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

Image of User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play
Release Date: 
November 4, 2019
MCD Books
Reviewed by: 

User Friendly offers a wild, eye opening ride through the evolution of the psychological perceptions and unfathomable applications of technology.”

There is a reason why some things just seem to work, to function in a way that makes sense, to seamlessly happen at the touch of a button or the flip of a switch: because it was designed to happen that way. Things weren’t always so intuitive, and really, many things still are not. User Friendly explains how a sensitivity to the human-technology interaction came about through trial and error as well as through a deliberate awareness of what technology’s role in our world should be.

With a snappy tone and a desire to get to the bottom of some burning questions, Kuang’s research is clear and direct as he tells the stories of many a catastrophe and the subsequent investigations; of wide-spread problems and the discovery of solutions. It’s almost incredible that the culprit (or the hero) in all of these situations was design!

Examples track from the WWII crashes of B-17s initially attributed to “pilot error,” to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown, to the deadly download of a 2014 Tesla Model S autopilot “feature.” Disney, Honeywell, AT&T, Dyson, OXO, all made profits off of designing new systems, products, or services. Ones that offered more desirable responses, or “feedback,” to the humans who were operating them.

This notion of “feedback” then carries a heavy weight. There is a certain expectation that people will accept what the machine is telling them. But much of this information is culturally derived and based on a common understanding of a prior learned behavior. This is where the “user” and the “friendly” need to be defined. Who is the “user” and what is their definition of “friendly”?

Kuang considers several fundamental dynamics of the relationship between humans and machines. Over the decades people have shifted from believing that people need to be trained to think like a machine to instead demanding that a machine think like a person. Machines were once built to achieve a certain function and then designed around that function (form follows function). Today machines are expected to extract an emotion, a satisfaction, a relationship with humans and the design has taken a turn (form follows emotion).

Building more and more goods to be better and better, new and improved, was the old paradigm of technological progress. Today’s products are expected to deliver a “user experience” and adapt to a person’s habits on the fly and to do so in a polite and socially acceptable manner. We want our technology to be charming and handsome, not just practical or utilitarian. So charming, in fact, that they become irresistible, even addictive. Of course this, too, is by design.

Unintended consequences are a huge issue in designing future technologies. We want our technologies to think for us and anticipate our needs. Soon enough though, there will be no need for humans to do anything for themselves and we will then demand our technologies launch us to “higher goals.” What companies like Facebook or Apple are getting at with app integration and voice recognition interactive assistants. Although what these “higher goals” are is infinitely debatable.

Designing around a user experience is anything but obvious. No two users are alike. And this seems to be the direction that technology is taking: customization. Beyond simply deciding on what wallpaper you want behind your collection of app icons, the goal is to have technology calculate the inner workings of our relationships with the people in our contact lists and make arrangements by learning our mostly predictable behaviors. We want our technology to sense when we are cold and adjust the temperature; to know when we are out of eggs, milk, and butter, and order groceries on demand; to know the difference between a conversation with our spouse versus a conversation with our parent. Is this the “higher goal” that we are searching for?

Far too much information is “hidden” in the algorithms of design. If the past disasters (Three Mile Island!!) are any indication of the power of technology, then the future of technology is downright terrifying. While Kuang and Fabricant do a fine job in addressing how technology got where it is today, they don’t make a peep about how we can use design to mitigate against the broad, sneaky, creeping infiltration that threatens our very identities. If anything, this book sounds an alarm for what design training programs need to be proactively including.

Solving one problem with a machine opens a host of other issues and paradigm altering situations. On the one hand, this book is really pretty cool. But on the other hand there is an unsettling awareness of what is silently festering beneath the surface. User Friendly offers a wild, eye opening ride through the evolution of the psychological perceptions and unfathomable applications of technology. Everything from lawn mowers to health care to the internet is fair game, nothing is immune to the unrestrained impact of technology—hidden rules, indeed.