Book cover for User Friendly by Cliff Kuang, Robert Fabricant

User Friendly

by Cliff Kuang, Robert Fabricant



Just under 10 minutes into the 2017 upload of the “Mother of all Demos” on YouTube in 2017, a wave of irritation flickers across Douglas Engelbert’s face. “What the hell happened to that?” he mutters, almost inaudibly, as a thin smile and nervous giggle betray a moment of mild panic. It’s 1968 and he’s just started a presentation showcasing countless technological techniques that will echo for a half a century and beyond.

Engelbert is one of many characters covered in this fantastic book from Cliff Kuang – individuals obsessed with reorienting the world with visionary ideas of how technology should aid rather than abrade. The book avoids oblivious hero worship in favour of a global collection of stories.

With various stutters and beeps Engelbert finally wrangles his list into a quiet order. A breeze of relief leads way to a soft apology before he forges ahead to reveal the future.


Don Norman is probably most famous among designers for popularizing the idea of an affordance—physical details, designed in products, that tell us how they’re to be used, such at the subtle curve of a door handle that tells you which way to pull, to the indentation on a button that tells you where to push.


Navigate, browser, hyperlink, search engine.

It was explained to us all so slowly, over time. We learned what the web was by using it. Eventually, we didn’t didn’t the metaphors at all.

(As the design theorist Klaus Krippendorff writes, "Metaphors die in repeated use but leave behind the reality that they had languaged into being.)

But to those women in GP Block Pitampura, the internet had simply arrived one day, devoid of any explanation at all. No wonder it was baffling at best, even terrifying.


In the user-friendly world, beauty is a tool that transforms something that’s easy to use into something we want to use.

Beneath every product you see, there is a designer, sometimes a good one, whose fodder is an intuition about what you’ve seen before, what you might admire. “Beauty” is the word we use when a designer’s vision overlaps with our own.

Industrial Empathy

In 2018, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company analyzed more than 100,000 executive-level design decisions across three hundred publicly held companies those with robust design-thinking processes had 32 percent higher revenues than their peers over a five-year period, and 56 percent higher shareholder returns.

Disability as an Engine of Innovation

Perhaps you’re reading this book with your phone by your side, checking your email whenever your attention drifts, tapping text messages to a friend. You sit at the end of a long line of inventions that might never have existed but for people with disabilities: the keyboard on your phone, the telecommunications lines it connects with, the inner workings of email. In 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter so that his blind lover, Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzano, could write letters more legibly. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to support his work helping the deaf. And in 1972, Vint Cerf programmed the first email protocols for the nascent internet. He believed fervently in the power of electronic letters, because electronic messaging was the best way to communicate with his wife, who was deaf, while he was at work.

Perhaps one day someone will write a history of the internet in which that great series of tubes will emerge not as some miracle of technical progress meant to connect people faster and easier but rather a chain of inventions each meant to help more and more types of people to better communicate. But the most critical piece of the history will be this: Disability is so often an engine of innovation simple because humans will invent ways to satisfy their needs, no matter their limitations.

Design Leaders

In setting the Imagineers on a pedestal apart from operations, Walt had created a model common across countless companies today, in which innovation is viewed as a function owned by an anointed few, rather than an emergent property of the system.

Automation Paradox

As cognitive psychologists and human-factor researchers began inventing better and better solutions to hand off control between pilot and machine, they noticed a worrying dynamic: As planes became more automated, the pilots themselves were less and less practised in flying their planes …

The automation paradox suggests that as machines make things easier for us—as they take more friction from our daily life— they leave us less able to do things we once took for granted.


Rosenstein brought up the idea of a Hegelian dialectic— the idea that society creates a thesis that’s met with a reaction, then an antithesis that amends that prior paradigm, and finally a synthesis, which resolves the tension between the two.


As Michael Margolis, a user-experience partner at Google Ventures is fond of saying, “Treat your competitors as your first prototypes.” Take advantage of all the effort that some designers have put into their work and learn from it.

Other Sites

Jakob’s Law: “Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.”

Unfinished Tasks

In the 1920s, the Soviet psychiatrist Bluma Wulfovna Zeigarnik conducted a study in which she found that uncompleted tasks are easier to remember than successful ones, a discovery known as the Zeigarnik effect.