The Design of Everyday Things

Posted: January 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
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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.

Aside from how interesting it is to see how my own thought process has changed over the years since I last read it, there are a lof of things worth discussing in Norman’s book. Principles that people should consider when designing anything, pointing out where design is that we don’t see it (obvious places, like doors or keyboards); Norman talks about all of it.

In Chapter 2, for example, he discusses the seven stages of any action:

  1. Forming the goal
  2. Forming the intention
  3. Specifying the action
  4. Executing the action
  5. Perceiving the state of the world
  6. Interpreting the state of the world
  7. Evaluating the outcome

Which form a model, and some goals form feedback loops, leading to other actions and sequences (48).

With a little thought, it seems clear to me that this is the normal stages I go through when I want to do something. I don’t usually articulate them, but they tend still to be there. More importantly, these stages have value for design, helping us to use well designed things, and making it harder to use items that are not. As Norman writes, “the next time you pick up an unfamiliar object and use it smoothly and effortlessly on the first try, stop and examine it: the ease of use did not come about by accident. Someone designed the object carefully and well” (53).

Norman moves to explain his principles by discussing the types of knowledge. Specifically, he differentiates between knowledge how and knowledge of. “Knowledge of-what psychologists call declarative knowledge- includes the knowledge of facts and rules… Declarative knowledge is easy to write down and to teach. Knowledge how-what psychologists call procedural knowledge- is the knowledge that enables a person to perform music, to stop a car smoothly with a flat tire on an icy road … Precedural knowledge is difficult or impossible to write down and difficult to teach” (57-8).

These two types of knowledge help me to better understand the seven stages of action. Sometimes, I’ll skip steps (most notably steps 3, 5, or 6). But this is because much of the knowledge I’m using in those cases is procedural. I don’t think of what I need to do to drive to school. I just think of the goal (getting to school), and intention (driving there), then I just execute the action and evaluate the outcome (either I’m at school, or I’m still on the way). I don’t really need to think about it unless I make a wrong turn, or I’m going somewhere I don’t usually go.

Norman moves on to talk about the important principles of design, most notably Visibility and Feedback (chapter 4). We need to be able to see that something is working, and we need to have some reaction telling us that things are working or are not. A great example of feedback is hold music. It’s annoying, it constantly cuts out, but it lets us know that we’re still on hold. If there was just silence, we would think we’d been disconnected. For a less frustrating example, there’s the computer I’m typing this on is a great example. I hit the keys on my keyboard, and words appear on the screen. That’s great feedback.

But what of visibility? That’s all about making relevant parts visible, like labelling the buttons on a television remote so I know which one will turn the TV on. Or the color coded buttons on a guitar hero controller corresponding with the colored bars that slide down the screen to show you when you should use those buttons (and, incidentally, providing feedback when you press them).

Not all visibility is visual. Sometimes it’s the clicking sound in a mouse, or the little sound the car makes when it unlocks all the doors. The important part of visibility is that it shows you what you can do and what the situation is. The best place to see the importance of visibility is on a door. A horizontal bar means push, a verticle one means pull (normally).

Of course, things don’t always follow these principles. And that leads to errors. So what can be done to make better ‘things’? According to Norman, it’s all about how we design those things. We have to design for error. Norman says designers need to make sure they minimize the damage when errors are made. To do this, he suggests:

  1. Understand the cause of error and design to minimize those causes.
  2. Make it possible to reverse actions –to “undo” them– or make it harder to do what cannot be reversed.
  3. Make it easier to discover errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct.
  4. Change the attitude towards errors. Think of an object’s user as attempting to do a task, getting there by imperfect approximations. Don’t think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired (131).

This is a whole different way to design things. Rather than designing with the intention of things working exactly one way, Norman is suggesting that we design so that when errors happen (and they will), it’s not a big deal. Not a huge problem.

I think that’s the primary point of this book. Errors happen (there’s a whole chapter called “to Err is human”), and as much as we try to design well enough to avoid them, it’s more important that we design so that those errors are less significant. It would be great if there were never any problems with using things, but when there are problems, they should be easily identified and easily fixed, undone, or dealt with. Making designs easier to use and focusing on the people who will be using them (not the designer, often not even the customer) makes a product more attractive, gives it longer shelf life, and makes a huge difference in satisfaction with the product.


There’s one bit of this book that grabbed my attention both times I read this. On page 193, Norman writes “Each technological advance that provides a mental aide also brings along critics who decry the loss of the human skill that has been made less valuable. Fine, I say: if the skill is easily automated, it wasn’t essential.” Originally, I saw that as an adequate explanation for becoming de-skilled. If we lose some skills, it’s just so that we have room for other skills. Of course, this doesn’t always happen the way we expect it. Norman talks about becoming a better speller because of the spell check function of his word processor; I’ve certainly noticed that about myself over the years also.

But what drew me to this statement my second time through the book wasn’t the idea of being de-skilled. It was those very critics decrying the loss of human skill. Most specifically, it was Socrates, who hated the new technology of his day (writing), saying that writing took away the human ability to memorize. Automating a lot of the simple memories have caused us not to remember some details, but I don’t think the ability of human memory has gotten worse of the centuries; if anything, I think it’s gotten better.

I can’t remember many poems (though Norman suggests that neither did anyone else; the ‘word for word’ replications were just a consistent structure that used many of the same words and seemed to be identical. Normal discusses this at length in chapter three). But I do remember where to go when looking for information on a number of subjects. I have hundreds of jokes memorized, I remember the major plot lines of several novels, movies, and television shows. More to the point, I remember what various street signs mean, how to drive a car, how to type, to do laundry, the rules of various sports, an uncomfortably large number of role playing game rules, and a surprising amount of trivia. My memory may not be as focused as Socrates, but I daresay I use mine better. I remember the things I need to remember, and then remember where to go to get the details I didn’t think it was important enough to keep in my head (like what exact words Socrates says about writing. I know they’re in the Phaedrus, but I don’t need to memorize the words. They’re written down in my copy of the Phaedrus, which is currently in my office, in the locker on the right, to the far left in a stack of other books, and is in a book called Plato on Rhetoric, or something like that).

Memory patterns work better than exact details; we have evolved a better way to use our memory by automating the things our memories are not as good at. It may be a lost skill, but that skill we lost has given us room for many more skills than we ever had before.

So I’m with Norman; if it’s easily automated, maybe we don’t need it.


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