The Psychology of Everyday Things

Posted: November 4, 2007 in Review, Usability

I just finished reading Donald Norman’s Psychology of Everyday Things (POET, as he calls it). Since one purpose of this blog is just to talk about my research, I thought I would take a shot at reviewing the book.

Before I continue, let me state that this is not intended to follow any normal reviewing format.

POET is a very interesting book that brings up questions about all the little things that we take for granted. It points out all the annoyances that we have with our technology and offers a very reassuring point of view: These problems we have are not our fault. They are the fault of designers. The devices themselves are designed wrong. That is to say, they are not designed with the user in mind.

Norman provides interminable examples of this, tackling everything from doors to VCRs to computers to telephones. Some of the things he examines are obvious sources of frustration (like the VCR), while others are not even what one might normal think of as ‘Technology’ (like a door).

Norman tells us that while we have a tendency to blame ourselves for problems in technology, we are laying the blame the wrong place. It isn’t that the clock radio is simple to use and we just keep screwing it up. The problem is that it ISN’T simple enough.

The source of these errors, of course, is that the designers are not the users. Often times, neither is the customer. For appliances, often the customer is a landlord not a tenant; for office equipment, the customer is the office manager, not the worker. The designers might be able to ignore the end user because the end user does not purchase the item (and since the end goal is to sell the product, why should they?)

A designer makes something with all kinds of features (the ‘Creeping Featurism’ disease Norman discusses in Chapter 6) because the designers believe that is what people want, an idea that is often reinforced by the customer. A manual is provided (and promptly ignored), and the people blame themselves when they can’t figure something out. But of course the problem isn’t that they didn’t read the manual. The problem is that in a good design, a user-centered design, the manual shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Also, the problem is that manuals are written after the fact, not during the design process, and hence cannot address all the proper issues.

With story after story of bad designs, Norman shows how little the user is really considered in the design of products. Reading this made me think about my own devices. Coincidentally, my iPod broke (I think) while I was reading it. I can no longer turn my iPod off without putting it in ‘sleep’ mode and waiting 15 minutes (used to be I could press and hold the pause button and it would turn off… usually, unless I just took it off the charger). The iPod itself is terribly designed. All the buttons serve multiple functions, only one of which is labeled, and very few of them work the way I would expect them to work.

Then I think about my laptop, where I write this very post. It has a mouse pad in the middle of the base, one that I use my fingers on. The problem with this design (very common for mouses on laptops) is that I rest my hands on the base when I type, and my right hand tends to rest slightly on the pad. Hence the mouse is constantly moving, trying to move the screen up or down, and occasionally it will even move the cursor, so that I end up typing right in the middle of a word I’ve already written (very annoying). Thankfully, the laptop I currently have has a button that turns the mouse censor off, so this isn’t a problem. But that little button isn’t standard, though it is one of my biggest requirements when it comes time to buy a mouse.

The best mouse I’ve ever seen on a laptop, by the way, was up on the side of the screen. there was a little ball that you moved with your thumb and two buttons on the back of the screen. Very comfortable to use and very out of the way. But that got left behind in the various redesigns of the laptop. This was done likely because redesigns have to be innovative, even if it means getting rid of something that is good in favor of something that is new (an unfortunate trend that Norman talks about in chapter 6.)

Overall, I found POET an interesting and relatively quick read (while I’ve technically been reading it for more than a week, I’ve probably only spent about 5 hours on the entire 200+ page book, note taking included). It brought up several ideas and made me look at the things around me a bit differently.

What I found most interesting in the book was an answer to a question that Johnson (of User Centered Technology fame) brought up about how new technologies may be de-skilling people. Norman writes,“Each technological advance that provides a mental aid also brings along critics who decry the loss of human skill that has been made less valuable. Fine, I say: if the skill is easily automated, it wasn’t essential” (193). So maybe we are being de-skilled. But if we are, then we are losing skills we don’t need any more in favor of skills that we now need.


This brings to mind an idea that I have heard from psychologists lately. Many of the features of our bodies and minds that were once very useful are no longer useful. Anxiety and adrenaline, for example, were once very useful, when we had to worry about being hunted and killed by large animals (or other humans). Today, though, these features are generally not necessary. In particular, I was told that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is best looked at not as someone being “crazy” or “broken,” but rather as having developed a self preservation strategy that was very helpful and very useful, but no longer being in the situation where that strategy is needed. So therapy for PTSD is not meant to “fix” people, but rather to help them realize that this strategy, while useful, is no longer necessary, and to mentally lower this wall and accept that they don’t need it anymore, but without resenting it having been there in the first place.

The point is, this suggestion seems to correlate with the idea of losing non-essential skills in favor of the skills demanded by our advancing society.


  1. cbdilger says:

    Two things: “others are not even what one might normal think of as ‘Technology’ (like a door)”—this is one of the great lessons of the book. Doors are (1) technology; (2) designed by humans. It’s easy to forget both of those things. Unless you are trying to get into our writing center…


    Norman writes, “Each technological advance that provides a mental aid also brings along critics who decry the loss of human skill that has been made less valuable. Fine, I say: if the skill is easily automated, it wasn’t essential” (193).

    To generalize, here is a process of technological change: the iPod comes along and makes the CD player a curiosity; writing comes along and changes the status of speech forever. The “critics” Norman names are many; they lack the perspective of seeing these technologies AS technologies and realizing they are not being replaced (in most cases) but changed.

  2. […] The Design of Everyday Things I’ve just finished Donald A. Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things. This is not my first time reading this book, nor my first time reviewing it. If you want to look at my original review, it’s here under the book’s original title, The Psychology of Everyday Things. […]

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