User Friendly: Book Overview & Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "User Friendly" by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the book User Friendly about? What are the main takeaways of the book?

In User Friendly, Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant argue that we must shift how companies apply user-friendly design principles to ensure that technology reflects the values of consumers. It’s also important so people don’t stay glued to their screens.

Read below for a brief User Friendly book overview.

User Friendly by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant

We live in an age where sophisticated technologies are increasingly pervasive: In the US, people interact with smart watches while out for a jog and hand over mobile tablets to children who can operate them with ease. User interfaces are so intuitive and streamlined that we don’t need a manual to figure out how every mobile application on a smartphone works or how to use a new laptop. But what is it about specific technologies that allows them to integrate seamlessly into our day-to-day lives, and how did user-friendliness become the bedrock of innovation? 

In the User Friendly book, published in 2019, Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant explore the evolution of user-friendly design—how the concept emerged from the feminist movement in the 1920s, how it has morphed into the highly personalized and addictive forms of technology that we have today, and how it might be leveraged to improve human well-being in the future. 

Kuang is a user experience designer at Google. He has also been a journalist and editor for magazines such as Fast Company and Wired, writing on topics intersecting technology, design, business, and culture. Fabricant co-founded Dalberg Design, a global firm that focuses on social impact through human-centered design (a design process that prioritizes the end-user). He has also worked with companies such as Frog Design and Praekelt on user experience design for mobile platforms. 

Kuang and Fabricant argue that because so many people rely on technologies for work, entertainment, and connecting with one another, it’s more important than ever that people understand the design principles behind their gadgets to become better-informed consumers. With massive amounts of user data at tech companies’ disposal, engineers can design products that become addictive and inherently not user-friendly.

Components of User-Friendly Design

First, what exactly does user-friendly and human-centered design mean? What criteria are user experience designers thinking about when they invent a new gadget, and what makes products appealing and intuitive to consumers? 

Cliff and Fabricant explain that user-friendly products must prioritize the needs of the user, have a mental model or underlying metaphor that makes them easily navigable, and for more advanced technologies like computers—they should mirror human values in the way they interact with us. In the rest of this section, we’ll dive deeper into each of these qualities and how they show up in everyday products. 

Addresses User Needs

The first key quality of a user-friendly device is something that fundamentally makes the user’s life easier. Kuang and Fabricant contend that it’s not enough for a product to simply look nice—it must also be something that people are motivated to use.

Kuang and Fabricant write that product designers have to be tuned into the needs and desires of others without being limited by their own experience of the world. Therefore, it’s important that good user experience designers observe behavioral patterns and empathize with users’ experience to come up with ideas. For example, if you were trying to come up with a new idea for a kitchen gadget, you might observe many different kinds of people cooking and notice at what points people tend to get frustrated or what tasks are particularly tedious. Then, by empathizing with users, you can gain insight into how to make the user experience better. 

Kuang and Fabricant claim that inconveniences that users experience—what the authors call “frictions”—are opportunities to make tangible improvements in people’s lives. For instance, the immersion blender (a handheld device that purées food in a pot or bowl) is appealing to consumers because it eliminates the need to wait for a hot soup to cool down, transfer it to a blender, blend it, then transfer it to another container again. It reduces the number of steps to complete a task, and it’s also easier to clean than a traditional blender. 

Kuang and Fabricant write that focusing on physical or cognitive disabilities can also be a good source of inspiration for user-friendly innovations that will be widely appreciated. 

An example of this is the origin story for the thick, rubbery handles on vegetable peelers designed by the company OXO. The company’s founder, Sam Farber, claims that the design was inspired by his wife, whose arthritis prevented her from using traditional, narrow, metal-handled peelers. By designing a peeler that was more user-friendly for people with arthritis (because it’s broader and made of a material that’s easier to grip), the company created a product that was more comfortable for everyone to use.

Has a Good Mental Model

According to Kuang and Fabricant, another quality that is central to human-centered design is a good mental model—a metaphor or framework that helps people conceptualize how a product should work. An effective mental model makes a product easily navigable so that the user intuitively understands how to use it without much training or instruction. 

For example, on many websites with user profiles, like a bank website or an online application platform, there’s a “dashboard” page. The term dashboard automatically brings to mind the commonly understood concept of a car dashboard: the place you check to find information about the status of the car, trip mileage, and notifications of anything going wrong. By using the car dashboard as a mental model, website designers signal to users that they should use the online dashboard as a primary point of reference. 

Provides Useful Feedback

The next key component of user-friendly design that Kuang and Fabricant describe is feedback: a way of confirming with the user that an action was performed or that a product is doing what they want it to. Feedback might include things like a light that indicates when something’s been turned on or a beeping sound that accompanies the press of a button. Although these design components might seem like minor details, the authors assert that a lack of timely and specific feedback in a technology can have serious consequences. 

For example, if a car only had one alarm sound that indicates that something’s malfunctioning, people would have no idea how to begin troubleshooting the problem or how urgent or dangerous the problem is. It would take a long time to figure out whether the alarm was referring to low windshield wiper fluid or an impending breakdown. Instead, modern cars give us more targeted feedback about what’s going on—like a specific alarm and symbol indicating that someone doesn’t have their seatbelt on, lights that indicate what gear the car is in, and a flashing “check engine” light that indicates a serious mechanical problem. 

Mirrors Human Qualities

The last characteristic of user-friendly products applies primarily to technologies such as computers and other smart devices. Kuang and Fabricant write that people generally want computers to mirror the qualities they expect in humans. These include attributes like transparency, politeness, and learning our specific needs over time. 

For example, it wouldn’t be socially acceptable for someone else to read our personal emails without permission, and people find it similarly invasive when their computer’s internet browser appears to be collecting data on them without their permission. 

In addition, even if people are aware that an AI assistant is a robot, they prefer that the AI assistant mimic natural, conversational language such as “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you repeat it?” instead of something more direct like “Repeat your request.” 

Kuang and Fabricant explain that people also appreciate when their friends learn their specific preferences over time, such as remembering to wish them a happy birthday and remembering whether or not they like to receive gifts. Likewise, people generally appreciate when technologies adapt to their individual needs—for example, when Google Docs “notices” that you open a certain document every morning and makes it more easily accessible without you asking. 

The Evolution of User-Friendly Design

Now that we’ve explained what makes a product user-friendly, we’ll explore the history of the user experience profession in the US and how it has evolved over the years. Kuang and Fabricant trace the roots of this field to three key historical periods: the rise of industrial design for household products during the 1920s, the increase in demand for user-friendly military devices during World War II, and the Silicon Valley technology boom starting in the 1970s. 

The Birth of Industrial Design

Kuang and Fabricant write that the 1920s in the US was when manufacturers first showed a stronger interest in ergonomics, which emphasizes efficiency and ease of use rather than making decorative items without significant updates to their functionality. Women in the US had just gained the right to vote in 1919, and at the advent of what’s called first-wave feminism, there was suddenly a huge demand for kitchen gadgetry that would reduce the amount of time women had to spend doing domestic work

This rising demand among women for useful household products linked business interests (the need to sell products and expand their market) with social progress and product design. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the low income in the general population gave manufacturers even more incentive to make innovative products that would motivate people to buy non-essential items like an updated dishwasher. 

World War II Stimulates User-Friendly Innovation

Kuang and Fabricant write that the next phase of user-friendly design stemmed from a new market demand during World War II: the need for complex machines that soldiers could operate in high-stakes conditions. The authors explain that when engineers developed new technologies like radars and fighter planes, they quickly realized that they needed to tailor the designs to human limitations. They had to make it as easy as possible for many different people to use the technology with minimal training. If it was easy for someone to accidentally push the wrong button while they were operating a machine, engineers started to think of this as a design error rather than a user error. 

Kuang and Fabricant assert that in this context, the user-friendly design elements discussed in the previous section (like the mental model and appropriate feedback) became an issue of life or death. People needed to be able to operate machines or fly a plane even in a high-stress combat scenario with plenty of distractions. The authors explain that it was important for people to understand whether a device was functioning well, and they needed consistency in things like control panel layouts and indicator colors so that the device’s operation was intuitive. 

For example, a walkie-talkie radio should be easy to hold in one hand, and the press-to-talk mechanism to turn on the speaking microphone should be easy to reach and be located in the same place across devices. This simple design consideration enables people to quickly grab it, locate the button, and communicate without scrambling to find the right button and wasting precious time. 

Silicon Valley Boom

Kuang and Fabricant write that the third major expansion of the user design industry occurred in a very different context: the rapid expansion of the tech industry in Silicon Valley in California during the 1970s and ’80s. During this period, engineers at IBM and Apple created the first user-friendly personal computers. 

The authors explain that to make these devices accessible for the average user, designers drew on mental models in the physical world: the digital desktop—where you can lay out your work in front of you and see folders to organize digital files, the hand symbol to grab and select items, and the recycling bin or trash icon for deleting things. These metaphors, and other digital design elements like drop-down menus and windows, played a major role in shaping user-friendly technologies, and they’re ubiquitous to this day. 

Negative Consequences of User-Friendliness

Now that we’ve described the evolution of user-friendly design over the last century, we’ll dive into Kuang and Fabricant’s description of the current state of user-friendly technologies: The authors contend that user-friendly design principles have contributed to widespread addiction to social media, websites, and mobile apps. 

Kuang and Fabricant argue that rather than prioritizing making digital platforms easy to use, developers now leverage behavioral psychology to encourage users to spend more time engaging with their products. The “like” button (invented by Facebook) illustrates how an addiction to this feedback mechanism—combined with the profit motive of companies—has cascading negative effects on users’ mental health, interpersonal relationships, and the quality and type of information they’re exposed to online.

Kuang and Fabricant assert that trends like this illustrate a fundamental shift away from user-experience designers helping consumers by making life easier and instead taking advantage of consumers’ primal impulses. 

The Impact of a User-Friendly “Like” Button

Kuang and Fabricant explain that the “like” button started as a simple feedback mechanism to affirm other people’s posts without having to type repetitive, straightforward comments such as “Congratulations!” Although it was initially intended as a convenient, user-friendly button, people quickly began to perceive their self-worth in terms of the “likes” they received on a post

The authors explain that because users experience a burst of dopamine (a brain chemical that makes people feel good) when they get “likes,” they develop a compulsive need to feel affirmed by maximizing their “likes.” In addition, people are more motivated to act (by liking or commenting) on negative and incendiary posts, so users are incentivized to post more radical content. Kuang and Fabricant suggest that in the real world, we’re more likely to tone down our opinions to avoid social backlash from the people around us; however, since it’s easier online to connect with like-minded people who will affirm our beliefs, these conditions increase our natural tendency toward tribalism—an “us vs. them” mentality

Kuang and Fabricant also assert that the Facebook algorithm specifically boosts the visibility of controversial and polarizing posts to increase user engagement—even if the post includes offensive or false information. Unlike earlier forms of user-friendly products that were intended to save people time, websites and apps profit from people spending more time on them and viewing more advertisements. And as people spend more time on a platform, the company accumulates more data that allows them to accurately predict what kind of content will keep users engaged. Kuang and Fabricant write that this results in greater exposure to misinformation, increased social strife, and an unhealthy addiction to technology. 

Making Technology More Humane

Kuang and Fabricant’s discussion of the harmful effects of modern technology leads to what they argue is the central challenge of user-friendly design moving forward: How can we use technology to genuinely improve society and enhance people’s lives? The authors provide two main recommendations to achieve this vision of a user-friendly world: Streamline many of the gadgets in people’s lives and design technologies that adhere to users’ values.

Consolidating Personal Gadgetry

Kuang and Fabricant point out a major limitation of the smart gadgets that have become commonplace in the US: the sheer number of applications and devices people switch between as they go about their day. The authors write that this is partly because companies want to maximize the products they sell and also because of people’s mental models about how technology should work. 

For example, Kuang and Fabricant assert that Americans have internalized the idea that there’s a single app for everything—even dozens of apps to choose from that do the same thing. Their mental model of smartphones includes app stores where they can browse through different options and individual icons that they locate to do specific tasks.

Kuang and Fabricant suggest that to achieve one of the original goals of user experience designers—to save consumers time and energy—engineers should consolidate digital products into streamlined processes. The authors argue that to achieve this, we should be able to accomplish tasks in fewer steps and in one centralized place

In a more user-friendly digital world, the authors suggest that if you wanted to schedule a meeting with your coworkers, you could make a single request to your personal device, which would then contact others to confirm a time and agenda, reserve a meeting location, and update your calendar. Kuang and Fabricant’s idea is similar to getting rid of multiple remotes for a cable TV, satellite TV, DVD player, and sound system, and replacing them with one universal remote instead. 

Designing Technology That Reflects Users’ Values

Kuang and Fabricant write that another strategy to create a user-friendly future is to design technologies that reflect society’s values. To return to the previous ideals of the user experience design industry—like when consumer products were linked to social progress in the 1920s—companies must prioritize the users’ specific goals: things like productivity, creative expression, improved health, more equitable access to services and information, and more meaningful social connections.

The authors assert that the basic principles of user-friendly design can be adapted in infinite ways to better people’s lives. For example, developing more advanced telehealth—accessing health services remotely using a cell phone or other device—could help make health care more equitable and affordable for people living in rural areas. In terms of social networks, Kuang and Fabricant suggest that social media could be re-envisioned to foster connections while allowing users to maintain their autonomy over their attention and mental well-being.

User Friendly: Book Overview & Takeaways

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant's "User Friendly" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full User Friendly summary:

  • A look at the evolution of user-friendly design, from the 1920s to today
  • How excessive user-friendliness is causing a technology addiction
  • How user-friendliness can be used to reflect the values of customers instead

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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