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User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design are Changing the Way We Live, Work and Play

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Written by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant

Reviewed by Yifan Zhang

How long can you last without technology?

I found myself fidgeting and incomplete after only six hours of a power outage at my house yesterday. Needless to say, every day we wake up to our alarms beeping like a virtual mom then head to the espresso maker bringing fresh smells of the day within seconds. Our driver is on his way to pick us up through applications such as Uber. We unconsciously check our phones five times in a minute so we can engage with our friends across the globe with several taps and clicks on the little shining screens. It’s not inaccurate to say that we are all ‘cyborgs’: we are half human, half machine. We are incomplete without technology.

Technology defines our lives and in return, we define technology through countless means of design. And at the center of cyber design, as argued by Kuang and Fabricant, is the ‘user friendly experience’—an experience that occupies the center of our modern life, remaking not just our digital lives, but also influencing business, society, and philanthropy. In other words, technology design focuses on more than the technology aspect, it also considers human cognition, psychology, and culture. The main idea of this book— ‘User friendly design’– emphasizes a human-centric experience. The authors suggest that an ideal design involves more than just producing the newest gadgets, it’s more about producing products that make people’s lives better.

“The human-centric technology design is an innovative takeaway from this book. ”You have to know why people behave the way they do, and design around their foibles and limitations” (p26). As the book points out, the best design is often not created by talented experts but by the best observers of life and people who have first-hand experience with bugs and failures. The authors started the book with what they learned from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. It turns out miscommunication between technology and human—the control panel was not giving the correct feedback to the operators while the demands sent by operators were not performed by the machines—was the key reason the accident occurred. The authors furthered to argue that the quality of the feedback is what makes humans feel most natural and is the easiest to react to. Using stories of countless star designers from Silicon Valley, like Donald A. Norman and Henry Dreyfuss, the authors show us how their inspiring ideas are behind the origins of their designs.

For example, why do we feel safer when we ride a horse than sitting in a driver less car? The key is that when we are riding a horse, the horse normally proceeds in its own way when no directions are given; however, when we lean towards a certain direction or restrain the lead, the horse gives away its autonomy to the rider. The idea about driver less cars that customers feel secure to use originated from this similar riding experience:by using car designs sensing the driver’s level of focus, the car, like a horse, adjusts its level of autonomy. When the driver is less focused, the car takes control; however, when the driver is more concerned about the direction and speed, the car handles control over to the driver. Similarly, the ideas of our everyday desktop design on our laptops came from our everyday office desks. When we open multiple files, the computer automatically brings forth some for display and hides some behind. It is as if we are putting physical files on top of each other, and if we need a file, we just find it and take it out. The display of that brings it back to the top of all the files we are viewing on the desktop. In short, technology focuses on the fine details in our behaviors that we take for granted. It is actually heavily based on human psychology.

Moreover, this book raised readers’ awareness on technology and the elderly by mentioning some phenomena we witnessed in senior and poorer populations. Most younger generations grow up with technology. Metaphors used such as ‘browse’ or ‘desktop’ or ‘APP’ are almost inborn for us. We don’t take classes to learn what they mean; we just know when we encounter them after repeated exposures. But for many people, technologies are recent inventions and are hence unfamiliar to them. It is a new language for many. Sadly, it’s difficult to blend in with current society if you don’t have a smartphone or don’t know how to use it. I was at the airport the other day waiting for check-in, an old couple didn’t know how to use their phone to retrieve important information and the staff also didn’t know how to explain the procedures of using their phones in the easiest way. Therefore, the couple was not allowed to board. They felt angry at the end about how technology was not improving their life satisfaction at all.

We often say it’s okay, the elderly or the poor don’t need a cellphone, it’s not affecting their lives. But are we also implying that the elderly don’t have that long a time to live or the poor can’t afford one anyway, and it’s just okay to let them feel left out by the world? Time evolves so fast that we will also become the elderly within blinks, and how are we entitled to define ourselves as inclusive when we choose to ignore some populations that contributed to the technology we have right now? This makes readers like me ponder better designs for the elderly or the poor population who need an easier user experience.

One drawback of the book is its repetitive theme; to me, it seems like many ideas overlap with each other. However, the book is neat in its structure. Every chapter is dedicated to a theme of a user-friendly experience such as humanity or empathy. And it is easy to understand.

In conclusion, this book offers a new perspective to view technology design—a human-centric user-friendly design. It inspires readers to closely observe our everyday lives, actions, and behaviors; it invites us to ponder the limitations it has on marginalized populations as well. Moreover, it also sees the progress and failures throughout the world and tries to encourage more inspirations from all corners of the globe. Despite its repetitiveness, it is still an innovative inspiration for many rising designers who want to become the next Steve Jobs.

To read a selection from the book, please click here

Cliff Kuang is a design strategist at Google and veteran technology journalist at Fast Company and Wired. He has edited or written over 7000 articles on design. His writing has also appeared in New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek and The Economist.

Robert Fabricant is a co-founder of Dalberg’s Design Impact Group and former VP of Creative for Frog Design. He has worn many design awards.

 

Yifan Zhang currently studies psychology at New York University as a
sophomore. She interned as a clinical assistant in Zhang Shu Sheng Clinic
of Neurology last summer. She is passionate about music technology and social psychology, hoping to use music as a way to improve social relationships between people.

 

Kuang, C & Fabricant, R. (2019). User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work and play. New York, NY: MCD, Farrar. Straus and Giroux. ISBN:9780753556641.
Available in hardcover and eBook.
Hardcover. 405 pages. Includes references and index.

Photo Credits

Cell phone: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Room of people on computers: Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Airport Terminal: Chuttersnap on Unsplash