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Through User Friendly Eyes

An untold evolutionary theory
A review on User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play

by Cliff Kuang with Robert Fabricant

Fall 2021
Carnegie Mellon University | Design Minds Seminar, Jonathan Chapman

Well-researched and peppered with anecdotal context, User Friendly is an expansive narrative on the ontogeny of user-centered design. Kuang and Fabricant weave an elaborate tapestry in both scale and range, untangling a tale of circumstance, opportunity, and ideology from which the evolution of user- friendliness, as not only a principle but as a decisive paradigm, emerges.

User Friendly operates through series of tableaux, threading together a cast of notable characters as they move through defining milieu and motivations, self- reported or implied. This is where Kuang’s expertise as a journalist shines through, in the intricate connections extracted amongst personal histories, casual anecdotes, and intimate interviews. But the ambition of this model is also its downfall; rarely do we manage to dive deeper beyond cursory exploration before resurfacing to the next subject. Despite this, Kuang’s construction is conscientious and intentional. These interludes, though occasionally distracting and seemingly irrelevant at first, blend User Friendly’s larger themes effortlessly, and are crucial to maintaining an approachable, congenial tone.

Kuang manages to maintain a certain distance from the work, subtlety layering any subjectivity beneath the voices of a collective. Though User Friendly eventually moves beyond historic reporting, an explicit philosophy never fully materializes. This absence of a dominant voice provides freedom for readers to piece together their own conclusions, contributing to the work’s persuasion and charisma. These negative spaces rely on interaction and contribution from “users” to complete its form, reaching its true potential only upon engagement. In many ways, User Friendly models the very content it espouses– that of design as fluid, situated, and embodied, ultimately defined by how people react and respond to it.

The book is divided into two parts: Easy to Use and Easy to Want. This reflects a binary portrayal of the field, as one originally occupied with form expanding to consider a behavioral medium. Rather than approaching this evolution from an artifact perspective, perhaps an alternate framework can be considered, one that focuses on the progression of mindset and intention over time– from designing for humans, to designing for users, to designing for individuals, to designing for interactions.

Kuang continuously revisits the fundamental role of metaphor in our construction of the world. Extrapolating from the theory of embodied cognition, these fundamental, founding metaphors are often our most primal common language, rooted in the physical world and derived from the relationship between corporeal and mental, embodied and conceptual. Our reliance on embodied metaphor enables us to connect our ideas and lived experiences, to recruit our surroundings and expand not only our physical abilities, but our mental processes as well.

This spontaneity and improvisation is core to the human experience, allowing for the formation of new mental models and integrations- it is arguably what defines our resilience, what maintains our sense of autonomy, creativity, and purpose. If emotional and temporal associations are created from sensorial and spatial impressions, our experiences can be defined as the accumulation of associations formed. This is where User Friendly leaves us– at the inflection point between seamless convenience and assumptive predictions, and seamful*, contextual adaptation. Insisting on a linear, predictive world only fights the reality of a world in flux. A problem-solving, task-defined paradigm will always leave us chasing own our tails– even designed solutions can act as unwelcome catalysts for unseen reactants. By designing with interactions in mind, we can resolve this dissonance; craft consistent narratives through elicited impressions; and design alongside, not against, a dynamic and unpredictable world.

This will require reframing the user-friendly world though a new paradigm, rearranging or breaking our current assumptions in the process. If we accept that human need isn’t equivalent to convenient consumption*, what is it that we aim towards? When products have “shifted from being products to being a narrative”*, what makes that narrative rich and meaningful? Assuming a human- human interaction model*, an abstraction that synthesizes a range of User Friendly’s influences might take a literal approach. Upon adopting human relationships as an analogue, “friendly” assumes a vastly different connotation: that of what a true friend should be, what we expect of them, and what role they play in our lives. They don’t parrot empty assurances, enable every passing whim and self-destructive tendency, or invasively claim to know us better than we know ourselves– so “friendliness” is not condescendingly convenient, mindlessly predictive, or omnipotently invasive. The user-friendly paradigm in this sense is concerned with helping us fulfill higher-level goals; is mindfully values-oriented; is situated and contextual; and is not substitutive, but augmentative.

As designed artifacts become increasingly integrated with our lives, we trust them with more of ourselves. We imbue them not just with who we are, but who we want to be– our desires, obsessions, hopes, and fears. In turn, these artifacts shape alternate versions of ourselves, closing off or materializing desired futures. Design then has the potential to embody and manifest our higher values. Through this mindful exchange of values and visions, we can move towards a more genuine interface with the user-friendly world. User Friendly is a compelling read, filled with insights that help crystallize formerly nebulous connections. It delivers as advertised, shepherding its “users” through an organically unfolding story, and providing just enough space for us to examine our own assumptions on what user-friendly design is, what it isn’t, and what it should be.

References

Kuang, Cliff and Robert Fabricant. User friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play. New York: Picador, 2020.

Wendt, Thomas. “Critique of Human-Centered Design, or Decentering Design.” Presentation at the Interaction 17 Conference, School of Visual Arts, New York, February 7, 2017. www.slideshare.net/ThomasMWendt/ critque-of-humancentered-design-or-decentering-design.

Robinson, Howard, "Dualism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/ entries/dualism.

*Footnotes in order of appearance:
Adapted from Mark Weiser
Thomas Wendt via Kuang
Tim Brown via Kuang
Kat Holmes via Kuang

Participatory Design Project

Fall 2019
Cornell University | Designing Technology for Social Impact, Phoebe Sengers
The fourth of five major assignments examining and practicing value-based design methods

Overview

Collaborate to investigate a practices of an "expert" user, using embodied techniques to engage participants and lower barriers between user and designer.

Goals
  • Create and execute collaborative elicitation techniques that address the context and nature of the user's activity
  • Instantiate and document insights through collaborative design prototyping and sketching
  • Analyze decisions and articulate how the design reflects the user's specific expertise
  • Reflect on surprises and new realizations on behalf of both designer and user regarding the nature and potential of the activity


Excerpts from the experience report

...Since drawing as a form of artistic expression is inherently visual, physical, and hands-on, and carries so much individual variation with the artist, we agreed that the elicitation techniques enacted must at minimum engage both user and designer in the tangible act of drawing. We found that the initial attempt to translate each explanation into words was greatly assisted by an experiential, visual demonstration, both on my end in terms of ease and comfort, and Jordan in terms of comprehension. The inefficiency of our initial approach, in attempting to isolate discrete, procedural steps of the process, was immediately evident. Upon further reflection, we realized that this approach opposed the constructivist theory that participatory design is conceptually based upon, which “explicitly resists the notion that knowledge can be completely formalized and classified…(nor) decontextualized and broken into discrete tasks” (Spinuzzi 165).


This realization was an expression of Jordan’s attempt to optimize and simplify tasks for ready understanding. By altering our intended approach to Activity 1, we addressed a misconception on behalf of the designer, and improved the elicitation technique to reflect an understanding of knowledge as tacit, rather than explicit. This interpretation of knowledge as “implicit rather than explicit, holistic rather than bounded and systematized” is somewhat embedded in the act of drawing, a subjective art in which “people know without being able to articulate,” as Spinuzzi explains. We adapted the teaching activity by treating the process more intuitively, while maintaining some form of chronological organization and direction. In “bridging the worlds of research-designers and users by finding a common ‘language’ or mode of interaction in which both parties feel comfortable” (Spinuzzi 166) through the “language game” (Ehn, 17), a series of alterations and compromises on behalf of the designer allowed the user to have valuable input and agency.

Annotated design concept, featuring a mobile app interface, wearable prototype, and illustration of concept features 1) Plane recognition, 2) Tunnel vision, and 3) Obscurity.
Annotated concept prototype

Once the activities had been conducted and design prototyping began, we isolated and identified specific recorded parts during the drawing process both user and designer had expressed difficulty with. During our development of elicitation activities and design prototyping, we took care to adopt the tool perspective, which derives from “the development of professional education based on the skills of professionals” (Bodker et. al, 261), as represented during the mentor-student dynamics of Activity 1 between user and designer, which resulted in the improvement of user habits and perspectives in Activity 2. As we brainstormed the various features the design would implement, we decided on an effortless wearable that would enhance, but not obfuscate or belittle, the artist user’s ability and talent. Many previous concepts felt too restrictive or amateur- anything involving a tracing mechanism or ideal art style was rejected as not enhancing the user’s existing practices or respecting the user’s interpretation. In this way, our design process focused on “develop(ing) new tools that would support rather than disrupt” the work of a user, as emphasized by Spinuzzi (2005, p. 166).

Post-elicitation session

It was very important to me that the design maintain an artist’s integrity, and served not only to provide assistance with the act of drawing, but sparked changes in the way a user perceived their world. Jordan took this into account when suggesting technologies integrating the novel insight we had uncovered during the elicitation techniques- one of the features, “Tunnel Vision”, was actually a direct request from the user. I had expressed a desire to be able to “crop and zoom” in to specific areas of the subject effortlessly during my sketch in Activity 2, with the hope of isolating areas and capturing detail with more accuracy and ease. This setting was born from that request. We ended up designing an assistive wearable device capable of altering a user’s observation habits, even when not in use, becoming an extension of the artist on top of the “accumulated knowledge of tools and materials” (Bodker et. al, 261) they already possess.  

References

Bodker, S., P. Ehn, J. Kammersgaard, M. Kyng, and Y. Sundblad. 1987. A Utopian experience: On design of powerful computer-based tools for skilled graphical workers. In Computers and democracy—A Scandinavian challenge, ed. G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, and M. Kyng. Aldershot, England: UK, pp. 251-278.

Ehn, P. 1989. Work-oriented design of computer artifacts. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum Associates.

Spinuzzi, Clay, 2005. The Methodology of Participatory Design. Technical communication, 52 (2): pp 163-174.

Phoebe Sengers, INFO 4240: Designing Tech For Social Impact Lectures. 2019. Cornell University.

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