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The Design of Everyday Things March 7, 2011

Posted by Sophie Wong in Design Thinking, Design-related Books.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman

Review by Sophie Wong, PhD student in Bioengineering

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman describes the psychology of users when they encounter products. Dr. Norman emphasizes that design is based on the “needs and interests” of the user, a philosophy called the user-centered design. Products should be usable and understandable without requiring the user to consult the user manual. If a mistake is made, it is never the user’s fault, it is due to poor design. Every day, we are bombarded with choices such as pulling, pushing, sliding, flipping, pressing, etc. How do we determine what to do? Design cues are supposed to point us in the right direction. Through examples of everyday objects such as doors, sinks, faucets, and telephones, Dr. Norman outlines the guiding principles to good design.

The seven principles for transforming difficult tasks into simple ones are listed below.

1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.

2. Simplify the structure of tasks.

3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.

4. Get the mappings right.

5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.

6. Design for error.

7. When all else fails, standardize.

Knowledge in the world relieves the user from memorizing every detail about how to use a certain product. However, knowledge in the head allows for more efficiency when performing tasks.  Thus, Dr. Norman argues that a product with external physical cues and easily interpreted internal relationships that allow the user to understand intended actions provides the user with the most comfortable experience.

The overall take home message is that successful products will provide the user with visibility and feedback. The user must be able to figure out what to do with the object and be able to understand that an action has been completed. I particularly agreed with and enjoyed the chapter on developing conceptual models and mapping features to functions. When there are fewer features than functions, the user becomes confused because the “hidden” functions are not immediately obvious. However, too many features can also be confusing and create a learning barrier for the user. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the modern day TV remotes, especially the Sony Google TV remote vs. the Apple TV remote.

Sony Google TV remote and Apple TV remote

The Sony Google TV remote has many buttons that are the same shape and size – it would be difficult to use in the dark while watching TV.  This design must imply that the remote is capable of many functions, but what a nightmare to learn! On the other hand, the Apple TV remote only has three buttons. How would the user input channels? Both of these products are at the extremes of design: one has too many features, the other doesn’t have enough features.

I also strongly agreed with the analysis of conceptual models: the design model, the user’s model, and the system image. The design model is the designer’s concept of the product; it is what the product is meant to do. The user’s model is how the user explains and interprets the way the product functions. The goal is for the designer’s and user’s models to be the same. However, as we all know, this isn’t always the case. The system image is how the designer communicates with the user. The challenge is for the designer to ensure that the system image (the product) has the proper appearance, function, and feedback that is necessary for the user to understand how to operate the system.

Simple mappings in the system image can go a long way. Natural mappings that take advantage of the user’s knowledge in the head help increase aesthetics and reduce confusion. Dr. Norman emphasizes that good design does not require extraneous labels or signs to describe the intended action. A door handle should be designed in such a way that would be obvious whether it was meant to be pushed or pulled or slid or flipped. Light switches and stove controls should not have to be labeled. The steering wheel is used as an example of natural mapping. Users instinctively know that spinning the wheel clockwise will cause the vehicle to turn left and vice versa. This action makes sense because the clockwise turn points to the left side, which is the same direction the vehicle will turn. This natural mapping doesn’t require posted signs next to the steering wheel that says, “spin wheel clockwise for left turn”.   The balance between aesthetics and practicality is essential to a successful product.

The chapter on constraints was also provoking. It helped me re-examine the purpose and nature of everyday objects. Physical, semantic, cultural, and logical constraints work together seamlessly to help users determine how to approach an object without having to consult a manual. The example of a well designed car key that works in both directions never occurred to me until I read the book! I had taken for granted the ease of always being able to open the car doors immediately. I realize now that 60% of the time when I open regular doors, such as my apartment door, I use the key in the wrong direction and have to flip it over.

At the end of the book, Dr. Norman stresses the importance of planning for errors and keeping systems consistent.

Given that this book was written in 1988 (originally named The Psychology of Everyday Things), Dr. Norman’s vision of technological advances is impressive. Many of his descriptions of how things could improve have actually been developed in the modern world! For example, on pg. 74 Dr. Norman asks the question,

“Would you like a pocket-sized device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. I will definitely put all my reminding burdens upon it. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full, standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive…it will exist in imperfect form in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Apple iPhone 4 (source)

What do we have today that perfectly fits this description? Welcome, the iPhone and Android phones. The first smart phone, the IBM Simon, was released in 1993 (five years after the book was published) and the most recent iPhone 4 was released in 2010 (22 years after the book was published). These products demonstrate how attentive observation of everyday objects and user experience can help us design better products. I wonder what Dr. Norman thinks of today’s technologies and what improvements he suggests we need to make for the next ten years?

I highly recommend this book to everyone who wants to realize the difference between “good” and “bad” design. The book is entertaining because anyone can relate to the frustrations of the everyday objects that Dr. Norman uses as examples. The writing style is easy to follow and the arguments are sound. Although the examples are quite outdated, the underlying principles remain applicable in a timeless fashion.

The only criticism I have is more of a curious question for the readers: If visibility and feedback are so important why do designers who make “high-end” products that are also very expensive tend to disguise the product’s function? Does the monetary value of these seemingly aesthetically pleasing products reveal how society values non-user centered design? For example, how do the doors open in this image (bathroom stall doors)?

Bathroom design by architect Thomas Heatherwick. Pacific Place Mall in Hong Kong.

Image sources:


1. Google-Tv.ca Canadian Source for Google Tv News and Information. » The Design of Everyday Things « Design Thinking @ Haas - March 7, 2011

[…] Read more:  The Design of Everyday Things « Design Thinking @ Haas […]

2. Jon Pittman - March 7, 2011

Sophie – nice review. I like the way you contrasted the Google and Apple TV controls and related to historical context with Don’s comments about the PDA->iPhone. Design of Everyday Things is truly a classic and I am glad you got a chance to read it.

On your question about high end designers – I actually met Thomas Heatherwick the other day. He is a very nice, unassuming guy but I’d put him more in the realm of art than design. I do believe design has to serve a practical purpose – and Don’s book describes this. Unfortunately the world often confuses the two. Heatherwick makes wonderful art, I’m just not sure it is always good design.

Sophie Wong - March 8, 2011

Yes, it is frustrating when art trumps design, especially in architecture where the end result needs to serve a practical purpose frequently (not something that sits on a dusty shelf). Perhaps, it is more difficult for the general public to appreciate good design when compared to judging good aesthetics because the designers did such a good job that users take for granted the product’s ease of use.

On the other hand, art is easier to judge because it is visually obvious when something looks ugly. As Dr. Norman says, people tend to blame themselves when they encounter bad design (due to the inherent user interaction involved with most products), but no one would ever blame themselves when they see something aesthetically unpleasant.

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