What I’m Reading: The Design of Everyday Things

What I’m Reading: The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, the Revised and Expanded Edition

My Thoughts

Oh where to begin with this book. I loved it so much I read it twice. The first time in a fascinated way, and the second carefully with a highlighter in hand. This book was life changing. Especially from a place of wanting to be a user advocate. I can claim life changing because, really understanding the concept that “users are not stupid, its just that somethings are poorly designed” has been incredibly freeing. It has changed my outlook about how I interact with the world of things around me. My level of frustration with particular software systems decreased immediately when I realized that not understanding, or remembering, or being able to find how to do something was not a failure on my part, but a design flaw. I started seeing the self blaming tendency in everyone around me; when people can’t figure out how to use the soap dispenser in the bathroom, when someone can’t figure out how to change the settings on their phone, when I can’t use the online system to make a doctors appointment! People blame themselves- I’m stupid, I’m too old, I must be doing something wrong- when really the design is to blame. I’ve spent the last several months going around pointing out design flaws and letting people know they are not to blame.

What I’m taking away:

The Design of Everyday Things is jam-packed with information that designers who really care about their users need to understand.

Discoverability and Understanding

Norman writes that the “two most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding.” What an object, item, or program tells you about what, where, and how to perform an action is discoverability. Knowing what to do with those actions, the why, is understanding.

According to Norman there are 6 psychological concepts that lead to discoverability:

  • Affordances: perceivable and invisible possibilities of interaction
  • Signifiers: signs, labels, drawings, diagrams, symbols
  • Constraints: physical, logical, semantic and cultural limits that guide action
  • Mappings: relationship between elements
  • Feedback: communicating the result of an action
  • Conceptual Model: highly simplified explanation of how something works

Understanding Error

Although there a myriad of ways in which errors occur, mostly they occur because users are expected to behave in unnatural ways. We need to design not just for the alert, attentive, focused user, but for the tired, the bored, the interrupted.

Slips and mistakes are two different types of errors:

  • Slips: the wrong action is performed- either action based– the wrong action is performed, or a memory lapse the action is forgotten.
  • Mistakes: wrong goal is established- either rule based– deciding on the wrong course of action, knowledge based- wrong or incomplete knowledge, and memory lapse- forgetting goals or plans.

Designers should design with error in mind- making actions reversible, giving users feedback or error messages when error occurs. Don’t require users to keep all the knowledge perform an action in their head, “assist rather than punish or scold.”

Human Centered Design Process

Norman details the Iterative Cycle of Human Centered Design as having four activities repeated over and over.

  • Observation: research about the users- observe to understand motives and true needs of users.
  • Idea Generation: generate numerous, creative, potential solutions without regard for constraints.
  • Prototyping: build mock-ups and sketches.
  • Testing: get users and see how they use your prototypes.

“A usable design starts with careful observations of how the tasks being supported are actually performed, followed by a design process that results in a good fit to the actual ways the tasks get performed.”


-Don Norman

Who should read this book?

Everyone interested in the world of things should read this book. Especially those designing, funding, marketing, and or conceiving of solutions to our interactions with the world around us. I must admit, I’m likely to read it for a third time!

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