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The Design of Everyday Things – Don Norman March 11, 2012

Posted by dairui72 in Design Thinking, Design-related Books, [Books] Ways of Thinking.


The Design of Everyday things is an absolute classic in the arena of design and psychology. It was written by Don Norman and first published in 1988. The book has a good balance between theories and examples, most of which are industrial designs and products. Because of the broad range of design topics covered in the book, there is no single author’s point of view except that the design should be user centered – Norman argues issues and principles of product design from the user’s perspective and uses psychological models to explain usability and good designs.

The most important concepts (in my opinion) of design psychology include affordances, models, and mapping.

Affordance is the “perceived and actual properties of the thing”. For example, we know to turn the knob on a door (instead of pushing it or applying other actions) because the knob “affords” turning. The lesson for designers, therefore, is that the shape and build of a product can convey meaning and usage to its user.

Next, Norman argues that the design of a product is the conceptual model of the designer. The design (or presentation) essentially conveys that model to the user, who may or may not develop the same user’s model, which is a result of experiences and perceptions. When the two models mismatch, the product is perceived with poor usability. Then how to develop a better conceptual model? One solution is through natural mapping, a “close, natural relationship between the control and its function”.

Among other issues Norman also dedicates a whole chapter talking about errors. Norman categorizes errors into slips and mistakes: the former being errors from subconscious actions and the latter being errors from conscious deliberations. “To err is human” and as designers we should be proactively thinking about how to design better products to prevent and be able to correct human errors.

Critical analysis
The theories that Norman introduces in the book are valid and fundamental to better understand design from a user-oriented perspective. However, I argue that they are necessary but hardly sufficient to understand the full picture.

Affordance as a concept is centered on the product, emphasizing the physical design of the product conveys certain properties. It is a powerful tool and I use it to look at a familiar product that we take for granted and think of the design that goes into it. For example, we twist and turn the cap of a bottle because the round shape affords turning. We flip open the cap of a shampoo because that particular cap affords to do so.

However, assessing a product by its affordances does not take into account the context in which the product is used. A product can be used in very different ways in reality and can even be repurposed to achieve a drastically different goal. For example, when a water bottle is considered poorly designed by itself, should it still be considered poorly designed when it is not used as a water container but a vase?

With regard to the different conceptual models, a takeaway that I recognize is that as designers of a complex product or system we know it inside out; we know a great many details of how the system solves a problem and we can be inclined to present the product the same way to the end user, who, on the other hand, often only cares about the end result. Therefore, the way to present a system should not necessarily be the same way we design it or the way we solve the problem; rather, the presentation should always be user centered; keep it simple and intuitive.

For a current day example, think about the BART ticketing kiosk. To get a one-way ticket from SFO to Powell, a visitor/user needs to look up the exact dollar amount of the trip separately and enter that amount into the kiosk. But the dollar amount is just part of the solution to the user’s problem: I want to get from point A from point B! The design of the kiosk clearly does not match the user’s model. On the other hand, the best metro kiosk interface I have seen is one where I as a user can simply select my destination on the screen from a map and continue to payment. The control is the map of the metro system, which naturally maps to the function of the kiosk and also my need of getting from where I am to some other point on the map.

On the other hand, I do not think Norman has given enough elaboration on the role of a user’s cultural experiences when forming a conceptual model. There were some generalized discussions in terms of cultural constraints and social behaviors, but I think these factors largely determine how the product is being adopted and used in reality. How they actually help form the user’s model can be explored further.
Not saying that Norman should have included all these issues for the book to be valid, I think it is necessary for readers of the book to recognize them and be able to think about design in an even bigger context.

What is the value of this book?

The book offers valuable frameworks, guidelines, and concepts to product design. Like the book title suggests, these concepts are easily applicable to everyday things. A reader will be able to look beyond just the presentation and aesthetics of a product and practice critical design thinking.

The book joins tangible designs with abstract theories of psychology and it presents both aspects cohesively in a way that is also easy to understand. The theories provide insights into issues such as: How does the designer of a product communicate to the end users? How to make products intuitive to use? How to avoid and recover from errors?

What is the relevance of the book?

The book is highly relevant to our daily life, whether we are trained designers or not. Examples of everyday things such as doors and stoves are easily relatable and they make the book very easy to read. Users of a product no longer have to always blame themselves for not being able to use the product or when they make mistakes – maybe it is the designer’s fault! After reading this book I have become an avid critique of everyday things and I am able to appreciate good designs much more. For example, I went to my kitchen to inspect the conceptual model and mapping of my stoves, which turned out to have the “full natural mapping” as per Figure 3.5 – no wonder they were easy to use. The theories really come alive and I actually enjoy practicing them. In conclusion, the book is highly recommended.

The book has a few limitations, however. It is unfortunate that it was published over 20 years ago and a lot of the examples, although useful, are a bit outdated. When I was reading I could not help but wonder whether some of the problems are still common challenges for today’s designers and/or users, and whether developments that took place in the past 20 years brought up new challenges. In addition, the book centers on industrial design, but in today’s world which heavily runs on computer systems, it is necessary to understand how well the book’s concepts apply to software systems. Last, the book does not offer a methodology of how to come up with a good design. The concepts are good foundations and frameworks to evaluate existing work, but they do not necessarily “teach” someone how to know what the customers want, how to design iteratively, etc. It is difficult to turn some of the theories into actions.