Usability and Visibility

Last fall I wrote about Google’s redesign (which actually increased the number of clicks it took to get something done). Sure, it’s a “cleaner, simpler” look, but how did it get cleaner and simpler? To put it plainly: they hid stuff.

For those who are continually riding the breaking wave of technology, these little redesigns cause a few moments of confusion or annoyance at worst, but for those who are rather more at sea to begin with, they’re a tremendous stumbling block.

Today in the library, I helped an 80-year-old woman access her brand-new Gmail account. She signed on to one of the library computers with her library card – no problem there. Then she stared at the desktop for a while, so I explained that she could use one of three browsers – Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer – to access the Internet. “Don’t confuse me with choices, just tell me what to do. Which one do you like?” she asked.

I suggested Firefox, and she opened the browser. The home screen is set to the familiar Google logo and search bar, surrounded by white space. I pointed up to the corner and told her to click on Gmail:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.44.07 PMThen came the sign-in screen, asking for email and password; at least the “sign in” button is obvious.

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 7.48.45 PMNext, we encountered a step that asked her if she wanted to confirm her account by getting a mobile alert. I explained that she could skip this step, but she clicked on it anyway, then got frustrated when her inbox didn’t appear.

Now, here’s something that anyone who has ever put up any kind of signage probably knows: People don’t read signs. They don’t read instructions. Good design takes this into account; as Don Norman (The Design of Everyday Things) says, “Design is really an act of communication.” Good design communicates with a minimum of words and instructions.

In this case, I canceled the prompt for her and we got to her inbox. I showed her that she had three e-mails – informational, “welcome” e-mails from Gmail itself – and upon seeing she had no mail, she wanted to sign out. “Do I just click the X?” she asked, moving the mouse up to the upper right hand corner of the program. I explained that clicking the red X would close the browser, but that she should sign out of Gmail first (even though the library computers wipe out any saved information between patrons).

But is there a nice big button that says “Sign out”? No, there is not. Instead, there’s this:

Screen shot 2014-09-02 at 8.01.12 PMHow on earth would a new user know to click on that to sign out? She wouldn’t. And the thing about new users (very young ones excepted, usually) is that they don’t want to go around clicking on random things, because they’re afraid they will break something, or make a mistake they can’t correct or backtrack from.

I think the above scenario will be familiar to anyone who works in a public library, not to mention anyone who has tried to help a parent or a grandparent with a computer question. It’s easy to get frustrated with the user, but more often than not the blame really rests with the designer – and yet it’s not the designers who are made to feel stupid for “not getting it” or making mistakes.

And it isn’t just beginning users who run into these problems. Sometimes it seems as though designers are changing things around just for the sake of change, without making any real improvements. Examples spring to mind:

Think the latest “upgrade” to Google Maps. If there are checkboxes for all the things you already know are problems, why push the new version?

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Even Twitter, which is usually pretty good about these things (and which got stars across the board in the EFF’s most recent privacy report, “Who Has Your Back?: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests”), is not immune to the making-changes-for-no-reason trend:

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But perhaps the most notorious offender of all is iTunes:

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To quote Don Norman (again), “Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful. You have to know when to stop.

To this end, I would suggest to all designers and front-end developers: please, run some user testing before you make changes, or as you’re creating a new design. Get just five people to do a few tasks. See where they get confused and frustrated, see where they make mistakes. Remember (Norman again), “Designers are not typical users. Designers often think of themselves as typical users…[but] the individual is in no position to discover all the relevant factors. There is no substitute for interaction with and study of actual users of a proposed design.

Edited to add: WordPress isn’t immune, either.

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Is it “easier”? Is it “improved”? How so? I’m OK with the way it is now, thanks…but soon I’m sure I won’t have a choice about switching over to the new, “easier,” “improved” way.

“Netflix for books” already exists: it’s called the library

Even in a profession where we interact with the general public daily, it can be tricky for librarians to assess how much other people know about what we do, and what libraries offer – which is why it is so delightful to see an article by a non-librarian raising awareness of a service libraries offer. In “Why the Public Library Beats Amazon – For Now” in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey A. Fowler praises public libraries across the country, more than 90% of which offer e-books (according to the Digital Inclusion Study funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services).

Noting the rise of Netflix-style subscription platforms like Oyster and Scribd, Fowler observes that libraries still have a few key advantages: they’re free, and they offer more books that people want to read.

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Graphic designer Aaron Tung’s idea for the Penguin – Random House logo

Librarians have been working with publishers for several years, negotiating various deals and trying out different models (sometimes it seems like two steps forward, one step back), but finally all of the Big Five have come on board and agreed to “sell” (license) e-books and digital audiobooks to libraries under some model. (The Big Five were formerly the Big Six, but Random House and Penguin merged and became Penguin Random House, missing a tremendous opportunity to call themselves Random Penguin House, with accompanying awesome logo.)

Thus, while Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU for short – has the University of Kansas made a fuss about this yet? They should) touts its 600,000 titles, the question readers should be asking is, which 600,000 titles? All books are not created equal. The library is more likely to have the books you want to read, as Fowler points out in his article. It may be true that Amazon, Oyster, and Scribd have prettier user interfaces, and it may take fewer clicks to download the book you want (if it’s there), but library platforms – including OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, and others – have made huge strides in this area. If you haven’t downloaded an e-book from your library recently, or at all, give it a try now – it’s leaps and bounds smoother than it used to be. You may have to wait for it – most publishers still insist on the “one copy/one user” model, rather than a simultaneous use model – but it is free. (Or if you’re impatient and solvent, you can go ahead and buy it.)

Readers' advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Readers’ advisory desk at the Portland (ME) Public Library.

Another way in which the library differs from for-profit book-rental platforms is that, to put it bluntly, the library isn’t spying on you. If you’re reading a Kindle book, Amazon knows how fast you read, where you stop, what you highlight. Libraries, on the other hand, have always valued privacy. The next time you’re looking for an e-book, try your local library – all you need is your library card number and PIN.

MLA Conference 2014, Day Two (Thursday)

Screen shot 2014-05-08 at 8.53.24 PMHarvard Library Innovation Lab: Pop-Ups, Prototypes, and Awesome Boxes

Annie Cain, Matt Phillips, and Jeff Goldenson from the Harvard Library Innovation Lab  presented some of their recent projects. Cain started off by introducing Awesome Box: the Awesome Box gives library users the opportunity to declare a library item (book, audiobook, movie, TV show, magazine, etc.) “awesome” by returning it to an Awesome Box instead of putting it into the book drop. Library staff can then scan the “awesome” items and send them to a custom website (e.g. arlington.awesomebox.io), where anyone can see the “recently awesome” and “most awesome” items. Instead of librarian-to-patron readers’ advisory, it’s patron-to-patron/librarian. Cool, fun, and easy to use! “Awesome” books can also be put on display in the library.

Phillips talked about the idea of “hovermarks,” bringing favicon-style images to the stacks by placing special bookmarks in books. Patrons or librarians could place a hovermark in a book to draw attention to local authors, Dewey Decimal areas, beach reads, favorites, Awesome Box picks, or anything else. It’s a “no-tech” way to “annotate the stacks.”

Goldenson floated the idea of a Library Community Catalog, inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog. The Library Community Catalog could contain real things, ideas, speculations, interviews, or other articles. It could be “hyper-local,” in print and/or online.

Of the three ideas presented, Awesome Box is definitely the most developed, and Harvard, which “isn’t necessarily known for sharing,” is eager to get it into public libraries. Contact them if you’re interested in setting it up at your library!

Libraries are Keeping Readers First: An Update on the National Initiative and How You Can Participate

Readers First is “a movement to improve e-book access and services for public library users.” Kelvin Watson from Queens Library and Michael Santangelo from BookOps presented an update on this initiative, explaining the work that’s been done thus far and how far we have to go. The more people (and libraries) sign on, the stronger the team, the better ability to effect change. Already, said Santangelo, Readers First represents over 20 million readers.

Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 3.57.31 PM

It’s worth going to the Readers First site (link in the previous paragraph) to read their principles. The two main challenges regarding e-books in libraries are availability and discoverability/access. Availability is an issue with the publishers; the issues of discoverability and access can be taken up with the vendors. Because libraries are only indirectly connected to publishers, but directly connected to vendors, Readers First decided to focus its efforts on the discoverability/access challenge.

Santangelo said that Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science applied to e-books also (save the time of the reader, (e)books are for use, etc.) and that libraries have a responsibility to ensure open, easy, and free access to e-books the same as we do for print books. However, the e-book experience now is fragmented, disjointed, and cumbersome, creating a poor user experience. This is where the four Readers First principles come in: readers should be able to discover content in one comprehensive catalog; access a variety of content from multiple sources; interact with the library in the library’s own context; and read e-books compatible with all e-reading devices.

A Readers First Working Group sent a survey to vendors in order to create a guide to library e-book vendors. This guide will help librarians who are choosing an e-book vendor for the first time, or moving from one to another; it will also help vendors design their systems and decide what to prioritize.

Watson said that libraries should see vendors as partners, and challenge them to “do the right thing.” Librarians should hold all vendors accountable to the Readers First principles, with the end goal of a seamless experience for the user. The long-term objective, said Michael Colford of the Boston Public Library, is to “have the discovery layer be the platform.” Until then, we’re relying on APIs. “We can make things less complicated, but we can’t make it easier,” said Santangelo.

Readers First is working with the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) to develop standards for e-books, but according to Watson, the perfect format hasn’t been invented yet. (Other than PDFs, most e-book files are proprietary formats, wrapped in DRM and not usable across devices.)

MA E-Book Project

Deb Hoadley presented an update on the Massachusetts E-Book Project on behalf of the Massachusetts Library System. I was already familiar with the project because Robbins is one of the pilot libraries, but it was good to review the history, see where the project had hit snags, and hear from other librarians at pilot libraries (Jason Homer from Wellesley and Jackie Mushinsky from WPI) about how they had introduced the project to patrons.

150x71-MA-EbooksYou can read about the project’s history, the RFP, and see updates on the website, so I want to use this space to draw a parallel between the MA E-Book Project and Readers First. Although the pilot consists of three different vendors (BiblioBoard, Baker & Taylor (Axis 360), and EBL) with three different models, the end goal is a single e-book platform that offers integrated and seamless discovery. Any Massachusetts resident would have access through this user-friendly platform to e-content that is owned – not licensed – by Massachusetts libraries; local content would also be hosted and discoverable.

Although we are far from this goal right now, “Our vendors are listening to us,” said Homer. He said that participating in the pilot project has enabled him to start conversations with patrons about how much we spend on e-books now and why we need a new model. Mushinsky, who added local content through BiblioBoard, said that we need to ask, “Will this resource be of value to us? Can we add value to it?”

I came away from these two sessions (Readers First and the MA E-Book Project) convinced that we have the right goals, and dedicated people working toward them, but a little depressed at how far we have to go. Slowly but surely…


Teaching the Tools: Technology Education in Public Libraries

Clayton Cheever live-blogged this session; his notes are posted on the Teaching the Tools site.

Anna Litten from Wellesley did an excellent job moderating this informative panel. Litten and the other panelists (Michael Wick, Theresa Maturevitch, Jason Homer, and Sharani Robins) built a website called Teaching the Tools: Libraries and Technology Education, which they hope will serve as a resource going forward. To borrow from the site: “All reference librarians are technology trainers, educators and instructors these days.  But what does it really mean to teach technology topics in public libraries?  What can and should we teach?  How does technology instruction fit into our broader mission and core responsibilities?  What resources are available to use and to our clients?  How do we become better presenters and instructors?”

The panelists addressed these questions during the session. They all teach in their libraries, but the teaching takes different forms. “I teach to whatever question comes to the door, in whatever way the learner can understand it,” said Wick. Maturevich talked about printed brochures, online resources, and videos; Robins talked about beginner classes, one-on-one sessions, and “Wired Wednesday,” when patrons can drop in for tech help. Robins has also had reps from Barnes & Noble and Best Buy come in to help people with e-reading devices, and she often uses the resources at GCF LearnFree.org. Homer teaches intermediate classes in the Wellesley computer lab, and other Wellesley staff teach beginner classes. Clearly, there are many approaches, and flexibility is key.

Litten suggested taking the time to read instructional design blogs; most librarians don’t have a background in instructional design, but the field does exist and there’s a lot we can learn. “We have to focus on what’s going to work,” she said. “If it’s not working, abandon! Abandon!”

What to do when you offer a class and no one shows up? Wick and Litten talked about forming partnerships in the community. “We can be really useful to you in ways you didn’t even realize,” said Litten. “Listen,” Wick encouraged. Ask people, “What do you want? We’ll give it to you.” As for whether teaching technology is part of the library’s mission, Wick said, why wouldn’t it be? “We help everybody with everything else. Why aren’t we helping them as much as we can, more than they’re asking?” Find your audience first, said Wick, then design your classes.

Some library staff are reluctant to teach classes, but that isn’t the only kind of teaching. Nor do tech teachers have to be experts; in fact, said Wick, good teachers can be just one step ahead of their students. Knowing the librarian/teacher is not an expert but a fellow learner can put patrons/students at ease. Confronted with a question she doesn’t know the answer to, Maturevich often uses the line, “I don’t know either, but this is how we find out.”

“Good instruction depends on having good goals,” said Litten. “We’re already doing these things, we just need to do them a little bit better.”

carlitos_Simple_Pencil_ho

That’s all, folks! If you missed it, you can read about Wednesday’s sessions here (part 1) and here (part 2).

See the whole MLA conference program here [PDF]

 

We interrupt this broadcast…

Another post or three about MLA still to come, but first: May 6 was International Day Against DRM. Please go read what Sarah (a.k.a. the Librarian In Black) has to say about this, and follow all her links (especially check out Defective By Design).

librariansagainstDRM“Consumers, and libraries by extension, should have the right to access eBooks on any technological platform, including the hardware and software we choose.” -Sarah Houghton

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…

LibraryThing vs Goodreads, redux

Back in April I wrote about transitioning from Goodreads to LibraryThing after Amazon bought Goodreads. The transition was a bit halting, but I have now more or less stopped updating my Goodreads account (though I still contribute to my library’s account for readers’ advisory purposes) and shifted all my activity over to LibraryThing.

Though both Goodreads and LT are social reading sites, they are different in a number of ways. For example, let’s look at the messages on their home pages, before sign-in. Here’s Goodreads:

goodreads_home_logo

And here’s LibraryThing:

LT_home_logo

Goodreads (“Meet your next favorite book”) is encouraging readers to find new books to read, through lists (“shelves”), ads, and other users’ reviews. LibraryThing, on the other hand (“A home for your books…A community of book lovers”) emphasizes its cataloging quality and its user community.

There are a variety of uses for social reading sites (and by no means are Goodreads and LibraryThing the only choices), but my primary uses are (in descending order of importance):

  1. Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read.

  2. Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read.

  3. See what my friends are reading and read their reviews.

I also appreciate the chance to get the occasional early review copy (I’ve gotten one or two from Goodreads over the past six years, and at least four from LT over the past year), and the serendipity of connecting with authors (more than once, authors on Goodreads have contacted me after I’ve written a review of their book: one ended up attending a book club meeting, and another gave a presentation at the library).

So, how do the two sites compare? Let’s go point by point.

Keep track of what I’ve read and what I want to read. I’m certainly able to do this on both sites. Goodreads has “read,” “currently reading,” and “to-read” shelves, whereas LibraryThing has “to-read” and “currently reading” collections (everything else is, by default, “read”). I like Goodreads’ “date added” sorting option, but I like that LibraryThing offers different display styles.

LY_styleoptions

Write and store reviews and notes on the books I’ve read. One of LT’s aforementioned display styles includes reviews – so you can see all your reviews at a glance, rather than having to click into each book’s record. You can also click directly into the review to make any edits. There is no way to skim all your reviews in Goodreads.

See what my friends are reading and read their reviews. Goodreads has a clear advantage here, because most of the people I know who are on a social reading site are on Goodreads. I’m not that interested in reading strangers’ reviews, but I do like seeing what my friends are reading. Fortunately, I still get e-mails from Goodreads with updates that include friends’ reviews.

goodreads_greenbuttonIn terms of function, then, the sites aren’t all that different. Though I’m committed to LT now, I still don’t find it as intuitive or user-friendly as Goodreads (though, like most LT users, I’m not a fan of Goodreads’ dreaded green button).

LibraryThing organization

Even after a few months of using LibraryThing, I still don’t navigate it effortlessly. The font is absolutely tiny, which leads to a cluttered appearance. Searching within your library takes a second or two longer than I’d like to return results (yes, I’m impatient). The organization also takes some getting used to – the Home tab shows your most recent books, but if you click into a book’s record from there, it just shows metadata and other users’ reviews, not your review or when you started or finished the book; that information is under the Your Books tab (this is where you can choose your own display style).

There’s a separate tab to Add Books, and when you search, there’s usually only one edition of the book, whereas Goodreads lists all of them (hardcover, paperback, mass market, audiobook, various publishers, etc). However, if you put in the ISBN of the specific edition you’re looking for, it will show up.

The other tabs – Groups, Talk, Local, More, and the mysteriously named Zeitgeist (“more information than you require,” indeed, though it’s probably useful/interesting for some) – I don’t use often, though I probably should look at the Local tab more often to see what’s going on. It’s customizable too, so you can choose your favorite bookstores, libraries, or other literary venues to see what authors might be in town. The More tab includes the link to Early Reviewer books.

Stats are accessed from the Home tab; I don’t look at stats that often, just a few times a year, but LT presents them pretty creatively. For instance, my library (which, to be fair, includes books on my “to-read” shelf as well as those I’ve read and am currently reading), if stacked book upon book, would be slightly taller than the Great Pyramid, slightly shorter than the Washington Monument. The value of its weight in gold would be $22,173,471. Goodreads data, on the other hand, is a bit more straightforward – number of books read in a calendar year, number of pages read, etc. I wish LT had these types of numbers as well.

Overall, I’m not thrilled with LibraryThing, but I’m going to stick with it because it isn’t owned by Amazon, which means my personal data isn’t being harvested (at least not so rapaciously and overtly). Perhaps some of the things that irk me about it will change, and more of my friends will join over time. Till then, it does what I need it to do.

Google redesign: from one click to two clicks

Not a long post, just an observation. It used to be that when you had Gmail open, all your menu options for other Google tools (calendar, etc.) were listed across the top of the page, like so:

google_menuSorry the image is so small; click to enlarge, or perhaps Google hasn’t forced you over to the new look yet.

It was just one click to get to your calendar, drive, groups, etc. As an avid user of the calendar and drive features, this was handy for me.

Now, all those menu options are stored almost invisibly over in the upper-right-hand side of the page. You have to know to click on the icon that is made of of nine squares:

google_menu_squares

In what language does “square of squares” mean “menu options”? To me it looks like a waffle.

Now, instead of taking one click to open my calendar, it takes two clicks: one click on the squares, which opens up the following menu, and a second click to choose which feature to open.

google_menu_open

Aha! Here they are.

Why make these items harder to access, when the principles of usability call to minimize the number of clicks it takes to accomplish a task? I don’t know.

The number of clicks is the more annoying part of this, but the vague icon is also bothersome. This isn’t Google’s only vague icon, to be sure. There’s also this:

google_menu_stripes

Three horizontal bars. I know that’s an I Ching trigram, but what does it mean in a web browser?

Google Chrome users will recognize the above image from the upper-right corner of the browser. The light blue parallelogram shape opens a new tab; its location is indicative of what it might do, so that’s okay. Minimize, maximize, and close are all standard icons. Clicking the star will bookmark whatever page you happen to be on. Three horizontal bars…? Oh hey, here’s the menu we’re used to seeing all the way over on the left: save, print, find, settings, etc. (Let me tell you, this confuses the less tech-savvy library patrons no end, and why shouldn’t it? There is no natural mapping.)

Speaking of icons, I remember reading one or two excellent articles (with examples) in my Usability and User Experience class at Simmons, but they were either saved in Google Reader (RIP) or Delicious (to which I am trying to regain access). If I’m able to dig it/them up, I’ll post them here; meanwhile, feel free to share any links about good design in the comments.

Edited to add (10/8/13): Found it! Thanks to the responsive team at Delicious, I was able to access my old account. The article, from UX Movement about two years ago,  is called “9 Rules to Make Your Icons Clear and Intuitive.”

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

“Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.”

designofeverydaythings
The above quote is from the preface to the new edition of The Design of Everyday Things, which will be published in November (the preface is already available). If I’d known a new edition was coming so soon, I might’ve waited a few months, but as it is, the 1988 edition holds up fairly well. The examples are outdated, but the principles remain sound, and Norman even predicted certain technological advances (the smartphone, for example).

Norman’s principles of design truly do apply to everything that people make and use, from the simple (doors) to the advanced (computers). Though technology has improved since 1988 (now, of course, computers are everyday things), some of the same design flaws persist, and Norman’s decades-old observation still holds true to some extent: “[D]esigners of computer systems seem particularly oblivious to the needs of users…” Designers, who know their products well, often fall into the trap of thinking that they are the typical user, when in fact, they usually cannot predict the type of errors that users will commit.

So, what are these principles?

Visibility: Is it clear from examining the object in question how it can be used, or what should be done with it? For example, is the on/off switch in the front, or hidden around the back? I thought of an example of poor visibility right away: at our library, we have a coin box where patrons pay for their print jobs. This box is designed so that coins go in a slot at the top. The machine also accepts $1 and $5 bills, but the slot for the dollar bills is placed on the front of the box but very far down, near the floor. Patrons frequently come to the desk to get change for a bill, and we show them that the machine does in fact accept bills. A lot of them apologize for bothering us and blame themselves for not seeing the bill slot, but really, it is a bad design: the bill and coin slots should be grouped together.

Natural mapping: Essentially, does the way a thing works make sense? A joystick or a mouse employs natural mapping: forward=up, backward=down, left=left, right=right. Likewise a steering wheel in a car: turn right to move right, and left to move left. The opposite would be counterintuitive, confusing, and frustrating, and would lead to frequent error.

Conceptual model: Norman writes about three aspects of mental models: the design model, the system image, and the user’s model. The design model is the designer’s mental map of how their product works; the system image is what the product shows to the user; and the user’s model is a mental map of how they think the product works. In the preface to the 2002 edition, Norman writes, “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” Because the designer and the user don’t communicate directly, the user’s only insight into the designer’s mind is through the system image. Therefore, the designer must “explain” through the system image how the product works, and guide the user to perform the correct actions for the task they want to complete – not an easy feat. However, Norman writes, as a rule of thumb, “When instructions have to be pasted on something…it is badly designed.” Things work best when the designer and the user have similar conceptual models.

Feedback: Once the user has completed an action, how does s/he know whether it has worked or not? Humans generally are not comfortable with uncertainty, so a good design provides feedback to explain what is happening or has happened. “Design should…make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on.” Feedback includes everything from progress bars (“Your download is 58% complete”) to descriptive error messages with helpful next steps.

Swash_ornament_zeimusu

While reading The Design of Everyday Things, Clarke’s Third Law came to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Arthur C. Clarke). When processes become invisible, they come to seem magical and mysterious. The flip side is that “magic” is hard to take apart, fix, and put back together; cellphones aren’t like old radios. With much of today’s technology, it is difficult for users to tell what is happening, and, if something is going wrong, how to fix it. The Design of Everyday Things doesn’t necessarily help users who are frustrated with a product (except by assuring them that it likely isn’t their fault, but rather the fault of the design), but it does help us recognize bad design, think about how it could be better, and appreciate good design.

More quotes from the book can be found in my Goodreads review.