The book list to get into user's heads

Who doesn't love a good book?! So whether you're a ravenous reader or a collector (it's ok to admit you have a problem, I have unread stacks at home too), I wanted to compile a starter pack of books that helped refine my understanding of users' motivations.


Knowing your users is one of the most important aspects of being a PM. We are complex creatures, but at the same time, very much alike. By breaking down what makes us tick and our users' needs and/or motivations, we better understand what end users are looking for.


When looking at the top games in F2P, it's not hard to notice a little extra something or, as I've heard countless times, "more love." This is generally chalked up to having greater attention to UX, but that is just reductive. The truth is much deeper, with features and systems better at triggering more significant biases or heuristics we all have - hiding silently within all of us.


Things like FOMO, near-miss effect, endowment effect, sunk cost fallacy, choice architecture, and many other psychological triggers delight our experience.


But for most, like myself, you probably got your start on the subject by reading one of the early best sellers on behavioral economics or finance, like Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (Taleb, 2001) or Predictably Irrational (Ariely, 2008). Of course, these behemoths sold millions of copies each, but if you missed them, it's all good. I am making this list to reduce your chance of reading overlapping subjects.


Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)

Written by Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, this book is a must-read and the starting point for anyone dabbling with the psychology topic. But, seriously, it's hard to remember all the golden nuggets this book has because it's packed full of them.


The book summarizes research that Kahneman conducted over decades, often with the late Amos Tversky. It covers all three phases of his career: his early work concerning cognitive biases, prospect theory, and his later work on happiness.


It does a great job explaining the complexities of two systems in our brains: the fast (system 1) response and the slow (system 2). Unfortunately, thinking with your neo-cortex (slow) or your limbic system (fast) drives hugely different results, thus causing some severe bias.


Our brains developed this way because natural heuristics were needed for less developed times. For instance, it wasn't long ago that we needed to leverage our fast thinking to survive or avoid dangers like a tiger or bear suddenly rumbling in the bushes. But unfortunately, regardless of the presence of danger nowadays, our systems still function similarly and thus have many irrational biases.


This is a fantastic book that covers so much you could read this alone and have a great understanding of human thought.



Hooked (2013)

While working at Natural Motion and Zynga, this was practically a Product Management requirement. The main takeaway is what's called the hook model. For most of us, it's pretty intuitive nowadays, but years ago, it was pretty interesting to have it broken down so clearly.


The funny thing is that most successful games consciously (or subconsciously) follow the premise of this model pretty damn closely.


Nir Eyal explains the Hook Model through a four steps process embedded into the products of many successful companies to encourage customer behavior through subtle techniques. With consecutive "hook cycles," these products reach their ultimate goal of retaining and engaging users through repeat usage and lowering the dependencies on costly advertising or aggressive messaging.


"Hooked is based on Eyal’s years of research, consulting, and practical experience. He wrote the book he wished had been available to him as a startup founder – not abstract theory, but a how-to guide for building better products. Hooked is written for product managers, designers, marketers, startup founders, and anyone who seeks to understand how products influence our behavior."

Payoff (2016)

I know, another Ariely shout-out, but bear with me. This one is short and sweet - 128 pages! At its base, Payoff is about the "motivators" in our everyday lives and how they change in a given context.


We work hard to motivate ourselves, the people we live with, and those with whom we work and do business. In a typical fashion, Ariely covers a wide array of situations and topics that give a better understanding of how and why people are motivated.


As a PM in the gaming industry, you are constantly working within cross-functional teams. Additionally, you may be managing a team, product, or discipline, so you must understand what motivates different people. An example in the book was the possible harm bonuses could do to an employee's productivity, but I will leave that topic for you to mull over.


"Payoff investigates the true nature of motivation, our partial blindness to how it works, and how we can bridge this gap. With studies that range from Intel to a kindergarten classroom, Ariely digs deep to find the root of motivation—how it works and how we can use this knowledge to approach important choices in our own lives."

Misbehaving (2015)

Thaler came to fame with his first book, Nudge (2008), and later won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2017 for his contributions to behavioral economics. So you know his books come with some weight, but don't think he's total academic. On the contrary, he's excellent at making the subject seem exciting!


Nudge dove into psychology and behavioral economics research to create the concept of nudge theory - functional engineering of choice architecture that alters someone's behavior. Those in mobile games should be familiar with this concept.


Misbehaving builds on this as it presents profound examples of humans bringing along behavioral biases and generally not as rational as we thought. Of course, being an economist, he ties this to the effect on markets, which traditional theory expected to be efficient. But a significant emphasis is on behavioral economic analysis and how it can help us in a range of practical areas. So plenty of sports, entertainment, and technology examples to get into.


Bonus: Andrew Huberman Lab Podcast

WTF, why is there a podcast on this book list? Hear me out - Andrew Huberman is into the neuroscience side of the brain, and when trying to understand the software (psychology), you should understand the hardware (neuroscience). Huberman is the first person I have read or listened to that made the brain and its chemicals understandable for my tiny ape brain.


He connects the dots between our brain, feelings, emotions, memory, physical health, and much more. He covers such an extensive range of topics I think there is something in here for everyone, whether it's interest, profession, or personal growth.


I will admit his podcasts are super long, so choose wisely, but there are always practical teachings in every podcast. Otherwise, if you want to stick to books, he is releasing See, Breath, Move in May of 2023.