad to say I never really noticed or was aware of the gender data gap, nor had I felt very inconvenienced by it — this book brings awareness, urgency, and inspires advocacy in me moving forward.

#22 Mismatch by Kat Holmes

Great, short, and insightful book on designing for inclusion. I recommend it.

I loved:

  1. The example of designing playgrounds.
  2. The philosophy on shut-in-shut-out: what if you design something that doesn’t shut people out?
  3. The “Wall of Exclusion” from a physically-limited designer highlights alienation by design.
  4. How sometimes trying to design for “one size fits all” results in “one size fits none”.
  5. Suggestions on justifying & selling the business value for designing for inclusion.

There’s definitely more good stuff than listed here. Follow-up readings for me would include designing for accessibility and universal design — understanding the differences and nuances of the unique angles of these design approaches, and how they can all be used together to foster more inclusion.

#23 Accessibility for Everyone by Laura Kalbag

Very tactical book on designing accessible web experiences. Includes some overlaps with book #22, Mismatch, but this one is geared specifically towards web & digital interface design.

Here are a few things I hope are helpful to you as well:

  1. “Don’t design for us without us” — never assume the needs of people with disabilities. Simulated abilities & conditions get you in the door but also creates a false sense of understanding.
  2. Names — not everyone has a last name, and names vary in length -> avoid validation rules that deny those variances. W3.org has a great article on this.
  3. Hashtags for screen readers — capitalize the first letter of each word in your hashtag text string, so people using screen readers can actually hear each word instead of a jumble of sounds. You can try things out with your own screen readers.
  4. Strive for AA standards in accessibility, and when resources allow, go for AAA.

The book also includes lots of additional resources for your reference. Hope we can all together advocate for better, more inclusive, and accessible digital experiences, especially when now most of our activities are online.

#24 Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

“Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.” Brené Brown writes for those who *care* to lead and lead well. Holy smokes, this book blew me out of the water and I highly recommend it. My biggest takeaway is on how to set the stage & culture for timely constructive feedback.

A few points that I loved & resonate with:

  1. Great leaders encourage culture and a sense of belonging.
  2. The importance of creating psychological safety in the workplace.
  3. Being clear in communication and organization — she shares: “Being clear is kind, being unclear is unkind.” My take: Try to be as clear as you can with your goal and intention as a leader. It doesn’t mean you have to be excruciatingly prescriptive, but give the right amount of details to align your team. A lack of transparency where it’s needed is counterproductive. This leads to the next point:
  4. The brain makes up stories when there’s insufficient data. Also known as “confabulation”. As someone who has major suffered from this in the past, I had wondered, “why is it this way?” and lived in assumptions that were highly counterproductive, until I addressed this question and how I felt directly with the person involved. So yeah, confabulation and the lack of transparency can create a very demoralizing situation you don’t want at your workplace & in your relationships.

Parting thoughts: may you lead in life & at work in your own unique way and inspire others. ✨

#25 Atomic Habits by James Clear

An excellent book that broke down the system of habit-building, and offering an easy, actionable, and sustainable framework for behavioral change.

My 3 biggest takeaways:

  1. Having a great system results in more effective behavioral change than having a great set of goals. Such a system focuses on process, and some improvements can be as small as a detail that you change.
  2. Ultimately, how you reframe your identity can bring in a new perspective and drive sustained changes. E.g., “I’m a person who shows up and runs every day” is more effective than “I will run every day” when you subconsciously don’t identify as a runner. This is likely rooted in our default mental state. With the latter, when I have to decide if I should run or not, it’s so easy to pat myself on the back for having run once or twice, feeling like I’ve over-delivered as a non-runner, and taking a day, or two, or three…off. Actions easily die before a habit is formed.
  3. The four laws of Atomic Habits are: make it obvious, make it easy, make it attractive, and make it satisfying. Among the four laws, “making it easy” was so clever in that it suggests we start with just 1–1 action, 1 minute, or 1 line. Making the initial action super easy to accomplish removes the mental and physical reluctance and drastically increases repeatability and success rate. Oftentimes, it’s the transition from the “rest” state to the “action/motion” state that’s the biggest hurdle, the easiest time to say no.

Other great concepts include latent potential & compounding, habit-stacking, and setting the environment to facilitate your habits. Because of this book, I’ve been doing pull-ups every day that I never thought I would enjoy doing! 🎉

#26 Radical Candor (Revised Version) by Kim Scott

Lucid, candid, and compelling management & coaching lessons. A very practical book for managers or people who want no-nonsense, effective people managing/coaching skills, especially in the workplace. For someone like me, who often over-considers people’s feelings before delivering feedback, this helps me get out of the hairy situation of deciding IF and WHEN to give feedback when something is vaguely off track. This book would be best to go along with Dare to Lead by Brené Brown, which focuses more on the core emotional aspect of leading a team.

My 3 biggest takeaways:

  1. Care personally, but challenge directly — first and foremost, to be a very effective manager, you need to actually care about your team.
  2. Not labeling things personally — focusing on actions and results helps you be more objective, and avoids antagonizing the people you are giving feedback to. After all, you want the feedback to drive changes.
  3. Be specific in your feedback — this helps give clarity in what actions and results you want more of, and others to emulate the desired actions. Personal example: I used to get this “compliment” saying I was very diplomatic in situations, but the compliment lacked elaboration or context. The more often it was used, the more lazy and vague the compliment became — after some time, it ceased to be a compliment and didn’t help others who want to improve their people and situational skills to be “more diplomatic”. It made “diplomatic” sound like the opposite of being direct. Next time, instead of “so-and-so is very diplomatic”, try “so-and-so is especially effective in giving feedback that’s easy for the recipient to take in” or “they are skilled in defusing tension in a situation to align the team on the overall goal”, etc.

There are seriously more takeaways from this book than listed, such as promotions, minding the needs of both superstar players and rockstar players on your team, letting people go, etc. But I’ll leave it to you to discover yourself when you read or listen to the book. Happy growing!

To sum up

You made it to the end! Here’s my list of top 5 books that I recommend (which is also captured in the image summary above) in order:

  1. Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez
  2. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss with Tahl Raz
  3. Ruined by Design by Mike Monteiro
  4. Atomic Habits by James Clear
  5. Information Anxiety 2 by Richard Saul Wurman

Note 1: Not linking to any particular source of purchase here. Just remember Amazon isn’t in dire need of your money, try to support local & black business you can with your purchase.

Note 2: This list covers some social justice topics, but that’s far from enough. If you are interested in seeing more racial justice topics that I plan to learn from, follow along my reading list this year.

Shay Xie is a senior interaction designer bringing a healthier future to you from Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices. She currently contributes to the world out of her home based in San Francisco, or virtually on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Originally published at https://www.shayxie.com on March 21, 2021.

Designer, learner, illustrator. I aim to design your future responsibly.