I’ll make this quick: In their just-published book, User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play, Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant have written a contemporary treatise that is sure to become a foundational text. (And I’ll make this simple: If you’re looking for holiday gifts and you’re a designer-type, buy ten of these, wrap ’em up, and figure out who gets ’em as you’re walking out the door. Guaranteed satisfaction for all your employees, partners, clients, and students, this book would also be useful to anyone—or anyone’s parents—who wonder what designers actually do.)
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This is the second book I’ve read this year that plunges the reader into the water with a narrative thriller—in the case of User Friendly, the Three Mile Island disaster case study (the other was Susan Orlean’s extraordinary The Library Book—with an arson mystery), and the disaster makes for an ideal introduction into the definition and argument of user-“un”friendliness. No convincing necessary; it’s sometimes easier to define something through its absence.
There are syntheses in this book that are beyond-astute and likely to be quoted by designers and philosophers for years to come.
The authors then break down the topic into a thoughtful series of ten meticulously, and-kinda-brilliantly-named targeted chapters around the core—from Confusion and Metaphor through Empathy and Peril—each building upon the last with enough backstitching for comfort, but also adding new dividends on previous insights. (This is a nice relief from many popular business books that lay out the thesis in the first chapter and then just repeat it though case studies in every subsequent chapter).
The book ends with a front-row, design-practitioner reverse-overture—a kind of crash course in what designers actually do do—along with a greatest-hits chronology of how we got to ‘user-friendly’ in the first place. Both of these are terrific and useful, shining even more light on the subject.
User Friendly‘s got all the elements of a great design tome in ideal proportion—the historical grounding with appearances by the founding fathers (Henry Dreyfus, Bill Atkinson, Alan Cooper, Don Norman), as well as some founding mothers (Jane Fulton Suri, Doris Marks, Patty Moore). It’s got lots of fascinating side trips, through characters like K.K. Barrett, (the production designer for Her, Lost in Translation, and Being John Malkovich—some of my faves), and Linden Tibbets, (founder of, also a fave, If This Then That, or IFTTT).
In addition to plenty of other roadside surprises, the book has its obligatory case studies. I liked the parallel lineup of Disney’s “Magic Band” all-access bracelet, to Carnival Cruise Line’s similar “Ocean Medallion,” and then a sidestep over to Leslie Saholy Ossete and Onyango Omondi’s ingenious “Magic Bus Ticketing”—a mobile phone platform that simultaneously ensures safety and eases congestion on buses and bus routes. These and other cases ring emotional bells at turns cautionary and inspiring, and the stories, mixed into the history and the arguments of the book overall, flow in a seamless stream—”with no edges between one place and the next” (to co-opt the authors’ words around experience design in the Personalization chapter, albeit for the positive).
But the book’s most user-friendly instantiation of all is its writing. I mean, wow. Ask my wife who overheard me constantly exclaiming out loud as I read, “My god, the writing! It’s just, like, perfect writing!” (and I figure there’s perfect editing in there as well, but my review copy didn’t yet include the acknowledgments. Still, hats off to the editor of this book, wherever you are!) Every single sentence is distilled to its absolute essentials. Indeed, after a while, I found this so remarkable that I started to track back through just-read paragraphs—for fun—looking for any stray words, extra flourishes, missing elements, or knowing indulgences. Not a one. And again, this was only a review copy!
There are also syntheses in the book that are beyond astute and likely to be quoted by designers and philosophers for years to come: “Facebook doesn’t spread information so much as it spreads affirmation.” Or “the ease of readapting user-friendly patterns is the single biggest reason that design now dwells in so many places we wouldn’t expect.” Hell, here’s a whole paragraph that I both highlighted and underlined:
“…it is easy enough for us to tell our phones what we like in micro-detail; whether we want our notifications on or off, whether we like this or that story on our feed. These interactions have been optimized to a fine point. And yet what we cannot tell our phone is what kind of overarching experience we’d like in our digital lives. It is bizarre that we accept this. If you were to go to a personal trainer, you wouldn’t start by telling her how many biceps curls you’d like to be doing. You’d start with your goals; you might say something like “I just want to feel better and in a year I’d like to be toned and trim, not swollen.” That’s not how we interact with our phones, because our phones were founded on the metaphor that they are tools to be used for tasks that we’ve already defined. As a result, it can be impossible to set forth our broader goals—to be happier, or to be closer with the people we actually care about.”
The single exception I take with the book is near its close: “It is Pollyannaish to think that design will solve the world’s problems. But it is self-evident that the methods of design will play a role in helping us understand, accept, and then make use of whatever solutions we’re able to create.” I wouldn’t pull this punch, but of course I work in education—and, well, cheerleading. Since I believe that climate crisis mitigation, peacemaking, and social justice will each depend on those fundamental design ingredients of value exchange, stakeholder analysis, empathy&humility, and systems thinking, I actually believe that design is the only hope we have of making it through the next few decades. Loud and proud.
But I know that Cliff Kuang is too conscientious a writer, and Robert Fabricant is too vigilant a practitioner, to over-promise. (And certainly, the media’s overplaying of “design thinking” is bound to make anyone gun-shy at this design-historical moment.) Still, I look forward to the second edition of this book—hopefully before the next ten years are up—where one new chapter might just be added at the end, following the current chapter titled Promise. That new final chapter’s name? Fruition.