USER FRIENDLY by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant is a fun, easy-to-read overview of the history of industrial design and the field of user experience (UX) design.
The book argues that good design can be literally life or death. It opens by describing how the Three Mile Island nuclear accident was fundamentally an error of design, with a control room full of non-intuitive buttons and confusing on/off indicator lights.
A complicated control room panel is no big deal if you have time to look stuff up in a manual. But when there’s an emergency and people are performing under pressure? That’s when you need an object to be clear in its purpose.
In the case of Three Mile Island, the bad design of its control panel set its users up to fail. And a nuclear power plant is the last place you want to see any kind of failure.
The book traces a line through WWII airplane cockpits, department store toasters, and brings us up to the present day with user-friendly computers. I was happy to see that it also includes a warning about the dangers of algorithmic direction and the use of design to manipulate behavior rather than supplement or enhance it.
Fundamentally, it argues that design must care about people. It’s always astonishing to learn about the consequences of random design (Three Mile Island), or even the dangers of actively hostile design.
But it’s also a helpful reminder that while much of this stuff feels intuitive, it actually isn’t—every choice we make in immersive design about reducing friction or improving immersion is part of this long legacy.
“Feedback that works surrounds us every day, so we rarely think about it. It’s feedback that defines how a product behaves in response to what you want. It’s feedback that allows designers to communicate to their users in a language without words. Feedback is the keystone of the user-friendly world.”
USER FRIENDLY by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant
- Excerpt from USER FRIENDLY
- New York Times book review
- Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island