Book Review - User Friendly

Five takeaways from author Cliff Kuang

November 1, 2020


Feedback is key to the human-machine relationship. The user will learn how to use the machine through trial and error and the feedback notifies the user whether the trials are working.

Feedback informs the user what is happening, including what mode the machine is in and what data the machine is operating on. For example, a self-driving car should show the user whether it is in auto-pilot mode and whether it sees potential obstacles.

Feedback builds trust. It gives the user confidence that it understands what is happening. Crowdsourced feedback transforms services - consider eBay reviews replacing brand names and the Facebook like button driving content.

Feedback works both ways and machines adapt to the feedback they get from the user. This opens up the possibilities for personalization.

Feedback can also transform the user.   

Identifying Users and Problems

The history of industrial design is the history of identifying which problem to solve. The key to understanding problems is to identify and understand the user. Human behavior is the design material. Talking to people and understanding people is a creative act.

When solving problems consider whether solving for existing pain points or solving for issues that haven’t been considered. People often don’t know what they want or need.

Design is more than just products, it’s narrative. Personas approximate and personify a user. Put prototypes in front of users and learn from observing. Is the design for a typical person or a person on the fringe? Designing for people with disabilities is an important opportunity for innovation for all.  

Transforming Users

Professional users of machines are often trained to act like machines. Blame people for using machines wrong, and then teach them to think more mechanically and programmatically.

One way to solve this is to design so people don’t have to think. But then are we training people to use machines without agency and purpose - another version of the machine?

Meanwhile, machines are manipulating the user. Social media is providing variable rewards similar to the Skinner box. Manipulating our innate preoccupation with goals, it addresses our motivation and provides a trigger to encourage us to continue particular types of use.

Human personality has 5 traits (OCEAN): openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, neuroticism. Using someone’s feedback, such as social media likes, the machine can determine the user’s personality.

The more seamless the user experience, the more opaque the machine. “Userfriendliness avoids consequences by abstracting away any downstream impacts.”

Consider how and when does the machine show the user what is happening and give the user the key decisions to control the machine.  


Henry Ford assumed tastes, desires, wants were static. In 1926, GM introduced a variety of models, colors, and configurations and took much of the market share. GM gave consumer choice and personalization. 

Industrial design created notions of consumption as social progress and individualism through customized consumption.  


“Metaphor is like an instruction manual but better, because it teaches you how something should work without you ever having to be told.”

Consider mental models, expectations, metaphors of how the user thinks things should work. Faithful mimicry of the physical world makes it easier to understand. Consider the metaphor of desktop computer vs app store vs chat app. In China, the voice is the key interface with the phone, instead of the desktop metaphor. The chat interface is more dominant than the app store.

Metaphors can be used to teach people to use new technology, but technology can outgrow the original metaphor. 

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