Dec 18, 2019

Great interface design is often invisible. But maybe it shouldn’t be.

"Optimizing for ease ... leads you to a breaking point," says user-experience designer Cliff Kuang.

When it comes to design — whether it’s for apps, websites, phones, TVs or computers — we throw around the term “user friendly” a lot. User-friendly design makes using a product easy and painless, which means we don’t notice it, we just enjoy using it. 

Sometimes, when a design is really good and easy to use, we don’t notice that we’re kind of addicted to an app, game or phone — or that we’re becoming increasingly dependent on those things. 

I spoke with Cliff Kuang, who’s a longtime user-experience designer and journalist. He co-wrote the book “User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play.” He told me the best design comes from empathy. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Cliff Kuang (Photo courtesy of Kuang)

Cliff Kuang: We have this myth of the designer or inventor as somebody who creates for themselves in some sense. But if you think about that, that’s a very limiting thing. In fact, I think the greater thing is that evolution gave us this powerful tool of empathy that allows us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. That, in turn, allows us to create many, many more things than we would create naturally. I would argue that  displacement of the self is the thing that makes the corporate world go round. You’re not always making things for yourself, you’re making something for somebody else. There is a process for empathizing with other people, it’s not just pure intuition. It’s something that I call industrialized empathy. That is the process by which this very natural human thing that we do becomes turned into a tool for developing the products around us.

Molly Wood: Let’s talk about design as a weapon, because some of this understanding of human behavior has arguably been used to create designs that aren’t necessarily good for people.

Kuang: I think it’s interesting, because this concept of optimizing for ease and frictionlessness by the second actually leads you to a breaking point. It’s the idea that all these different gadgets around us, these apps, they’re essentially optimized for these micro moments of inner engagement as opposed to the higher-order values of what we actually want. The odd thing about technology is that with today’s tech, we can’t put our higher-order values in that technology. They’ve all been micro optimized for this short-term gain as opposed to macro optimized for the things that we ultimately want, such as being closer to the people we care about or becoming the people that we want to be.

Wood: We’re also at this moment where people are thinking a lot about artificial intelligence. You say there’s a benefit for lots of reasons for us just doing the tasks ourselves.

Kuang: Yes. I think that one of the interesting things that people have discovered is this idea of an automation paradox. This is an idea that originated in research into how airplanes work. What happens is that when you introduce automation in the cockpit, you do so because you want to make things a little bit easier, a little bit safer for the pilots. But what happens over time, is that the pilots, now that they have no longer the chance to exercise those skills, become less and less capable. You have to introduce more and more automation. As so many more decisions around us become automated, as so many things anticipate what we want without giving us the chance to inspect whether or not we do in fact want those things, we may become less and less capable about making certain decisions and trade-offs that would not come to us naturally. There is a certain virtue in friction itself. Friction, in some sense, is the path to introspection; frictionlessness is in some ways the path to, I guess, being subservient or passive in the dialogue that we have with the world around us.

Wood: Boeing, you could argue, is basically a case in point to that principle, which is like, “We’ll just take care of this for you.” Was it an inevitable end to design thinking?

Kuang: I don’t think death is an inevitable outcome, a result of user-friendly design. That said, I do think it’s hard to see any other way that things becoming so abstracted and so easy for us doesn’t in some sense make us less capable as people. You eventually reach the point where you’re not just delivering ease, but you’re delivering mindlessness. In fact, user-experience designers think about this all the time, but I would argue that the stakes on which this challenge is being met, they haven’t really percolated throughout the discipline in a way that we’re really tackling the fundamental challenge.

Wood: I wonder, is that why it matters that consumers understand how design works? If it was all positive, it wouldn’t matter if it was hidden on some level.

Kuang: Yes. My sense is that if we understand how the interactions around us are made, how that user experience around us is designed, that gives us at least this ability to articulate exactly what we would rather have in the shortcomings that exist around us. Without the beginnings of that understanding, then again, you just become a passive consumer of these things without the necessary ability to push back. We don’t even have this idea of being critical consumers. It’s almost something you’ve learned in adulthood, it’s not something you learned as a kid. But I would argue that needs to change. For example, it’s crazy to me that the New York Times has a full staff of art critics, but no design critics that appear on a regular basis. The idea that so much of our lives is not up to critique and inspection and open to channels where we can demand more is very strange. What I’m trying to do in the things that I write is try to make that culture happen. That’s a pretty lofty goal. It’s not a goal that I could achieve myself, but I think it’s a goal that we as a society need to look at.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

We did an episode of the “Make Me Smart” podcast back in 2018 about design thinking as a discipline and how the process of using empathy and imagining how people react to certain scenarios can help solve big problems.

I found a Forbes article from earlier this month about design thinking and how to use it to create a successful e-commerce app. It had this link to the history of design thinking, and I learned that the idea of turning design into a science started in the 1960s. The first mention of it as a science comes from a Nobel laureate named Herbert A. Simon in 1969, who was trying to figure out how to synthesize human thought in order to develop artificial intelligence. Industrialized empathy, indeed.

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, Molly Wood and the “Tech” team demystify the digital economy with stories that explore more than just “Big Tech.” We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team

Thanks to our sponsors