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What Comes After User-Friendly Design?


“User-friendly” was coined in the late 1970s, when software developers were first designing interfaces that amateurs could use. In those early days, a friendly machine might mean one you could use without having to code.

Forty years later, technology is hyper-optimized to increase the amount of time you spend with it, to collect data about how you use it, and to adapt to engage you even more. Meanwhile, other aspects of our tech have remained difficult to use, from long, confusing privacy policies to a lack of explanation on why and when your data is being collected, much less how it’s being protected. While some aspects of apps and platforms have become almost too easy to use–consider how often Facebook invites you to check out a friend’s latest update or new comment–others remain frustratingly opaque, like, say, the way Facebook crafts advertising to your behavior.

[Source Images: Jason Jaroslav Cook/Getty Images (pattern), winterling/iStock (photo)]

The discussion around privacy, security, and transparency underscores a broader transformation in the typical role of the designer, as Khoi Vinh, principal designer at Adobe and frequent design writer on his own site, Subtraction, points out. “Over the past decade or so, businesses and companies have come to realize that design is valuable, and they’ve been aggressive about pursuing design talent and putting design at the forefront of their process,” he explains. It’s an opportunity for designers to rethink the human implications of products: “What happens when we start thinking about the long-term impact of the work that we do?”So what does it mean to be friendly to users–er, people–today? Do we need a new way to talk about design that isn’t necessarily friendly, but respectful? I talked to a range of designers about how we got here, and what comes next.

A few years ago, one Google exec claimed that after it tested 41 shades of blue for its Gmail ads in 2009, the company saw a $200 million windfall. It’s a well-worn anecdote now, but it underscores the fact that data analytics are still a new tool in the design world. “Working with data is still relatively new to designers,” says Vinh. “Analytics have been around since the beginning, but they started getting much richer and much more consumable by product designers and the product team 10 years ago or so.”

Being able to make fine-grained observations about the way people use a product ties design directly to engagement. At the same time, insights from psychology have helped designers use behavioral science to increase engagement, too. It’s easy to see the invisible hand of these new tools everywhere, once you start looking. Don’t overwhelm people with settings and menus. Don’t expect them to spend a lot of time reading a privacy policy. Make interfaces slick and fast and usable. Reduce friction. Send regular notifications with rewards. Turn your product into a game. Be their friend.

[Source Images: Jason Jaroslav Cook/Getty Images (pattern), winterling/iStock (photo)]

Yet, as a culture, we seem to slowly be growing more wary–both of the time we spend with technology, and the data with which we supply it. A string of high-profile data breaches, most recently of the personal information 143 million U.S. consumers by Equifax, are making consumers more cognizant of data security (if not necessarily more cautious). New products, like Amazon’s AI-powered, camera-equipped Echo Look, and Google’s initiative to screen users for depression, are also raising serious questions about privacy. Meanwhile, “dark UX,” which deceptively tricks or forces user behavior, has surfaced more publicly; for instance, Sonos recently admittedthat its speakers may “cease to function” if users don’t accept its new privacy policy. Even here on Co.Design, founding editor Cliff Kuang has questioned the ethos of user-friendly design: “Modern user experience is a black box that has made it easier and easier to consume things, and harder and harder to remake them,” he wrote after the 2016 election. “We should not give in. We should make better things.”