TLF Gems "Top Reads"

3 March 2022

Each month in our newsletter TLF Gems we recommend a "Top Read", a classic book which is relevant to customer experience and insight.

It's a long list, so you might not want to buy them all at once, but there's bound to be something in here that will move your customer thinking or skills on.


This is the book we turn to when we need to organise a workshop. Over 80 games and exercises to help you structure creative collaboration, broken down into sections based on whether they are "Opening", "Exploring", or "Closing". Brilliant and indispensible, every business ought to own one.

This is Service Design Doing

It's older sibling This is Service Design Thinking was a classic, now This is Service Design Doing builds on that promise to serve as an even more indispensible bible, combining theory and practice, for anyone with an interest in service design, customer experience or research.

The Functional Art

I recommend this book on my Data Presentation & Infographics workshop. Dataviz can be a fractious world, torn between form and function, but Alberto strikes the perfect balance with real expertise.

One + One = Three

Dave Trott is an old-school ad man with a gift for pithy anecdotes and interesting perspectives. His most recent book contends that creativity is about merging ideas. You need to expose yourself to as many unusual ways of thinking as possible, and this is a great start.


Market Research is about trying to make sense of people and the way they make decisions. To get beyond the most superficial understanding we need to go deeper than what people say, but that introduces subjectivity. Wendy Gordon's excellent book explains how qualitative research can use 6 ways of thinking to approach this in a rigorous and systematic way.

Do Story

I was pleased to hear that Do Story is getting an updated release for 2018. It's a brilliant short guide to storytelling from Bobette Buster, whose concept of the "Gleaming Detail" is something that I use in my Storytelling workshop.

The Book of Why

The science of causation is fighting through to the big time, challenging decades of statistical orthodoxy. The Book of Why is an engaging and readable account of the state of the art from Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie.

The Dip

Those of you who have seen me talk will know that I tend to quote Seth Godin a lot. This book is typically well-written and thought-changing, concentrating on the combination of wisdom and courage needed for success, knowing when to quit and when not to. "If you can't make it through the Dip, don't start."


A dissertation in comic book format, Unflattening makes a brilliant case for the importance of visual communication. It'll force you to think differently about the relationship between words, images, and thinking.

The Pocket Universal Principles of Design

This condensed version of the classic "Universal Principles of Design" deserves a place on your desk. As the back-cover blurb says, it's a Swiss Army knife of design knowledge, summarising 150 tools for understanding why designs succeed or fail.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information

Sometimes it's good to go back to the beginning. When I started thinking hard about the best way to present data, Tufte was a lone pioneer. This book changed how I thought about charts, integrating text and graphics, and even typography. It may be getting on a bit, but it's still a powerful and important read for anyone interested in information design.

The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect may be the most important business book ever written, and has stood the test of time since we first reviewd it ten years ago. Phil Rosenzweig carefully demolishes the "delusions" that other business books rely on to promise simple solutions to complex problems. “Anyone who claims to have found laws of business physics either understands little about business, or little about physics, or both."


A book on improvisational theatre might seem a bit leftfield, but it's great. Profound lessons about psychology, management, and storytelling told in an conversational style. "Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really 'motiveless'."

How Emotions Are Made

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a neuroscientist who completely rejects the standard account of emotions as fundamental, innate, and universal. This books presents her critique of the standard model, and proposes instead that emotions "...emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment.”


ReWork is a bit of a polarising book. It sets out to challenge the way organisations (particularly startups) are run, arguing for less management, fewer meetings, and more authenticity. Some people (like me) read it and cheer, others find it naive and wonder how applicable it is to larger organisations. Read it and see where you stand.


Now an established classic (I was shocked to realise it's 11 years old!), slide:ology remains a good resource for anyone wanting to design better presentations. Its strength, and the reason it stands up a decade later, is that it resists dishing out templates or how-tos and instead gives readers a grounding in core principles and techniques of visual communication.

The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman's book is an acknowledged classic, and essential reading to understand the psychological principles that underpin good design, whether of user interfaces, products, or customer experiences in general. "This is a starter kit for good design."

I Want You to Cheat!

I get sick of the assumption that UK service thinking lags behind the USA. This book, from 1992, was the first of Seddon's books on service design as a problem of systems thinking, rather than simply process or culture. "Notions of hierarchy and service are basically incompatible. Hierarchy encourages people to the view that they are there to serve their boss. In service organisations we should be encouraging people to the view that they are there to serve the customer."

The Service Profit Chain

Published in 1997, The Service Profit Chain remains the best explanation of the ways in which engaged employees and happy customers create value for a business. It breaks down the nuts and bolts of how an organisation can use a loyalty strategy to succeed in the long term. "Service profit chain management provides the means for implementing a strategic service vision."

The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding

I thought I'd dust off the first marketing book that I ever bought. Although it's nonsense to suggest that there are "laws" governing something like branding, this slim little book did a great job of helping a much younger me come to terms with the basics of branding. My favourite remains The Law of the Word: "A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer." Now that I think of it, that transfers very well to the idea of the emotional value proposition for customer experience.

Customers for Life

Carl Sewell's 1990 book on customer service (revised and republished in 2002) remains one of the great books of customer service philosophy. It's straight-talking, common sense, and totally impossible to disagree with. So why do so few organisations treat their customers as well as Carl Sewell does?

Well Designed

Jon Kolko's book has quickly become a classic in the worlds of design thinking and product management. The fictional example that he uses to explain how the tools of design thinking can guide product development is occasionally a little contrived, but interviews with practitioners and his concise explanation of how to use tools like the Emotional Value Proposition and Product Road Map more than make up for it. If you want to see how empathy and design thinking can revolutionise your approach to the customer experience, then give it a try.

How Customers Think

This classic from the early 2000s made a big splash by sharply criticising traditional research techniques such as focus groups. Looking back, it's interesting to see both how much Zaltman anticipated the behavioural economics boom in research, and how little most research practice has really changed. The book is good on customer psychology, interesting on developing better research methods, and best of all when it comes to interpreting customer decision making in terms of the "mind of the market". "Consensus maps reflect the shared frame of reference or viewing lens among those in a target market about a particular topic or issue."

It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want To Be

It's interesting, looking at the reviews, to see how polarising this book is. I can see why, although I'm firmly in the 5 star camp. Don't expect much detail, but if you need a quick dose of creative inspiration it's hard to go wrong with Paul Arden's thought-starting little classic. "Don't give a speech. Put on a show."

The Back of the Napkin

Visual thinking seems to be getting increasingly popular, but Dan Roam's book was one of the first to push the idea that sketches (not just polished visual slides) are a great way to think through and communicate ideas in business. "Visual thinking means taking advantage of our innate ability to see - both with our eyes and with our mind's eye - in order to discover ideas that are otherwise invisible, develop those ideas quickly and intuitively, and then share those ideas with other people in a way that they simply 'get'."

The Choice Factory

As someone who studied psychology, I've always looked for ways to apply what we know about human decision making to customer behaviour. This brilliant book summarises 25 biases, and explores their implications for marketing and customer insight. "People don't have the time or energy to laboriously and logically weigh up each decision. Instead, they rely on short-cuts to make decisions more quickly."

Simply Better

We were talking about "what matters most" long before this book was published, but there's no denying that we were pleased to see Harvard Business Review singing from the same hymn sheet. "What customers want is simply better - not more differentiated - products and services".

Heart of the Original

Have you noticed that books about creativity tend to be a bit, well, samey? Steve Aylett's polemical little book lambasts our lack of originality, identifies the causes, and suggests a way to find genuinely new ideas. "One of the main consequences of today's infantilising culture is that the traditional denial of a child's sentient humanity has been extended to adults, especially in the workplace. Companies are now operated as if full automation has already taken place. Solutions vanish every second of every day and we will never know the geniuses lost to the cubicle or to cops in a burst of taser confetti."

Ruined by Design

Design is often touted as the solution to everything (something I'm occasionally guilty of myself). If that's true, then perhaps it's also the problem with everything? That's exactly the argument that Mike Monteiro makes in this essential book. Many things we might not be happy with, or which have destructive effects on society, are working precisely as they were designed to work. Can we do something about that? "The goal of this book is to help you do the right thing in environments designed to make it easier to do the wrong thing."

Delivering Happiness

I'm usually pretty sceptical about business autobiographies. Written by ghost-writers, and no doubt pored over by PR and legal teams, they're usually stripped of anything juicy. Tony Hsieh wote his own book, and that shows in a writing style which will either charm or infuriate you. He also has a refreshingly counter-cultural take on customer service and employee engagement which is well worth reading.

Understanding Comics

Comics are much more widely accepted now than they were in 1993, when Scott McCloud wrote this. It's a brilliant and passionate examination of comics as an art form, and the history, psychology, and unique storytelling potential of comics have never been more clearly explained and showcased. "By stripping down an image to its essential 'meaning', an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can't."

Just Enough Research

One of the frustrating things about being a researcher is that everyone thinks they can design a questionnaire, and the results are often dangerously misleading. Erika Hall's book helps clarify the role of research in design, in particular the nuts and bolts of doing and analysing qualitative research, while emphasising the importance of collaboration. "We want to learn about our target users as people existing in their habitual environments."

Moments of Truth

First published in 1987, this book cemented the phrase "moments of truth" into the collective vocabulary of business leaders, but how many have read it? Carlzon's prescription for service is simple: you can't control all those interactions, so don't try. Give your people the tools and information they need, and trust them to make good decisions. What's less well known, but equally valuable, is Carlzon's focus on strategy as being a matter of making choices about where to cut costs and where to invest. Efficiency is not about universal cost-cutting, but investing in the things which matter to the customers you want to target.

In Search of Excellence

In Top Reads I try to pick out the true classics that stand out above the crowd, so it's time we talked about the ur-business book: In Search of Excellence. Does it live up to its reputation, and is it still relevant? I think so, even though many of its arguments are now received wisdom: the importance of values and culture, customer-centricity, treating employees with respect, agility over rigid structure. These ideas encapsulate the way I think about business, and they need constant attention. "Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies."

Ways of Seeing

Based on a 1972 BBC TV Series, this little book has had a lasting cultural impact. Its main point, that we should reflect on what our visual culture tells us about who we are, remains very relevant. I particularly like his essay showing the continuity of language between oil painting and advertising, with very different purposes. "The oil painting was addressed to those who made money out of the market. Publicity is addressed to those who constitute the market..."

On Brand

Books on branding tend to fall into one of two camps: coffee-table books celebrating successful brands, and technical marketing books which address the nuts and bolts of building them. What's rare is a book which really breaks down what brands are and how they work, and that's exactly what Wally Olins' classic 'On Brand' does, brilliantly well. "We like brands. If we didn't like them, we wouldn't buy them. It is we consumers who decide which brand will succeed and which will fail."


The late Hans Rosling is known for his lively presentation of what could be boring statistics. His message is that the world is, in many important respects, better than we think it is. Rosling spent a lifetime trying to educate policymakers with data, only to find that preconceptions are bizarrely resistant to change. In “Factfulness” he outlines the cognitive biases which get in the way, and equips us with better tools to improve our thinking. "It's not the numbers that are interesting. It's what they tell us about the lives behind the numbers."

The Knowledge

If the apocalypse came tomorrow, and you were one of the survivors, would you know what to do? This book aims to outline a path to not only survive in the short term, but to rebuild civilisation in the long term. It really drove home to me how much of a house of cards so much of our current way of life is, and how difficult it will be to recover if we ever lose it. "...each piece of modern technology we take for granted requires an enormous support network of other technologies."

Invisible Women

This is a big book with a very simple basic point: biases in the data we use to make decisions lead to systemic inequalities in the way the world works. With the assumption that the "default human" is male, that "gender data gap" means that cars are less safe for women, products are the wrong size, travel patterns are not catered for, and pensions are unfair (to pick four things more or less at random). The sheer scale of the problem is made clear by Caroline Criado Perez's thorough analysis of the impact of this data bias in every facet of women's lives. Essential reading, but be prepared to get angry! "...designing the female half of the world out of our public spaces is not a matter of resources. It's a matter of priorities...This is manifestly unjust, and economically illiterate."

Predictably Irrational

Behavioural Economics (which is basically psychology rebranded to look more relevant for business people) leapt into public consciousness at the end of the 2000s with the publication of 'Predictably Irrational' and Daniel Kahneman's 'Thinking, Fast and Slow'. You should probably read both of them, but Ariely's book is a much easier read, and helps to explain how understanding our biases makes our decisions predictable. "We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains."

Thinking in Systems

Systems thinking is something I'm really interested in, and I think this classic introduction by Donella Meadows is the perfect place to start if you want to find out more. “A system generally goes on being itself, changing only slowly if at all, even with complete substitutions of its elements - as long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact.”

Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain

Lisa Feldman Barrett is a brilliant science communicator (the first author to feature twice in our "Top Reads"!) This book is essential for anyone who wants to understand their own mind or other people's. The relevance to insight is obvious, and there are many mind-blowing conclusions. Perhaps my favourite is the way she squares the circle of unconscious decisions versus free will. "It's impossible to change your past, but right now, with some effort, you can change how your brain will predict in the future...Everything you learn today seeds your brain to predict differently tomorrow."

Visual Language for Designers

This is one of my favourite books on graphic design. Despite the title, this is not just for designers, but for anyone who's interested in visual communication. Whether you're producing charts, presentations, or customer communications this book will help you think systematically about how you use visual language to communicate more effectively. "An increased awareness of how people process visual information can help the designer create meaningful messages that are understood on both a cognitive and emotional level."

The Soft Edge

Some books blow your mind. Others confirm what you already believe, but do it in a way that helps you articulate your thoughts, and this is definitely one of those. Chances are you already believe that differentiation based on culture, relationships, and experience is more lasting than that based on supply chain efficiencies or technology. This book brings that to life, and gives you a brilliant framework to talk about the balance between strategy, the "hard edge", and "the soft edge". You need all three for a great, sustainable, business. "...hard-edge advantages are necessary, but fleeting..."

The Great Mental Models

The world is complex, far too complex for us to fully understand every aspect of it. So how is it possible for us to, say, cross a road safely, or start a business? We use a simplified "mental model" that helps us to think through the questions we face. Farnam Street argue that the quality of your mental models, and your ability to use a variety of models to apply different lenses to a situation, is crucial for finding opportunities and avoiding problems. This book makes a persuasive case, and provides a toolbox of mental models to start with. "Better models mean better thinking."

Artificial Unintelligence

Almost everything you read about AI is either a breathless SciFi-informed puff piece or a technophobic horror story. In this brilliant book Meredith Broussard explains what the state of the art truly is. From the perspective of an insider, she outlines the social impact of the reckless way in which machine learning tools have been rushed into use without due consideration of their flaws and limitations. "We should really focus on making human-assistance systems instead of human-replacement systems."

The Psychology of Survey Response

The only book I know of that examines in detail what cognitive science has to tell us about the way people understand questions, remember experiences, and choose how to respond to surveys. Technical, but might change how you think about surveys for good. "We prefer to think that quite a large number of paths to an answer are possible, depending on the interplay between retrieval and judgment."

Driving Customer Equity

You'd be forgiven for thinking that customer focus was invented in the last few years, but for me the golden age of strategic thinking about the customer was actually in the early 2000s. This is one of the classics from that time, and one of the first to show that segmenting on customer lifetime value could revolutionise the approach companies take to their customers, while focusing on products could be terminal. "To be truly customer-focused implies organizing the company arojnd customer equity and its drivers."

Do Open

David Hieatt (of Hiut denim as well as the Do Books and Lectures) explains how email newsletters are central to his marketing strategy, and why creating and sharing content is the best way to build a community and a brand. It's a short read, but a goldmine of good advice on newsletters (and writing in general). "...newsletters are one of the most cost-effective ways of talking to your customer that a business can ever have."

The Grid

It's surprisingly hard to find a good book on business strategy, and one of the reasons is that few really step back to take a holistic view of the whole business. As Matt Watkinson argues, the links between different aspects of your strategy can be as important as the elements themselves. The Grid isn't perfect, but it does provide a useful model for thinking about your business in a connected way.

The Little BIG Things

I'm a huge believer in the idea that details matter more than most people think. Great (and bad) customer experiences often depend on the disproportionate impact of little things that make all the difference, and it's attention to these details that sets the very best apart. The flip side is that there's always something you can do to improve the customer experience. Tom Peters' book gives you 163 ways to improve. "'Small Stuff' matters. A lot!"

The Checklist Manifesto

Checklists are a powerful and under-appreciated quality technique. If you want to make sure something is consistently done, and done right, then checklists may well be the best way to do it. You probably don't really need to read Atul Gawande's book to appreciate its message, but I recommend that you do because it is so brilliantly written. "...the problem we making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly."

Sketching User Experiences

There are lots of books about design thinking, but few of them actually help you think the way designers do. For me, Bill Buxton's 2007 classic really changed the way I thought about how products and experiences should be developed, and sold me on the importance of testing with rough sketches and prototypes as early as possible. That's how you get experience front and centre in the innovation process, instead of getting bogged down in technology. "Despite the technocratic and materialistic bias of our culture, it is ultimately experiences that we are designing, not things."

The Personal MBA

This book was suggested to me by my colleague Chris. I have to admit I was pretty sceptical at first, but it really is a very good summary of many key principles of business. It won't give you an in-depth view of any one topic, fairly obviously, but it's a great starting point to understand areas where you may feel a bit rusty, or to point you towards popular models. "To improve your business skills, you don't need to learn everything there is to know—mastering the fundamentals can take you surprisingly far."

Neuro Design

When I hear "neuromarketing" I tend to think "snake oil", but this a really useful book. Bridger explains what cognitive science can tell us about what people like, what works in terms of being engaging and memorable, and then describes how to apply that in the design of anything visual. "Designers already use their own intuition in creating designs...They will also use a body of principles built up over the years...Neuro design just adds to these principles."

Thinking, Fast & Slow

I was slightly amazed to see that I haven't yet featured this in Top Reads, because it certainly belongs there. This is one of the most important books ever written, laying out the two decision-making systems working in our brains, and the biases and mistakes they dispose us to. The only caveat is that you should pretty much ignore Chapter 4 on behavioural priming, much of which was based on underpowered studies which have failed to replicate (as Kahneman himself acknowledges). "This is the essence of intuitive heuristics: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution."

Internet, Phone, Mail, and Mixed-Mode Surveys: The Tailored Design Method

This, let's say it right off the bat, is not a light (or cheap) read, but we're sometimes asked to recommend a comprehensive book about survey research. There are a lot of research textbooks out there, but what sets this one apart is its focus on the real, practical, challenges that research professionals face. Issues like non-response bias, the impact of mixed methods, and how to actually write questions. " is apparent to us that the telephone is still necessary for certain types of surveys and, perhaps more importantly, that there are many ways it can be used in mixed-mode designs to overcome the weaknesses of single contact and/or response mode surveys."


This is a classic marketing book, a very easy read, and one that has a lot to say about customer experience strategy if you look at it the right way. Although the book focuses on marketing strategy, the idea of creating a clear, differentiated, proposition for a target group of customers is central to CX strategy too. "...positioning is not what you do to a product. Positioning is what you do to the mind of the prospect. That is, you position the product in the mind of the prospect."

Do Present

This is a great short book about presenting that focuses on helping you say what you want to say with confidence, and emphasises the importance of structure (in my view this is what sets good presentations apart from mediocre ones). "If you don't have an idea that will shift something in your audience then why are you presenting?"

Contextual Design

This is a much heavier book (in all senses) than I normally include, but it is a classic for a reason. The basic idea is simple: you can't design products that work for customers unless you understand the context in which they will be used, and the only way to get that understanding is by getting out there to experience their lives. "We form our understanding through field research, talking to users where they live and work, while they do the activities we are designing for."

The Mind Map Book

I use mind mapping pretty regularly, both to plan things like webinars and also as a way to think through the themes that are emerging from qualitative research. It's a technique that you can use with no (or very little) understanding of the "rules" or theory, but if you like using mind maps I'd recommend reading Tony Buzan's original book. His style can rub some people up the wrong way, but his ideas are fascinating. "Since my invention of Mind Maps during the 1960s, they have become known as the 'ultimate thinking tool'."

Don't Make Me Think!

This book is more than a classic, it's the classic on web usability. I doubt there's a single UX researcher who hasn't read it. It takes what can be an immensely complex field and breaks it down into very simple principles which, even if the examples can sometimes feel a bit dated, are pretty timeless in themselves. It's also a book that has much to teach anyone designing customer journeys offline as well as online. Krug's guiding principles of ease, satisficing, and simplicity are just as useful for brick and mortar journeys. "...what really counts is not the number of clicks it takes to take me to get to what I want...but rather how hard each click is—the amount of thought required, and the amount of uncertainty about whether I'm making the right choice."

The Speed of Trust

There are quite a few books on trust but, even though it's not perfect, I think this one is the best. Stephen M.R. Covey's book has a few too many lists for my liking (the 4 Cores, the 13 Behaviours, the 5 Waves...), but does provide a good model for how trust works. I also like the idea of layers of trust building out from the individual to society, and the emphasis that Covey places on the cost to business of low trust - the Trust Tax. "Trust is hard, real, and quantifiable. It measurably affects both speed and cost."

This Means This, This Means That

Semiotics is the study of how meaning is communicated. That sounds very straightforward, but it's a field with an aura of mystique that can make it very difficult to know what semioticians actually do. Semiotics has a lot to teach us about shaping the customer experience (we have a free webinar on that if you're interested!), and this book is a great introduction. "…every day we are faced with objects that have tacit instructions for their use…"

The Illusion of Choice

Richard Shotton joins the rarefied company of authors with two books in our list of Top Reads. There's no shortage of books about behavioural science these days, but few of them are as practically oriented as Shotton's book. If you want to understand how choices are made, how cognitive biases affect those choices, and how your organisation can use that (not necessarily as Machiavellian as it sounds!) then this book is essential reading. "Businesses are in the business of behaviour change."

Customer Centricity

This is an important book, although in places it's frustratingly short on practical detail (the companion "Playbook" fills in some of the gaps). It's based on the idea that some customers are much more valuable than others, and that focusing on creating great experiences and relationships with these customers is the secret to sustainable success. As you can imagine, we totally agree - we call this "doing best what matters most to those who matter most". "They are out there, waiting to be served. But they don't all expect, require, or deserve the same level of service or attention."

R for Data Science

I'll start this recommendation with a disclaimer: this will not be for everyone. But if you've got an analytical bent, and you're interested in seeing what R can do for you, then this book is a brilliant introduction to the practicalities of doing data science in R using the tools of the "tidyverse". It's accessible, complete, and really well written. "Data science is an exciting discipline that allows you to turn raw data into understanding, insight, and knowledge."

The Elements of Typographic Style

I was recently complimented after a presentation for my use of hanging punctuation, which is a sort of secret handshake for a certain type of typography geek. This, the closest thing to a bible for typographers, is the book I turn to when I want to think clearly about how to address using type well. "Typography is to literature as musical performance is to composition: an essential act of interpretation, full of endless opportunities for insight or obtuseness."

Watching the English

This book is funny in places, quite academic in places, and it won't be for everyone. What it does really well, though, is give an example of how anthropologists try to make reliable generalisations about people based on 'participant observation'. Definitely one for the reading list of any aspiring qualitative researcher! "I expect to find much variation and diversity within English culture, but hope to discover some common core, a set of underlying basic patterns that might help us to discover Englishness."

The Unpublished David Ogilvy

I've always had a soft spot for David Ogilvy because of the emphasis he placed on using research to understand consumers so that he could write better ads. This is a selection of things he wrote for internal consumption (memos, speeches, letters etc.), and there are a lot of gems in there. "Why are so many brand managers addicted to price-cutting deals? Because the men who employ them are more interested in next quarter's earnings than in building their brands. Why are they so obsessed with next quarter's earnings? Because they are more concerned with their stock options than the future of their company."

Stephen Hampshire

Client Manager
TLF Research