#1 BookBites: User Friendly-How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant

Boshra Javaheri
11 min readFeb 11, 2021

This article is a part of a series of articles called BookBites (in collaboration with Tanishqa Bobde). These articles will include summaries, quotes, and/or meanings from the books we’ve read. They serve as catalysts for us to reflect on and deeper understand these books and to give bite-sized views into these books to other readers.

User friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play is written by Cliff Kuang, award-winning journalist and UX designer and founder of Co.Design, one of the world’s leading design publications, and Robert Fabricant, the former vice president of creative for Frog Design and an award-winning co-founder and partner at Dalberg Design.

The book tells a story of a user-friendly world's characteristics and design, how are these integrated into our daily lives. They are divided into two different sections: Easy to use and Easy to want, which both have other chapters. Each chapter raises critical questions its topic and, based on a product's story, elaborates the answer and demonstrates human and user's impact in designing procedure. The book describes how in different circumstances, we can look at incidents caused by “machine error” or“pilot error” to “designer error.” Besides many stories about the designs, products, and companies we know, there are people and companies introduced at different eras to demonstrate a more holistic context for the reader.

As Kuang describes it, “This book began with the century-long journey to find the “user” in “user friendly” — the history of how people have come to understand who people are, what they need, what they’ll use. In the early decades of user-centered design, this meant finding the principles that underlay how we expected the world to behave.”

The natural world is filled with feedback, in the man made world that feedback has to be designed.


Connecting the dots between the three island mills story, Don Norman, design, and cognitive psychology, it is concluded that humans might fail. Still, they are not wrong, and they have a kind of indelible logic behind their actions, even if the actions are stupid and strange. It makes perfect sense if we blame machines for everything that is happening wrong and believe that machines failed people. Still, It is the designers' responsibility to know why people behave as they do, learn the environment and understand that those failures are a result of how people sense the world around them and how they want the artifacts around them to behave. They are also responsible for the users' mental models(deep or shallow) by crafting the interfaces and feedbacks in front of them.

There may be no greater design challange for the 21 centruey than creating better, tighter feedback loops in places wehere they dont exist.


Driven by different stories around the questions like“what a product should be about, what kind of story it should tell to the consumer” to where Henry Dreyfuss turned the design question from what to make and how to make it into whom to make it for and establish the user place in the design process.

If all products were hand-made few of us could afford them. Therefore it is left for us to give the machine its proper place. If good designs are not available for the man in the street, the system which produces these designs must be undemocratic and wrong.” is a quote mentioned in the book from Richard Bach, the curator of industrial art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, that beautifully summarize this chapter.

In this design paradigm shift, designers' visions were the reason for setting two goals: modernizing how products looked and rethinking how they worked.

The machine had to be built for Homo sapiens to operate.


Learned from the number of people who died in World War and airplane crashes, through the lens of experimental psychology, the blame was not toward “pilot error,” but “designer error.”

Although human engineering (the idea of people are different and they may not be suitable to do any tasks given to them despite attending courses and training for it) was not so popular anymore, there was an assumption that operating a machine needs a human acting in an ideal way and the way that the engineers intended with no room for error. Studying war speeded up the process of shifting from human engineering to human-centered design and designing machines to fit better with the men.

“User-friendliness is simply the fit between the objects around us and the ways we behave. So while we might think that the user-friendly world is one of making user-friendly things, the bigger truth is that design doesn’t rely on artifacts. As my collaborator Robert Fabricant likes to say, it relies on our patterns of behavior. All the nuances of designing new products can be reduced to one of two basic strategies: either finding what causes us pain and trying to eliminate it, or reinforcing what we already do with a new object that makes it so easy it becomes second nature. The truest material for making new things isn’t aluminum or carbon fiber. It’s behavior.”

“We demand that new technologies do not only what they promise, but what we imagine. We also demand that they behave in the way we guess they will, without ever having used them before. But making that happen means that the machines must be designed so that our imaginations can’t get too far ahead of the machines. When they do, confusion reigns.”


There was an assumption about computers being tools like hammers, but passing time shows that we have a relationship with them; we have feelings before, while, and after using them or interacting with them. Clifford Nass believes “that our brains evolved to deal with two basic types of experience: the physical world and the social. Computers were a new hybrid of both; since their beginning, we had thought they belonged to the physical world. But because they responded to us, engaged us, aggravated and pleased us, we couldn’t help but see them as social actors.”

“For us to trust a machine, we have to be safe in the knowledge that it can sense what we want. But likewise, we have to be able to accurately imagine just what it is that the machine is capable of doing. We have to have the right mental model of it. ”

Metaphors will always be one of our most powerful entry points to the user-friendly world, possessing the singular ability to make the foreign feel familiar, providing us mental models for how things work.


By telling Interesting stories about Apple, Amazon, Ford, IBM circling around the metaphors they’ve got inspired by and used in their design, Kuang made his point about how important metaphors are, how they were an essential factor in human progress and how we can see them as an inspiration for our designs. He believes “not only can metaphors tell us how something should work, they can also become guides to what we’d like to create.

The book has a beautiful quote from Noah Harari on metaphors, “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution … There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.”

Design thinking, “user-centered design,” and user experience are all forms of industrialized empathy. These processes push for would-be innovators to immerse themselves in the lives of others, and they lie behind the products all around you.


The story of IDEO integrating industrial empathy in the design process made it a standard practice, spread it to boardrooms across the world, and helped the design world change its perspective by finding interesting problems than interesting solutions. Kuang assumes, “That influence spread only because IDEO created the vocabulary that others could use to sell the idea that “design” wasn’t just prettiness. Rather, it was a process of industrialized empathy — one that could be marketed, explained, circulated, repeated, and then spread.”

The most important problems to solve were those that weren’t being expressed. The most important questions to ask were those that people never thought to ask themselves.

Moreover, In this chapter, it was pointed out that it is necessary for designers to understand this discrepancy between how people were supposed to do use things and how they actually did use them.

Empathy, next to language and opposable thumbs, may be the most powerful tool that evolution has given us.


in this chapter, Kuang reasons for finding the best answer to the two main questions: “who the user is in user-friendly world” and “how to make technology so useful that it became invisible in our daily lives” and both answers circuits around humans and humane.

Also, by setting some examples, he points out that being more humane means considering all the users' spectrum not only the average person, with average need and expectations, which can lead the design to failure (not in a good way), in other words, if as a designer, want to make a better world include the needs of the ones on the edge of experience as well.

Both our behaviors and our mores are now material for design.


Disney and its Magic bands are the story of this chapter. The story of how and why its concept form. By setting out this example, Kuang puts the finger on the root of problems which we are witnessing nowadays in big companies and organizations, “The difficulties Disney saw in realizing its vision show why giant companies hoping to build the user-friendly world are reaching the limit of what they can create. It isn’t from a lack of design, technology, or vision; nor is it because we’re simply not ready. Rather, the difficulties lie in how the companies themselves are designed.

Disney magic band in different colors

In the era of countless options for everything, creating better memories is fundamental for a better experience. Moreover, “as the gadgets around us become more and more capable, they’ll need to become more polite, more socially aware. They’ll need to adopt better etiquette, and to do that; they’ll need to model our mores better. They’ll need to reflect a new way of designing that better model's human-to-human relationships rather than human-to-thing interactions. The next generation of design will become less about screens and things, and more about scripts and cues”, as Kuang writes.

“Market of one” is how John Padgett called the fact that despite the closeness brought by smartphones and connectivity, everything inside is personalized and customized for each one of us.

Where design was once concerned with knowing the user, the things we’ve created now try to understand us as individuals.

“Modern user experience is becoming a black box. This is an iron law of user-friendliness: The more seamless an experience is, the more opaque it becomes.”


Kuang states that “The most enduring businesses in the world have always been built upon addiction — alcohol, tobacco, drugs. The trick of the user-friendly world is that not only are we addicted, the drug doesn’t have to be bought. The drug lies in our own brains, hardwired there by evolution.

Throughout different examples and stories demonstrated in this chapter, the more interesting one(at least for me) was about B.J. Fogg and his class. He wonders: what made some of those(Facebook’s) games so irresistibly sticky? And then, as Kuang says, he “codified the principles in just three elements: motivation, trigger, and ability. Create a motivation, no matter how silly or trivial. Provide a trigger that lets a user state that motivation. Then make it easy to act upon it.

Whose choices are we making? is the core question of this chapter, which can be worrying.


This chapter’s main question is, How to design for individual happiness while aiming us all toward high ends what we can’t accomplish on our own. But research shows that FOMO-fear of missing out-that we get from social media makes us unhappy.

While the world has been changed by less need to create physical things, there are still lots of opportunities for design. Kuang believes “Design must now help us make decisions based not just on what’s easy to use, but on what we should be using in the first place.

Designers always grapple with their effects on society, but “today’s designers have to wrestle with that too, but also with a different concern. The effects their products have on society can be difficult to gauge because these effects are so wholly unpredictable and so utterly vast.” as Kuang states.


Kuang says, “It is Pollyannaish to think that design will solve the world’s problems. But it is self-evident that the methods of design will play a role in helping us understand, accept, and then make use of whatever solutions we’re able to create. In helping people understand their world better, in creating the incentives and feedback loops for us to achieve better things, user-friendliness will be an assumed part of whatever comes next. The paradox of design in the twenty-first century will be the same one we face in society.

“User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work and play” by Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant

My highlights of the book:

  • Feedbacks are the bones of our relationship with the world around us.
  • The easier our interaction with the technology becomes, the easier we consume things, and that can lead to consumerism. We should think twice and consider our environment in the process as well.
  • The greater challenge lies in making these technologies into something we trust, which happens when they mimic the way we come to trust other people. Moreover, the key for us, humans, to be comfortable with the future lies in mapping all the contextual nuances that we use without thinking.
  • It’s possible to be blinded by your own biases. You can know too much about yourself, so you don’t see the world clearly. You can fail to understand people well enough to know their real problems.
  • People say what they believe or want, not what is really happening, so research is.
  • Invisible technology in our daily life is the one that is integrated with our social fabric and helps us be more human.
  • If we want the machine to work in our world, we need to build machines that better adapt to humans.
  • Design and technology collaboration will be going in a direction that user environment is as important as the devices we are using in our daily lives.
  • The next generation of design will become less about screens and things and more about scripts and cues.
  • When technology gets laced into the fabric of everything, we demand that those technologies hew closer to our social mores and the expectations of polite society.
  • User-friendliness wrought a world in which making things easier to use morphed into making them usable without a second thought. That ease eventually morphed into making products more irresistible, even outright addicting.
  • User-friendly design is being applied to greater swaths of everyday life — and the design itself is coming to encompass things we hardly think of as design at all.
  • The things we make reflect the things we value. Those values can change.



Boshra Javaheri

Designer and researcher passionate about people, their experiences, emotions, and interactions with AI. Get to know me better @boshra.me