10 books every Product Owner needs to add to their reading list

14 December 2015 | Masimba Sagwete | About a 8 minute read
Tags: Academy, Agile, Analyst, Consulting, Development, Digital, Product Owners, Scrum

Building great digital products requires a broad range of skills across many disciplines. You can learn on-the-job a.k.a ‘the slow way’ but if you want to fast track your learning, you should definitely read around the subject. Here is our recommended list to give you a good starting point, however comment below if you know anymore we should tick off our list!

1. Adapt: Why success always starts with failure – Tim Harford

Trial and error is a great way to create something innovative because it’s usually impossible to know everything you need to know when building something new. You can start with a hypothesis, build something; measure how it performs; then build a new version based on what you learn. Startups call it ‘lean’ but in this book, Tim Harford shows you how empiricism can be successfully applied to anything including the Battle of Britain, the NHS and even washing powder.

Too lazy to read this book? Try Tim Harford’s TED talk instead.



2. Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable – Seth Godin.

Seth Godin has written 18 books on product/marketing and the fact that he keeps getting published shows he’s got a lot of useful things to say and people who want to listen. Almost all of his books make for easy recommendations, but this one in particular tells you why it’s important to stand out in a field overrun by competitors. More than that, it tells you how to do it.

Too lazy to read this book? Then listen to this interview with Seth Godin on the Mixergy Podcast in which he describes how to turn your business into a linchpin.



3. Getting things done: The art of stress free productivity – by David Allen .

Everyone has to deal with competing priorities but as a product owner, you’re pretty much the only person on the team who speaks to absolutely everyone else. They all make demands of us and if we don’t manage those demands carefully, we either end up overworked, letting everyone down or both. David Allen teaches you when to say no and the best ways to do so. Not making commitments you can’t meet will let you be more productive AND less stressed in your job at the same time.

Too lazy to read this book? Then watch David Allen give a 45-minute talk summarising the main principles in the book on this YouTube video.




4. The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt

People hold beliefs they won’t let go, even in the face of overwhelming contradicting evidence. If you’ve ever had an argument with a dogmatist, you’ll recognise Haidt’s 5-facet model of how humans are programmed to moralise. Fundamentally, this book is about learning empathy. It’s about recognising when to stop pushing your views, how to break down barriers by stepping back and talking people round to your way of thinking. It’s about framing your argument in ways that appeal to your stakeholders’ value systems. The Righteous Mind will help you understand how to get goal alignment, without which, you‘ll be ineffective in realising your vision for the product.

Too lazy to read this book? Try one (or all three of) Jonathan Haidt’s TED talks.



5. How the mind works – Steven Pinker

This is a computer scientist’s view of the challenges you’d face trying to replicate the human brain in code. The chapter on eyesight is magical for making you consider things we take for granted like telling the difference between a white paper in the dark and a black one in bright sunshine despite them reflecting the same amount of light. You can’t build digital products without understanding how developers use software to solve problems. Product Owners don’t need to code but through reading this, you’ll learn more about what’s reasonable to ask of our developers.

Too lazy to read this book? Then watch Steven Pinker’s TED talk on the human brain and the nature vs nurture debate.



6. The Wiki Man – Rory Sutherland

There is a common misconception that solving a big problem requires spending a lot of money on a big solution. The 68 miles of High Speed 1 from St Pancras to Kent cost £5.8billion but could we have achieved the same passenger satisfaction if we’d spent a small fraction of the cost on free WI-FI? Do people need to get to Paris 45-minutes sooner or would they actually be better served by the same ‘slow’ service if they could get some work done while they travel? We make predominantly emotional decisions and our behaviour can be dramatically affected by very small changes. Product Owners are ‘choice architects’ and this book tells you why it’s always worth reframing the problem rather than just seeking the most obvious solution.

Too lazy to read this book? then watch any of the two TED talks Rory Sutherland has given.


7. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness – Richard Thaler

If Rory Sutherland is an ‘aficionado’ on behavioural economics, Richard Thaler is its godfather. It’s a ground-breaking field which – through ‘the nudge unit’ – is even shaping how our government makes laws. Nudge theory has been applied to pensions with auto-enrolment and even supermarkets with the 5p bag tax. The ‘default’ option tends to be the most popular one not because people are lazy but because we only expend cognitive energy when not doing so might cause us pain. Nudge is a framework for helping your customers make better decisions including but not limited to, buying and using your products.

Too lazy to read this book? then watch Richard Thaler distill his theses on this hour-long video on YouTube.


8. Practical techniques for improving your application of Jobs-to-be-Done – by Chris Spiek and Bob Moesta

This is the powerful idea that people ‘hire’ products to get ‘jobs’ done. They seek an outcome and if the product they currently use meets their needs, they won’t switch to yours unless if it’s remarkably better and you make the switch easy for them. #JBTD is a £15 book – a lot considering it’s just under 60 pages. Why it’s worthwhile resides in the name; it’s a ‘handbook’ and reference for running user interviews. Henry Ford once implied his customers would have asked for faster horses because they didn’t know about cars but this book will give you the tools to get to the bottom of what they actually need.

Too lazy to read this book? then watch this 60-minute video on Vimeo where Bob Moesta demonstrates how to use the Jobs to be done framework to conduct your next user interview.


9. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products – Nir Eyal

Why do people constantly check their Facebook? Why is the little red ‘1’ a scratch we can’t help but itch every time we see it? Building an app is less than half the battle of running a successful mobile app business; your users have to hear about your app, find it, download it, add it to their homescreen and allow it to send them notifications. Through the ‘Hook Model’ – which he developed at Harvard by studying companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter – Nir Eyal tells you how to build an app that can jump through all of these barriers.

Too lazy to read this book? then watch this 20-minute talk Nir Eyal gave at Mind The Product conference 2014


10. Product management: a practitioner’s guide – Jock Busuttil

In this book, Busuttil shares his twisted journey into product and some of the pitfalls he has encountered along the way. Product management is such a new discipline for digital products that it’s hard to find someone who can teach you how to do it. The book is based on real experience and is written by a lecturer at General Assembly so even though it won’t give you all of the answers, it’s a damn good starting point.



If this list isn’t definitive enough, here’s further reading:

  • Eric Ries – The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, fast and slow
  • Steven Krug – Don’t make me think: a common sense approach to usability
  • Clay Christensen – The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Management of Innovation and Change)
  • David McCandless – Information is beautiful
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink: The power of thinking without thinking
  • Marty Cagan: Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love

And if you want even more, you should also check out Wrike and UserTesting for their takes on what you should be reading. If you’re feeling pressed for time though, Blinkist will give you 500-word summaries of all of these books and many more.

Happy reading!


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