Interview Jasper van Kuijk

Jasper van Kuijk wrote a book that he describes as a ‘how-to-think-about-doing-design’ book

Week in week out Jasper van Kuijk dissects bad designs in the ‘Volkskrant’. Time to fight back, he thought, and explain how to create usable designs in his new book. “If this book makes my column redundant, I will be very happy.”

Jasper van Kuijk. (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

Even before entering Delta’s meeting room for this interview, Jasper van Kuijk starts talking about the tent camp in front of the entrance to the TU Delft Library. There has been one at ‘his’ university in Sweden’s Karlstad since last week, he says. Just like at TU Delft, the students there want their university to cut its ties with Israeli institutions.

Is the University of Karlstad similar to TU Delft in other areas too?

“The way it works academically is similar, though it is a much newer, smaller, more general university. It is also less international. There are international students, but in terms of numbers, they are similar to how TU Delft was 15 years ago.

At the same time, my group – Service Research – is well known around the world. This is quite common for small universities as they are really good at some things. TU Delft, which is very good at a lot of things, is unique in that sense.”

Jasper van Kuijk has been living in Sweden since 2022 and is back in the Netherlands for one week to promote his new popular science book entitled ‘Hoe makkelijk kun je het maken’ (how easy can you make it). His book was published on Thursday and in almost 300 pages he addresses the question of how we can make things that are really usable.

Van Kuijk is not only an author, but also a design scientist at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) at TU Delft. Since he moved to Sweden – his ‘bonus country’ – in 2022, he has supervised two PhD candidates remotely and is part of a team working on research into Schiphol as a multimodal hub. He presented his book at the IDE Arena at the IDE Faculty on Friday afternoon.

The idea for this book has been around for a while, as I read in a Delta interview (in Dutch) from 2019. In the meantime, you went to Sweden for a year, came back to TU Delft, told Delta that you had many doubts, and then moved for real. What did this all mean for the book?

“Mostly that it took longer to get it done. I went to Sweden to write. But halfway through our year there, Covid happened. This pushed a lot of things off track. When I came back to the Netherlands, all teaching suddenly had to go online. So the book was on hold. Then we decided to return to Sweden. You then have other things on your mind.

‘If this book makes my column redundant, I will be very happy’

What did not help speed up the process was that I adopted a usability approach when writing. I continuously let people read what I was writing. The publisher said that she rarely saw someone getting feedback so systematically. But I am really happy with it as it led to a lot of valuable things.”

Why did you feel the need to write a book about usability subjects?

“The world is getting more and more complex. Just look at all the technology in your telephone. It is all interaction and behaviour. All sorts of things are digitalised. There are now so many human-product interactions all over the place and it is a shame if not everyone can use them. Just think about digital service provision that exclude people who are not very literate or are elderly.

The book is a sort of answer to my columns in the ‘Volkskrant (in Dutch) newspaper in which I dissect what goes wrong with designing. The good thing about writing about things that go wrong is that you can point them out easily. But you do also need to say how they could be improved. If this book makes my column redundant, I will be very happy.”

In your book you write ‘even if designer is not included in your job description, there is a big chance that you do design things’. What do you mean?

“Some people say that everyone is a designer. I do not agree as designing is a real profession. But a lot of people design as a pastime. I very much agree with the definition in the book by Herbert Simon (an American academic in the 1900s, Eds.) that I refer to in my book. He describes designing as making a plan to move from a file to a desired situation.

If you define it like that a lot of people will suddenly realise that they do this as well. It’s just that they produce a policy, improve a process or write stories. Everyone can apply insights from the design world in a certain way.”

‘I give readers the principles and they can translate them to their own fields’

Would you call your book a manual?

He laughs. “Yes. My first idea was to highlight the principles behind design. But while working on it I realised that you can’t discuss designing without talking about ‘doing’. So it is a combi, a sort of ‘how to think about doing design’. I don’t say do this or do that. I give readers the principles and they can translate them to their own fields.”

In your book you emphasise the fact that you consciously use the term ‘usability’ over the term ‘user friendly’. Why is this so important?

“Designing for usability is not the same as asking people what they want and then doing that. It’s about usage in the wider context. The user is one part of this. There are other considerations too. Do other products play a role? Who else is involved? In what kind of environment? It’s about the whole usage context and not only about the users themselves.”

After a test year, you have now lived in Sweden for two years. Will you ever come back to the Netherlands?

“At the moment being there is forever. We are there with the mindset of it being our new country. We are learning the language, are integrating, our children go to school there and we are part of the community. As my mother is Swedish and I always went to Sweden on holiday, my Swedish is quite good. I’ve just never learned the grammar so that’s what I’m doing now.

I still come back to the Netherlands regularly and now that I’m involved in a project here at TU Delft, I come back more often. But I won’t come here every time someone asks me to do a presentation. Then my mind and body would be here too much, while my family is there. So I won’t do that.

I am currently a guest researcher in Karlstad. Now that my book is finished, it may be time to step over completely.”

The best design tips from Jasper van Kuijk

  1. Go outside

“Designing starts with observation. Go and sit next to someone and look at something with them. This is the starting point. You can go into this more deeply later on. When I was carrying out research on the OV chip card, we went to stations in the Netherlands, London and even Hong Kong. If you get complaints from hospital staff about the IT system, shadow them for a day. This is hugely important.”

  1. Test early and often

“What you should not do is design everything in one go and then test it just once. Then you would not be able to change anything anymore. You’ll have lost your design freedom. Designing is an iterative process in which you are constantly testing and adjusting things. This is how you gradually adapt your design.”

  1. Accept that your design is not finished when you test it

“Do not first compile a whole list of requirements and then use it to come up with a perfect design. Instead, make a rough list and get started. Explore the options. As you work, it will become clearer what you need. Your design will become more and more mature.”

  1. Take on the complexity yourself and don’t put it at the door of the user

“Every design challenge entails a certain amount of complexity. To me it is important that the user is not faced with the complexity, but that you – as the designer – take it on. This is the basic task of designers – you solve it, not the user. If not, it will simply be a bad design.”

Hoe makkelijk kun je het maken?
Jasper van Kuijk
Publisher: Atlas Contact

Jasper van Kuijk presented his book at the IDE Arena at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (TU Delft) on Friday afternoon.

CV Jasper van Kuijk (47)

2024 Hoe makkelijk kun je het maken’ book about designing for usability

2022 Winner of the ‘De Slimste Mens’  (the cleverest person) television quiz show

2021Bonusland’ (a bonus country) book about his year in the Swedish countryside

2019-2020 and 2022-present Guest researcher, University of Karlstad (Sweden)

2019Ligt het nou aan mij’  (is it my doing) book of columns from the ‘Volkskrant’ newspaper

2016Hoe moeilijk kan het zijn?’ (how hard can it be?) book of columns from the ‘Volkskrant’ newspaper

2015-present columnist at the ‘Volkskrant’ newspaper

2011-present Researcher and teacher of User-Centred Design, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft

2010-2022 Cabaret artist, performed in five shows

2005-2010 PhD Industrial Design Engineering, TU Delft

1994-2002 Industrial Design Engineering student, TU Delft

Science editor Kim Bakker

Do you have a question or comment about this article?

Comments are closed.