If you’re a fan of 99% Invisible and Stuff You Should Know, this book will scratch that ‘deeper than trivia’ itch to know more about how the world works. If you’re a user interface or user experience professional, it might also make you better at your job, which is a handy windfall gain. Either way, it provides a highly polished lens through which to view the designed world we encounter every day. Why does your smartphone give physical and audio feedback when you ‘press’ a ‘button’? Why do we ‘toggle switches’ and what’s with that elastic ‘bounce’ when we ‘swipe to refresh’? Why is it so deeply irritating when a website menu isn’t where you expect it to be, and why do you expect it to be there – and nowhere else but there – in the first place? (The short answer is that we’re all human; the long answer is ‘read the book’.)
If there’s one key message in User Friendly (WH Allen, 2019), it’s that design is power and the people designing our world have great power (and therefore great responsibility – you know the drill). They also examine how user-friendly design can be so effective that it becomes second nature and helps redefine the standards of good design (tech giants Apple and Amazon feature heavily here).
Destroying the idea that user-friendliness is a ‘nice to have’, Kuang and Fabricant investigate the worst that can happen when designers fail to prioritise it (key examples: a nuclear near-meltdown and death by autonomous vehicle). From the author’s perspective, the dopamine-hit feedback loop of the Facebook ‘like’ function really did change the way the world works. When machines are designed with user-friendliness in mind, there are far fewer injuries and deaths caused by operator error. When we click a button or speak to our digital assistant and nothing seems to happen, we go a little crazy – even if something did happen in the background. It’s all powerful, subliminal stuff.
As an afterword, Kuang and Fabricant present a detailed checklist (or a brief masterclass, depending how you view it) of how to design in a user-friendly way. This might feel a bit irrelevant if you’re not a designer, but their advice could be applied to countless different fields of work. After all, ‘Step 1. Start with the user’ is essentially the same as a writer or editor’s first step (who is the audience?) or a doctor’s (who is my patient?) or a teacher’s (who are my students?).
The book finishes with a summary timeline of user-friendly design and theory – a kind (i.e. user-friendly) feature considering the book itself flows according to logic rather than chronology. I can imagine a revised edition five years from now – and another every five years thereafter, as the technology of our designed world evolves – but the book as it stands is a great snapshot of where we are now, and the quite timeless explanation of how we got here.