The authors of “User Friendly” discuss their brilliant new book, which tells the story of user experience design and, well, everything.
Robert Fabricant and Cliff Kuang
cliff kuang / robert fabricant / user friendly / design / user experience / dalberg design / google / apple / jony ive / facebook / frog / harlan crowder / don norman / henry dreyfuss / iphone / three mile island / yale / columbia / journalism
Ever since I got my hands on a copy of the book User Friendly, I’ve been trying to make sense of it.
Namely: How the hell is it so cathartic?
Over the years, a lot of books have come through the Design Matters and PRINT offices—and I’m loathe to admit that it’s easy to become jaded. But then, every so often, a book like Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant’s shows up. As we look forward in January 2020, User Friendly made me momentarily look back.
Years ago, when I first started writing for PRINT and other professional arts publications, the great cliche that haunts the field was there to welcome me to it, a right of passage:
“What’s graphic design?” my parents asked.
(As my father wrote me, “I perused your new magazine today. Fancy production, but if somebody asked me what kind of magazine it is, I couldn’t tell them.”)
It was a worthy initiation, and as time went on I’d find myself trying to define to any number of people everything from industrial design to information architecture. And then there’s that most indefinable of design subsets: User Experience design, further muddled by the term “UX,” and frequently paired with the equally befuddling “UI.”
As Fabricant dedicates User Friendly: “To my family and friends. Hopefully this will explain once and for all what I do every day, and why it matters.”
The astounding thing about the book: It does. In fact, it does to such a degree that I bought a copy for my father.
Perhaps the key is that it reads nothing like you might expect a book on user experience to read. It’s touted for uncovering the story of the discipline for the first time and, yes, it does that with a stimulating amount of discovery. But it’s in how it does that that’s so remarkable. User Friendly often reads like thrilling narrative nonfiction, beginning with its case study of the Three Mile Island incident. From there, the authors connect the dots and, case study by case study, from the historical linchpin of Henry Dreyfuss to Disney’s innovative RFID MagicBands, build out an extraordinary history of not just user experience design, but so much design at large. Paul Rand famously gave us the quote “Design is everything. Everything!” to ruminate on—and this book might be the most accessible evidence of that yet.
The secret to it all? The authors.
Kuang’s on-scene reporting and narrative flair is instrumental, as is his graceful distillation of otherwise dense topics. Years of experience writing for the likes of Fast Company, ID and Wired—not to mention his current day job as a UX designer at Google—brilliantly preceded the text. Fabricant, meanwhile, spent 15 years innovating at Frog before co-founding Dalberg design.
For those who know what user experience design is, User Friendly deepens. For those who do not know, it reveals—and for anyone discovering user experience design for the first time through this book, I am envious.
As Allan Chochinov writes at Core77, “There are also syntheses in the book that are beyond astute and likely to be quoted by designers and philosophers for years to come.”
He is exactly right.
So to ring in this new episode of Design Matters With Debbie Millman, here is a collection of 21 turns of phrase and bon mots.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media and PRINT Magazine Editor-in-Chief
“Design presumes that we can make objects humane, but doing so requires a different way of seeing the world.”
“Design thinking is now marshaled to solve myriad problems at every scale. What was once a niche profession more commonly associated with chairs is now talked of as a solution to the world’s ills, simply because of a shift in perspective.”
“Technology should become simpler over time. Then it should become simpler still, so that it disappears from notice. This has already happened with stunning speed, and that transformation is one of the greatest cultural achievements of the last 50 years.”
“It’s no surprise then that the reasons a bad app drives you crazy have a direct relationship to the reasons that Three Mile Island almost melted into the earth. The problems that caused Three Mile Island are similar to the ones that frustrate you when you’re trying to turn off the notifications on your smartphone; the inscrutability of a poorly designed light switch shares the same cause as your inscrutable cable box: a button that seems misplaced, a pop-up message that vanishes before you can figure out what it means, the sense that you did something but you don’t know what.”
“Forty years after Three Mile Island, feedback is more than just what makes machines intelligible. When feedback is tied not merely to the way machines work but instead to the things we value most—our social circles, our self-image—it can become the map by which we chart our lives. It can determine how the experiences around us feel. In an era when how a product feels to use is the measure of how much we’ll use it, this is everything.”
“The world of everyday life is so densely layered with information that it can be hard to realize how much information—how much feedback—we have to recreate in the world of design. And yet feedback is what turns any man-made creation into an object that you relate to, one that might evoke feelings of ease or ire, satisfaction or frustration. These are the bones of our relationship with the world around us.”
“Designers, by aligning consumer design with business incentives, thus became high priests of the faith that better goods meant better lives all around. Such faith remains the unspoken message embedded in how new products are invented today.”
“We live in a sandbox of someone else’s design, made more clever because the information on offer on our phones, on our computers, in our cars confines us within a simplified version of the world.”
On Paul Fitts: “At the time, having a doctorate in the nascent field of experimental psychology was a novel thing, and with that novelty came a certain authority. He’s supposed to know how people think. His true talent is realizing that he doesn’t.”
“The magic of a well-designed invention is that you seem to know how it will work even before you’ve used it.”
“Whether we’re communicating with a human or a machine, the goal is to create a shared understanding of the world. That’s the point behind both the rules governing polite conversation and how a user-friendly machine should work.”
“Metaphors accomplish something essential to human progress: They don’t just spur us to make new things; they inspire the ways in which those things will behave once they’re in our hands.”
“In digesting new technologies, we climb a ladder of metaphors, and each rung helps us step up to the next.”
“The story of technology’s advance is also the story of metaphors bending to their limits, then breaking.”
“Apple’s rise is nothing more or less than the story of three interfaces: the Macintosh OS, the iPod click wheel, and the iPhone touchscreen. Everything else has been fighting about how the pie would be divided up among competitors and copycats.”
“User-friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts. As my collaborator Robert Fabricant likes to say, it relies on our patterns of behavior. All the nuances of designing new products can be reduced to one of two basic strategies: either finding what causes us pain and trying to eliminate it, or reinforcing what we already do with a new object that makes it so easy it becomes second nature. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior.”
“User-friendliness has redefined nearly every minute of our waking lives.”
“Sometimes, designers get called on to make better versions of things that already exist, but they spend most of their time trying to create things that never existed before. When something hasn’t existed before, how do you make it easy to use? And even after that new thing makes its way into the world, how do you improve it enough so that it disappears into daily life?”
“We now expect that the tools we use to diagnose cancer or to identify a problem with an airplane engine will be as simple to use as Angry Birds.”
“There may be no greater design challenge for the 21st century than creating better, tighter feedback loops in places where they don’t exist, be they in the environment, health care, or government.”
“This was a designer’s way of looking at the world: the sense that if our better selves are within easier reach, then of course we’ll be better people.”