Top positive review
The Spirit of User Friendly Design
Reviewed in the United States on December 2, 2019
“Technology should become simpler over time. Then it should become simpler still, so that it disappears from notice.” We take it for granted - at least in consumer-grade products and services. Pampered by instant-gratification feedback loops, rushing through minimal interfaces, we are more and more accustomed to machines that “just work”. Cliff Huang and Robert Fabricant - with decades of user experience work under their belts - give us a fascinating story of how this idea of “user friendliness” was invented, how it evolved and what are the possible trends of the future. It is a journey through the most iconic events, companies and people defining the design field in the last hundred years.
I have found the most revealing how ease of use of equipment came to prominence only recently, despite the obvious (in hindsight?) proofs how catastrophic a bad design can be - be it a bomber plane, lawn mower or nuclear power station. It is difficult for people to change beliefs, the notion of “human error” lingered for far too long. By the same token, new products have to build upon contemporary mental models; if they are too dissimilar then almost nobody will adopt them. Early cars experimented with tillers, as they were familiar to people with boat-piloting experience (and nobody had experience with automobiles). Sometimes a product is released ahead of its time, failing not necessarily of technical shortcomings, but rather because nobody has experiences allowing to use it without friction, to recognize its metaphor.
Another eye-opener - as technology evolves to be simpler to use, it becomes invisible. Ultimately, the whole environment will anticipate, and seamlessly support, the needs of customers. The forefront of such changes lies in companies which have total control of their environments - like Disney in its parks, or Carnival with cruise ships. There, customer journeys can be designed end-to-end, with every component - sensors, wall screens, personnel training - engineered and controlled by a single organisation. However, with projects of such scale, seamless experience is threatened by the inability of large organisations to operate under a common vision. Politics, feuds between departments, distrust between teams - all of that shows in the finished product, as cracks in otherwise smooth experience. And once your customers notice the technology behind, the magic is gone.
The book is filled with many such lessons, particularly revealing for readers not educated in the design field. Some reviewers claim that it falls short of giving enough detail on how exactly designers work and how companies differ in methodologies. That may be true, but the authors’ intent is clear - to describe a high-level overview of many elements comprising the design craft. And I cannot state enough how enjoyable is their story. Highly recommended.