Friction is introspection: How did the iPhone come to feel like an intuitive thing to use? This week on Track Changes Paul and Rich sit down with UX designer Cliff Kuang and co-founder of Dalberg Design Robert Fabricant to talk about their new book User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work and play. We discuss the history of the concept and how it’s become something that we demand yet often take for granted. We also chat about the greater paradigm shift that led to the popularity of user experience design and about why we should maybe start to question the view that ease equals progress.
- User Friendly - Penguin Books
- Dalberg Design
- Frog Design
- Paul Rand - Wikipedia
- Carbon Design System
- Plex - Google Fonts
- Three Mile Island
- Raymond Loewy - Wikipedia
- Marvin Minsky - Wikipedia
- Doug Englebart - Wikipedia
- Health Kit - Apple
- The Softbank Effect: How 100 Billion Left Workers in a Hole - New York Times
Rich Ziade I wanna recommend—or suggest frustrationful packaging.
Paul Ford Yeah, that’s right, like, stuff that’s hard to open.
RZ Harder to open—
PF No, no, and from now on, the app stores, you have to click 25 times [Rich laughs] to buy anything [music plays alone for 14 seconds, ramps down]. Hey Rich?
RZ Yes Paul?
PF I’m gonna tell you something: sometimes I’m not excited about the user. I know I’m not supposed ever, ever say that. I know that that is against the rules of our industry; that the user is the most important human who’s ever lived. And that when they [music fades out] open up the software that we built they have to feeling of joy that is akin to seeing a child be born . . . in order to update the CRM [Rich exhales sharply] or write an email. That’s our job.
PF But don’t you ever sometimes just think of the user as a monsterish vampire that’s trying to eat all of your time and destroy your life? Or is that me?
RZ No, I know what you’re saying. I know what you’re saying: it’s the elusive user. I get it.
PF Especially when there’s like a million of them.
RZ That’s why we’re not the experts here . . . on user friendliness, Paul. We’ve got two guests with us today that are gonna talk to us about—I’m just gonna say the words user friendly.
PF Welcome to Track Changes, Robert Fabricant and Cliff Kuang.
Cliff Kuang Thank you.
PF So thank you both for coming on here. The book is called User Friendly. Give me the subtitle of the book.
CK How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play.
PF Ok, so, wait: Cliff is a UX designer at a—let’s just say a very big company.
PF A very big, well known, like internet-y company that you know about.
PF But one that—but this isn’t about that company, so we’re not gonna tie [no] those worlds together.
RZ Robert is co-founder and partner at Dalberg Design, formerly a VP of design at Frog. Is that current, Robert?
Robert Fabricant Yup.
RZ Great. Well, let me guess how you met: you were both eating slivers of salmon on crackers at a design conference.
CK [Chuckling] Probably something close to that. I don’t remember—we met a long time ago. It was probably, like, 15—ten or 15 years ago at this point.
RZ Ok, so you’ve known each other for a long time and you’ve co-written a book. Tell us about this book.
CK So, the book is called User Friendly and it’s meant to be kind of a cultural biography of that idea, right? Where did that idea come from? And, you know, more than just being a history, it’s also a contemporary story about how that idea shapes the lives that we live now.
RZ When you say the idea you mean ‘user friendly’.
RZ The phrase—which is just tossed around very commonly.
CK And that’s really what spurred the creation of the book, right? I think that, you know, what was it like six years ago? Robert came to me and was like, “Nobody’s really written about this idea that user experience is this mainstream subject that everybody needs to care about because it’s so much in—woven into our lives, right?” And then in particular, Robert posed the question like, “Maybe we could call it User Friendly?” And then I think at that point, I think, a lot of things clicked into my head. Namely, nobody knows the story of how that idea even came to be. Was it inevitable?
RZ Mm hmm.
CK Was it contingent? And if it was contingent, how did come to be—how did it come to pass? How’d it come to be ubiquitous and something that—you know, if you know one idea about what designing interfaces or designing products today is, like, the one thing that your grandmother might say is that something is or is not user friendly. And I think that in the path towards writing that book, it just really became clear how loaded that turn is; how much history it had to travel; how many millions of lives passed to make that concept into a household one.
RZ Is it a bit of history? I mean is the book kind of taking us back to the origins here?
CK Yeah, I’d say the book is about 50% history and 50% contemporary, right? Like, what the book tries to do is two things, which is connect the present moment to all these sorts of moments in the past that we’ve forgotten about, and paint the tapestry of how it is that we came to live in the world that we live now, and, also, it tries to paint forward the picture of what’s going to change, and how the enduring principles of design might actually—what insight they might have to offer about what the world is going to be like in the coming years.
RZ Do you cover the etymology of this phrase, ‘user friendly’? In the book? Like is that known or is it too murky?
RF You know, I think that one of the early triumphs of Cliff’s work was getting right to the etymology and not just kind of the first, at least, documented use of it, within the context of IBM in the eighties but the actual individual character, and it’s right in the intro to the story [oh cool]. And it’s just a brilliant piece.
RZ Is it a spoiler? Can I ask who it is? Do you wanna tell that story?
CK It’s not a spoiler. It’s um—I saw a reference to one of the first printed uses of the word ‘user friendly’. And it turns out that it’s this guy that lives within earshot of the new Apple campus, that big spaceship looking building.
RZ Oh really?
CK And he sort of hears those trucks every day, like backing up, pushing dirt around the construction site as that place was being built. And really like the reason the book opens up with him is that how could you find a more appropriate sort of [Rich chortles], you know, metaphor for what this world is, right? Apple, the company that made trillions of dollars off iPhones and all these kinds of things that were absolutely associated in the minds of people with user friendliness, you know, the guy that first put that into a computer science journal lives a stone’s throw away.
RZ Not an employee of Apple.
CK Not an employee. So he was a computer engineer in the 1970s. And it occurred to him at the time, you know, he was writing a bunch of optimization software for logistics, and he was working for IBM. And, you know, it occurred to him, “Oh, well, we write all our results in all these papers but we don’t have any sense about whether or not the results would be easy to reproduce.” And he proposed this idea of gauging how quote/unquote “user friendly” a piece of software was.
CK And putting that into the criteria for which a finding in a computer science journal would be published, right? And so the reason that’s interesting though is that he was part of this first generation that was able to see like the sort of results of what they were doing on a computer in real time, on these like wonky cathode-ray screens [sure]. Fast forward just 15 years later, that word ‘user friendliness’, thanks to Apple, thanks to the Macintosh, and thanks to numerous other things, starts working its way out into the world. So it’s this idea that somebody gives a name to. He doesn’t say that he was the first to use it but he is the first to refer to a piece of computer software [mm hmm] as user friendly, but it matastisizes with just lightning speed, right?
RZ Is that true? Cuz oftentimes, the origin happens, it sorta sits in this sorta dormant state for awhile and then catches later.
CK Consider this: he writes that in a journal, very obscure computer science journal, like, 1972, I think it is. And so it’s like 12 years later that you have Apple basically saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice for a computer to be designed for the rest of us with people in mind?” And the fact that that happened so fast can either tell you two things: it can tell you this idea was so powerful that it just took over the world; or it can tell you it was a slower burn. The ground was being sown for a long time to make that [yup] just catch fire. And that’s the story that begins the book.
RF You know one of the interesting counterpoints—and it kinda reflects on, I think, the shift that we’re trying to create for the reader in understanding what design’s all about. Cuz IBM had invested in Paul Rand and Saarinen and some of the top designers of its time. But the whole idea of user friendliness was not something that IBM at all understood or took into its core in any way. It took somebody else and a different way of thinking about design for that to be become suffused. Again, whether it happened quickly or slowly is subject to interpretation but it’s not that IBM doesn’t see itself as a designer-y company, it’s just the wrong kind of design.
PF Let’s be—I mean, straight up though: IBM’s always had really, really interesting design going on. One of their most recent things is a big design system called Carbon and a font family called Plex that is one of my favorite designer affects of the last couple of years.
RZ I think this is a question worth asking: IBM and design—or actually, a lot of big organizations that aren’t ground-up, founded on design thinking and design principles, want to be really respected and recognized as good design thinkers and—
CK Well I think that—So, Paul, the design system that you were referencing, I mean that is not something that happened at IBM through a genealogy of caring about design. I mean—
PF No, no, fair enough. Fair enough.
CK You know, for the last 20 years they maybe lost their way, right? They lost sight of what distinguishes companies in the market, and eventually somebody had the idea that, “Oh! It’s design that distinguishes us in the market, and we have to get right by this, right?”
PF Mm hmm.
CK And so they made this very gonzo concerted push to become the single biggest employer of designers in the world. Right?
RZ Is that true? Is that—
RZ—an explicit mandate they had—they put out?
PF Ah! Who doesn’t wanna be hired to be part of the largest group in the world? [Rich laughing] What’s better than being on like a soccer team with 800 players? [Laughter] That just sounds great.
RF You know, coming back to something that Cliff often talks about which is a Copernican shift that happened. That has happened in the world that IBM lives in, which is they used to sell to corporations and they used to sell to IT buyers. These weren’t the users of their product, and what happened is the users of their product went rogue. They started using their own tools, Gmail, Slack, and other things. And IBM started to realize they could no longer create a value proposition for these organizations, unless the users of their tools, not just the buyers, dug it. Coming back to the point you made right at the beginning, they felt like it was, you know, the birth of their first born, maybe not quite that good but [mm hmm], you know, there was a built up kind of set of calluses and, you know, scars that we all had built up from using these enterprise tools. They were brought in kicking and screaming. The good news is that they did commit to training 20,000 people, and trying to make this enterprise wide. You know, how successful they’ve been at it is gonna take a long time to emerge through that kind of a portfolio, it’s not gonna show up all at once in the same way.
PF Thematically, there’s something really complicated going on here, right? Which is that for the last 20 years or so, the things that were creeping into the enterprise were things like Linux. Like just these sort of like somewhat, sometimes sloppily assembled random open source or whatever projects that just were more convenient and got the work done and sometimes looked better but they were accessible and you didn’t have to beg someone to use them. The things that are now terrifying everybody are actually enterprise products that are well structured, right? Like Gmail and Slack and so on, these are good products that hire lots of designers inside of giant enterprise organizations.
RZ I would even put forward the very, like, extremely enterprise products: the CRM products, the more sort of acronym driven products are even starting to think, “Oh my God, we better get design right.” I feel like that’s, to me, user friendly, I still associate with the consumer. I mean I haven’t read the book but that’s how I think about user friendly, but big consulting has latched onto the big—
PF Well walk us a little bit from the seventies to now. Like, what is user friendly today, actually?
CK Well, so let me actually—I think there’s two basic strands, and the book actually begins much earlier than the 1970s, the book actually begins in Three Mile Island [mm hmm] and the near meltdown of the Eastern Seaboard, and then point that I make there is that basically there were all these principles that were known about why things work in the minds of users. Every single one of which seems to have been ignored. And what that shows you is the stakes, right? And so my point with starting with Three Mile Island is that everything that went wrong is something that goes right on your iPhone. So, there’s this idea that these principles that were once, like, sort of so obscure that an engineer making life and death decisions couldn’t be bothered to learn them have now become currency in many, many industries, and have become determinative of their success, right? And so the book talks about two strands, in the idea of user friendliness, one is the idea that you defer to the user. And that’s not an obvious thing. I’ll say a little bit why that’s not obvious. And the second is that there’s this idea that ease equals progress. That saving people time is somehow tied to some greater good; that there’s a moral value to saving people time and making [mm hmm] their lives easier. Those two things are totally contingent. So, in the case of the former, deferring to the user, I talk about in the book about how this idea really began in World War II with airplane crashes. Basically, people unable to figure out why were all these planes crashing and not performing as the engineers had promised they would. And it turns out, the cockpits of these airplanes were hopelessly confusing. Basically, the landing gear and the wing flaps were exactly the same. They were actuated in the same way [hmm]. The knobs felt the same way. And so the point with that was that like nobody had thought like, “What is it like to fly one of those planes in the dark? When you’re stressed? When you’re tired? When you’re coming back from a bombing run?” [Mm hmm] When conditions are not ideal, right? And what that creates is the psychologists start to understand what’s going on there is this idea like, “Oh. We can’t train our way out of this. We can’t assume that somebody’s going to become the ideal user with just one more training module about how to fly this B17,” right? Instead we actually have to conceptually change how we think about designing these things, which is we have to assume the user is shortsighted; doesn’t have a great attention span; maybe can’t see that well—there’s all these limitations of the real world that we have to account for. And that is not something that we should pity in the user. That’s something that we should actually accept and praise. And therefore, the conversation has to become shifted around the limitations of what it is to be human, not the perfectibility of humans. And that is a massive paradigm shift, I would argue akin to the Copernican shift that actually put human beings and humanism at the center of the world, right? It’s on that scale. And then the second thing that happens is like in the 1920s, going into the 1930s, is that there’s all this demand. There’s this complete die off of demand in world economies and people are looking for an answer, like, “How do we figure our way out of this?” Right? And so there becomes born this idea of consumption engineering; basically, how do you engineer desire on the part of a consumer? And there’s a group of ad guys, people like William [actually Walter] Dorwin Teague and Raymond Loewy who were basically like, “Well, we don’t wanna design the ads just selling some crap that somebody else made. We wanna make the thing.”
CK [Continued] And it wasn’t ever anybody’s job other than an engineer to make the thing. And this idea that somebody stood between the end user and the engineer, and that person could be called a quote/unquote “designer” was brand new. And these people were looked at as consumption engineers, people who had the magic to overcome the lack of desire that existed in the marketplace of the thirties.
PF And today that’s IDEO. I mean like that concept continues and continues.
CK Yeah, and so—
RZ I mean isn’t that just marketing?
CK It’s not just mar—
RZ I mean just make it luxur—Make the box really luxurious?
PF No, it’s more like the agency that wants to do product.
CK It’s like—So I would distinguish marketing from design—marketing from product design as like marketing is about taking the object as a given; design is about changing the object so that anticipates a need that somebody may not have been able to articulate before, right? The book makes a particular focus on people who have to design things that did not exist in the world before. In other words, people sort of that have that burden of introducing the new on top of the old. And the question then becomes how do you even do that? We do that in all kinds of subtle ways that I think most—the man or woman on the street doesn’t really appreciate, like how did the iPhone come to feel like an obvious, intuitive thing to use? That’s a non-obvious thing and the point of the book is to actually unspool exactly how that happens, right?
PF Well take us into the digital. When did people start to get serious about design with digital work?
CK Well I think what ushers it in is the Silicon Revolution, right? It’s this idea that all of a sudden, you are introducing all kinds of different software and new things that people have never used before. And I will say: there was only one time before that this happened on the scale that it happened in the nineties . . . which was in the forties. Incidentally, another high point for the creation of the design profession, right? In both periods you had a wealth of new technologies being introduced to the home, to the office, all these different places, and then it became somebody’s job to figure out how to make this stuff make sense to people—
PF “The kitchen of tomorrow!”
CK [Chuckles] Right.
PF Yeah, ok.
CK And so like, you know, fast forward to the nineties, people were saying like, “Oh, you know, how do I make it so that, like, my truck drivers can do inventory? “How do I make it so that, like, a housewife can use a computer?” “How do I make it so that this VCR could be understood by people in the home using this thing?”
PF They never got that one.
PF The third one. No.
CK They never did.
PF Never unlocked that bad boy.
CK [Stammers] This is a fascinating thing in the—this is a story that I tell in the book . . . is that like look: you know, if you remember those VCRs in the nineties is that the first thing you looked at when you pulled that thing out of the box is you looked at the instruction manual and now—
PF You had to because that screen didn’t make a damned bit of sense. It was just—
CK It made no sense, right?
PF Just five eights.
CK So, you know, flash forward to now and what’s happened since the nineties, since the introduction of Macintosh, since a lot of different things, like the iPhone and things like that is that we now presume that the most advanced technology in the world should not need an instruction manual.
RZ Mm hmm.
CK That is very silently this massive cultural achievement.
PF Mm hmm.
CK That, I think, just goes completely unnoticed because people presume, like, “Oh, it should be that way,” right?
CK But should it? You can point to lots of different countries in the world that don’t live like that—
PF No, but also God forbid, trying to get somebody to do anything the least bit complicated with their computer anymore.
CK This sounds like a joke, right? It’s like, “Why can’t they just engage and actually like learn something that’s a little bit more complicated but much better?” Right?
RZ Mm hmm.
CK This is an argument that people have been fighting ever since the days of like basically Marvin Minsky, like the founder of AI—
CK Versus Doug Engelbart, right?
PF Minsky has a few other things going on right now.
CK Yes, he’s got some few other things.
PF We’re still working on them now.
CK But those two guys were fighting about like is it the job of the computer to help people? Or is it the job of the computer to replace people?
PF Mm hmm.
CK And Engelbart was super pissed about the way the personal computer turned out—
PF Oh yeah!
CK Cuz he was like, “Why are—why is everybody so lazy? Why is laziness the path?” He was like, “Well if you just learn my really complicated typing system, you could do this so much faster than you could otherwise do it.” Right?
PF “I’ll give you superpowers but it will take you three or four hours to learn. And people were like, “I don’t wanna fly.”
CK No. [Chuckles] Yeah.
PF “I don’t want an ultimate strength, not if it’s gonna be like I have to do what?!”
CK And Engelbart’s super bitter about that, right? But he lost in the market, right? It turns out that people would rather be a little less capable if they just don’t have to learn anything. And where the book eventually goes is an interesting place which is the following: is that that idea that we should defer to the user so dramatically that they don’t really have to think, that so much friction is taken away, I mean that’s gonna lead you into this world pretty quickly that becomes very uncanny, and very uncomfortable very quickly, right?
PF Mm hmm.
CK Cuz like, you know, one of the things being built that had its seeds at Disney World, something that Frog worked on, and then proceeded to the Carnival Cruise Line is this—
PF Oh this is gonna get dark.
CK This sensor that you wear—
CK—around your wrist [yeah] as you walk around on the ship. And what happens is the screens around you basically, they respond to your presence [mm hmm]. They will show your itinerary; they will make recommendations based on the last thing you chose. I think, you know, your quote/unquote “personal genome” is being calculated something like 700 times a second to update based on where you’ve been; who you’re with; what you’re doing next—all these different preferences so that the thing that you want is essentially in front of you at all times. The creator of this calls in the Market of One, right?
PF [Crosstalk] Oh! Market of One!! Market of One! Over here. We’re here, Market of One!
RZ [Crosstalk] I didn’t know we would get here.
PF You know what—
RZ But you know the thing is all that data always results in recommending the same banana daiquiri that—[laughs].
PF No, it does except on the Carnival Cruise Lines where every now and then you just hear this distant splash. And then you’re just like, “What happened?” [Laughter] The ultimate recommendation . . . it just made [laughter].
RZ Is that where we’re headed? To—
PF To robots pushing you off the cruise lines?
RZ We’re there.
PF I’m ready.
RZ The future is not—
PF No, you hit the buffet and then you’re like, “I don’t wanna do this anymore.” [In staccato, like robot] “Oh, doesn’t want to do it anymore.”
RZ Can we talk about the reaction to just—
CK You say like, “I would never! I would never! That’s so unappealing to me and whatever.” You’re consuming this every day.
CK You’re consuming it on feeds that anticipate where you’re gonna click on; you’re consuming it on Amazon, which produces algorithmic guesses about what you’re gonna like and what you’re gonna buy and—
RZ Oh I know.
CK Damn it if they aren’t successful!
PF I ate 13 RFID stickers every day. And so does everybody, they just don’t know it.
RZ Is there a breaking point? I guess is what I’m asking. The commoditization of all of this information about me, such that there’s nothing really interesting or surprising anymore, and also it’s creepy.
CK Robert, feel free to jump in here but I do think where the book eventually does lead is this idea that like, look: the idea of user friendliness which started with the utmost optimism and respect for what users wanted can lead you eventually to this world in which users are sapped of agency in some meaningful way because everything has been anticipated, so much so that they don’t have to think about whether or not that thing you’re being suggested is the thing that you should actually want. And so there’s a sense that like user friendly is optimizing for what’s in front of you and what’s easy; and what’s most fluid in the moment. It may not be optimizing for what you really want; who you really wanna be: your ultimate higher goals as a human being, right? Somehow we have not—
PF [Interrupts] I mean, objectively it just isn’t. It’s [laughter] objectively, it’s saying, “I have five milliseconds to show this person the next thing.”
RF The way I would characterize it a bit, because I think we can, in the world we live in, the four of us, go down a lot of very special rabbit holes where this optimization cycle is going, like, crazy. And I feel like we’re living in a world—and I think this is part of the reason why the book is so timely—where certain parts of our lives are inhabiting that optimization cycle: what we buy; you know, where we go no vacation; even elements of our work. And yet bigger other swathes of our life haven’t gotten on that optimization cycle yet. You know, our health care hasn’t gotten on it. The way we vote, hasn’t gotten on it. There’s a whole bunch of other very big things going on and design is starting to reach those things and designers are starting to think about how did these models apply across much broader and more basic infrastructural things in our lives. And it’s a really interesting moment to ask ourselves are designers just gonna rush in with these models? Are businesses gonna force us to rush in with these models? Death and dying, I mean these are all parts of our lives that we haven’t yet really figured out how to apply this paradigm to. And so the point is, in some ways, how can we catch readers up to that?
RF You know, I feel like I’m inhabiting The Twilight Zone a little bit, and you guys may feel this way as well. I’ve spent 30 years seeing these models build, like, layers of geology in a canyon, right? [Mm hmm] And then I suddenly talk to my mother or father about, you know, how to use Uber, and I have to walk them all the way back to a whole lotta layers of sediment that I had the luxury, as a designer, of living through in a much more deliberate way.
PF Like I had—the number one app on my phone is my wife’s head and I hit it and it shows me where she is on Google Maps.
RZ It sounds like there’s some trust issues here, Paul.
PF No, no! Because it’s just like we’re always coordinating to get the kids and stuff like that [yeah, totally]. No, but let’s talk about my marriage on the podcast [Rich laughs].
RF So it’s not her face, it’s her head?!
PF It’s her head, it’s her face.
RZ I know but you said head.
PF It’s her head, like it’s her whole head. Her hairy little head.
RZ Head is weird. That’s another issue—[crosstalk]
PF But then I can’t call her from there. I can’t like—there’s all these other things that I would do with my wife and I can’t do them with that app. I have to open up all these other experiences. And I—I know all the privacy stuff. I know all the like probably bad that we are looking at each other on the map. But—and it would really be convenient if I could just do all that stuff with one—two or three tabs.
CK Well I think that what you’re pointing at is the idea that like, look, what you’re expressing, Paul, is the fact that the underlying metaphors that started this whole shebang are broken.
PF Yeah. Yeah, yeah.
CK Right? The underlying assumptions; the stack was built on this like very inhuman technology centered way of looking at you have apps. As opposed to being about you and the people around you and getting out of the way of that, and giving you the right tool for the right moment, in the right time, the thing that you want. You can track all this sort of brokenness back to, you know, ultimately you’re talking about the phone. You can track all this brokenness to the original metaphor that started The App Store [mm hmm] which is that it was like a store in which [right, right] goods that were very distinct from each other sat on a shelf that you could swipe through.
RZ [Interrupts] Categories and—
CK And categories and so like this whole mental model—and this is a little bit of the guiding spirit of the book is that we are surrounded by all these metaphors that are guiding the path that’s in front of us . . . that are either broken or need revisiting or, at the very least, need us to know: this is why it is and this is why it sucks.
RZ The horse left the barn. I mean, these are commercial motivations, right? Like, the idea of relegating some of these very commercially driven objects behind what are meaningful to us which family and friends and connecting—
PF [Interrupting] Yeah, but you know what happens? The platform companies kinda catch up but like, “Ok, we’re gonna do HealthKit as Apple and now we’ll—all the apps can get health information out of the phone.”
RZ Yeah, I think Robert nailed it which is there are these other pieces of terrain that are just not even taken care of yet. Like, health is one that, you know, for all sorts of reasons, we’re barely gettin’ there. I mean, right now—
CK You know what’s interesting is like the story that I’m telling about The App Store on your phone and all this kinda stuff is not disconnected from what Robert’s talking about which is, like, we haven’t started applying these things to things like health care and government services and all this kinda stuff which is—they’re linked in the following ways . . . is that we would not demand something better from that health care and that government, all this kinda stuff. If we didn’t have this ability to like summon a car wherever we are in the world—
PF [Interrupting] Right. Right, right, right, we see it and then we’re like, “Why does it work this way?” Yeah.
CK Right, it’s setting this like very leveled playing field for competition that forces these companies to compare themselves across disciplines and boundaries and all this kinda stuff because everything is literally adjacent to one another.
RF You know, I think one of the crazy things about the moment we’re in is some of these design models . . . have escaped kind of what’s happening in the screen in front of our face, and are realigning massive areas of physical human activity out in the world. And there was a great piece in The Times a couple of weeks ago about protests in Bogota by delivery drivers, protests in three cities in India by small hoteliers—they were all had been enlisted to participate in low cost sort of just in time software platforms that were supposed to improve their businesses. All of these platforms had infusions of capital from SoftBank way beyond what they knew what to do with.
PF Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
RF And so they massively sucked up a lot of human endeavor, in a lot of physical places, to try and optimize it, and then they started offering incentives in many other things that distorted those markets. I’m not an economist, I’m not gonna tell you exactly how all this should work. But the reality that some basic design ideas are refactoring the way thousands of hotels think about their customers in India; the way that individual delivery drivers on motorcycles in Jakarta or in Bogota are organizing to figure out how they can better serve and ultimately, you know, be part of a more efficient marketplace for delivery services. It is way beyond what any designer ten and 15 years ago would’ve expected. And part of the story of this book that I think—The history does more than just history. It teaches you that there are individuals who have made very specific choices . . . based on circumstances like World War II or Three Mile Island. And they’ve done the best they can in those circumstances but these ideas have levelled up to a point where they now have an agency in the world, and they’ve been given a lot of credibility in the world to do a lot of things, and as designers, we don’t really get a whole lotta training in what it means to start to stick our ideas into some of these, you know, ecosystems and figure out what they’re gonna do. And before we know it, a lot of change has happened, and that change, again, is physical. You know? And look at what Amazon is doing to New York City right now, right? Like, the rise in the number of accidents, the physical change in traffic congestion patterns, the way they’ve redesigned 14th street to accommodate that. Like, there is a whole set of refactoring.
CK You know what’s crazy is that like so it actually—Amazon is an interesting example, so is Facebook, right? Both of these companies were able to scale so fast because of the ease of their user interfaces, right?
CK Amazon was built on an interface which is one click shopping. Facebook was built on an interface, the like button, which was created, incidentally, basically it was meant to be the lightest weight way to introduce positivity into the world. The designers thought like, “What is the lightest weight way that I can put positivity in the world?” User friendliness now allows you to scale at a speed that escapes your ability to understand your impact and your reach.
PF Mm hmm.
CK Because these things can become . . . world dominant.
RF They can catch fire.
CK In ten years.
RZ I mean, what I’m hearing is there is a greater level of responsibility to think through sort of the social and ethical and—implications of what we’re doing. It’s not just about make it faster and easier.
RF But there’s not a body of—there’s not a body of research to build that on.
RF There’s no design academia out there to make this book happen. And that’s—
RZ It’s reactive to—
RF That is one of the many, you know, crises we’re facing and why I was so excited that Cliff would even get involved in this and ultimately like brought the journalistic story to this because the reality is we don’t have a body of knowledge; we don’t have an academic discipline to study that body of knowledge, other than a few fragmented people; and yet this thing is rising up and, you know, it’s easy to point a finger and ask, “Why did a designer do this or that?” But if you’ve been in that position and walked in those shoes, like Cliff and I have, at the end of the day it’s 11:30 and you gotta ship something [Rich laughs].
PF Mm hmm.
RF And you make decisions. And some of those decisions, in good ways, go nowhere and they die. But you know I remember hiring back in two thousand maybe five or six, a designer came to work for me and he happened to have designed the little POI icon in Google maps [mm hmm], that little teardrop. He designed it. He probably designed it in half a day.
PF That’s great work though.
RF And there it is! Right? It is—how many billions upon billions of people are looking at that? Who would know that/ And even if you had all that ethical information to work with, who’s gonna give you the time? And the space? Unless, you know, we can start to really build a different understanding in the way designers are trained. And in the way that design is institutionalized and I think—you know those are big questions. I can’t answer them.
CK I think that there are two cases to be made here. One is the case for optimism, which is this idea that like, “Look, you know, do you believe that ease equals progress?” I mean I think that like that’s a fundamental idea of our economy. Right? So there’s that and that that should be brought to more parts of the world. You know?
PF Mm hmm.
CK Some of the places that we visit in the text is, you know, places like India, places like Africa, places that are being changed and remade for the better because of the ability of mobile computing to like, let’s say, change how buses are routed; change how healthcare is delivered. On the flip side, you have all these different ways of designing that basically aren’t cognisant enough about what are the secondary and tertiary effects of the thing that I’m making. And this is a sense in which in some ways like the optimizations that we’ve been doing for that ease are now broken because the purview is not long enough.
PF So, what I’m hearing is: it’s ok if it’s a little bit hard. Stop trying to make everything so easy all the time.
RZ I think we’re in the middle of it. That’s also what I’m hearing. Like it’s early days, man. This is a lot of change in a very short period of time.
CK Well let me contrast two things. Like, a world that’s more fluid and frictionless is one that’s easier and more delightful and maybe gives us more time but friction is the path to introspection, right? Friction is the way that we come to understand whether or not the thing that we’re trying to strive for is worth striving for. It like—you don’t actually figure out whether or not this thing is valuable until—if it’s a little hard. Like until you actually—
PF Yeah! That’s right.
CK—have to think, “Is this worth it?”
PF I mean you gotta earn it!
PF Well, Rich, I like the idea that we should be making harder software . . . or more difficult to use software sometimes, if it’s for a point.
RZ I like the idea of empowering people and asking for a little work isn’t a bad thing.
PF I mean we actually—we do this with our clients a lot because a lot of times the things you’re building on the back end to like manage a system, it’s good for it to take a day or two to train because you’re teaching them a way to do something quickly.
PF You’re not gonna walk them through that tutorial every morning, you need them to be effective. So this is actually part of our life. Except they’re like, “Well this is somebody’s job; of course a little friction’s ok.”
RZ I also think, you know, as a former attorney, I mean the law, there’s this core discipline but then there are all these sort of surrounding [music fades in] schools of thinking around ethics and morals and impact, like the laws and statutes get drafted, there’s enormous thinking that goes into impact. I mean obviously, right? How—the wording of a law that could create criminal behavior that would otherwise not be the case is a big deal. And I think design has a lot of work to do still around the core discipline of design, around sort of impact and ethics and all of the pieces around—and it’s just so early. It’s like day five right now, in my mind, as we look at history. Like, we just got here.
PF Dozens of designers are listening to this going, “Are you kidding?!? It’s been—” Anyway but regardless—
RZ I know the essay we’re gonna get sent—
PF It’s not about us.
RZ It’s all on Medium, by the way. Everything I’m asking for has been written about on Medium.
PF It’s not about us, it’s about the book User Friendly which is out from MCD Press. You should go ahead and buy that book and if you need big digital things built . . . and you need a long-term product partner, you should get in touch with Postlight. You do that by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RZ Robert, Cliff, great conversation. Thank you for doing this.
RF Thank you for having us.
CK Thank you.
PF Thank you [music ramps up, plays alone for five seconds, fades out to end].