5 books that prepared me for Lead Product Designer

I've spent over $6,000 on books, courses, and workshops since 2018 😬.

I was obsessively trying to improve my UX design craft and take the next step in my career from Senior to Lead.

I noticed a trend in my investment of time and money:

  • Most of them were mediocre or recycled knowledge
  • Some of them had nuggets of real value
  • On a rare occasion, a handful of them were some of the most significant knowledge shares I've consumed

If you're trying to up-skill from mid-to-Senior or Senior-to-Lead designer:

  • Don't get "addicted to the medicine" as I did
  • Don't spend $6,000 looking for the best content
  • Use my curated book list to level up

My "must-read" list for UX designers looking to take the next step in their careers:

  1. ​Radical Candor by Kim Scott
  2. ​The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
  3. ​Atomic Design by Brad Frost
  4. ​Deep Work by Cal Newport
  5. ​The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

1. Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Why it's essential:

Two flavors of "people management" become apparent as you level into a Lead Designer role: mentoring an assignment of designers or directly managing them as a hybrid IC/manager. Either way, leadership is a challenging craft and a costly one when done poorly. Radical Candor defines the best approach for getting it right and is the perfect jumpoff point for when you're at the tip of the spear.

Key takeaways:

  • Nurture trust with self-care, team autonomy, and respecting boundaries
  • Balance your praise and criticism to avoid obnoxious aggression, manipulative insincerity, and ruinous empathy
  • Ask your team for radically candid guidance: questions, public criticisms, and truth-seeking
  • 6 traits of radical candor include: humility, helpfulness, immediacy, in-person, public praise/private criticism, and never personalizing
  • Create meaningful growth plans with life-story, dreams, and planning conversations
  • Promote effective collaboration through listening, clarifying, debating, deciding, persuading, executing, and learning

2. The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Why it's essential:

Being a "systems thinker" isn't a buzzword. Being able to connect the dots and make educated guesses about why connected things happen, or don't, is a superpower for designers. Especially for those that are going to be advocating for organizational efficiency, creating new research infrastructure, and rolling out design systems. But to be an effective systems thinker, you need to break free of conventions like "design thinking" and be able to create your own situationally. The Goal puts into perspective the core components of any successful system and will develop your approach toward its implementation.

Key takeaways:

  • The goal of every business is to make money and activities that do not bring you closer to this goal are not productive
  • Organizations are measured by 3 metrics: throughput, inventory, and operational expense - ideal systems improve each at-once
  • A system bottleneck determines the throughput of the entire system
  • Constraints can be equipment, people, or policies
  • Increase bottleneck capacity by: preventing idling, improving the quality of upstream work, adding new producers, or outsourcing
  • Synchronize non-bottlenecks with bottlenecks by using a "Drum-Buffer-Rope" cadence

3. Atomic Design by Brad Frost

Why it's essential:

This book gets a mention on my junior designer list, but I mention it here because there are many design leads who have heard of it but haven't yet read it - a tragedy. Continuing with the emphasis on systems thinking, this is the practical application Bible for design systems. Brad is an engineer-first designer and clearly outlines how to break down components, which content belongs in a system, how to make it discoverable, and how to best advocate for its prioritization. This is an easy and must-read for all aspiring design leads.

Key takeaways:

  • Atomic Design is a methodology for scaling a reusable design system
  • Its goal is to create a common language to maintain design consistency with the rest of the product team
  • This common language can be achieved via an "interface inventory" to be used by designers and developers
  • These inventories are made up of components using the metaphor of biology and are broken down into atoms, molecules, organisms, templates, and pages
  • The best time to begin a design system is "now", paired with an initiative or otherwise
  • Framing in terms of time and money is the best approach to advocating for a design system

4. Deep Work by Cal Newport

Why it's essential:

A hard truth about Lead roles is that you'll spend at least 40% of your time negotiating meetings and IC work. Your role requires coordination, alignment, delegation, and a number of other activities that don't directly produce output - yet you're still also responsible for the output. Mastering the ability to perform focused, undistracted work is a must-have skill to be successful as a design lead and effectively balance your critical responsibilities. Cal does a great job illustrating this point and provides a roadmap for being an effective IC in such noisy, demanding environments.

Key takeaways:

  • Learn and apply new skills as they become necessary to your immediate works
  • Open floor plans, social media, and instant messaging make deep work harder to accomplish
  • Shallow work is movement disguised as progress and eventually erodes at personal fulfillment
  • Plan deep work with 4 types of scheduling: seclusion, periodic, daily, and ad hoc
  • You can only accomplish so much deep work in a given day, so pace yourself with techniques
  • Plan out your days: schedule internet time, plan out each minute, quantify depth, and set ambitious deadlines
  • Create a deep-work-only environment and get rid of distractions
  • Train your focus: let boredom happen and define success metrics
  • The 4 disciplines of execution: focus on what's important, use the right metrics, keep your metrics visible, and create accountability
  • Learn to say no to shallow work
  • Ritualize your workday shutdown

5. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

Why it's essential:

User research is investigative work, and once you've conducted hours of scripted or unguided interviews, you'll probably have improved your ability to improvise based on signals. Now it's time to improve your speed-to-precision. Asking the right questions often is a responsibility you're ready to own, and Fitzpatrick's short 136-page brain dump is the perfect bridge to getting there. Validation of ideas is certainly a function of - but not limited to - design. His techniques for truth-finding can be leveraged in entrepreneurial ventures and life in general.

Key takeaways:

  • Everyone lies to you and lies lead to bad conclusions
  • If you avoid mentioning your idea, you ask better questions
  • Talk to people to learn about them, their lives, and their motivations
  • The Mom Test includes: talking about the person's life, ask about specifics in the past, and talking less / listening more
  • Avoid the 3 types of bad data: compliments, fluff, and ideas
  • Get back on track from bad data by: deflecting compliments, anchoring fluff, and digging beneath ideas
  • Pre-plan the 3 most important things you want to learn from a conversation
  • Ways to find people to talk to: cold conversations, warm intros, community immersion, landing pages, organizing meetups, public speaking, or blogging
  • Frame your conversations: be vulnerable, ask for help, don't waste their time, be transparent, and avoid being generic
  • Don't be a bottleneck for your team: prepare as a team, take good notes, and review as a team

My hope is that my overindulgence in content will be of some use to those of you trying to stay competitive.


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