Book Review: The Design Of Everyday Things

The Design Of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman

It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who has serious problems with doors.  In the course of my life I have far too frequently ended up walking into automatic doors that for whatever reason failed to open.  It feels (and looks) rather like the ubiquitous and embarrassing flight of birds into glass doors, as one tries to preserve one’s dignity in the face of a door that has failed to open or to recognize that a somewhat heavy object was approaching it a relatively high speed (for walking, at least).  As someone who has tended to feel rather inept when it comes to opening doors or dealing with other common objects, this book was a breath of fresh air in explaining that in many cases it has not been my own fault but rather the fault of poor design by those who failed to take into account how it is that something would be used and the need for cues to prompt the correct behavior on the part of a user of such a product.  Told with a great deal of humor and sarcasm, this book is a must-read for those who design products for consumer use.

Coming in at a bit more than 200 pages, this book is divided into seven chapters that explain why so many things are designed so poorly in our world.  The author begins with two prefaces, noting the title of the book and why it was changed, because those who design things do not apparently read books on psychology.  The author begins the book with an entertaining and all too easy to understand discussion of the psychopathology of everyday things, from phones that are impossible to use properly to doors that are nearly impossible to use to problems from the absence of proper feedback to know that one is doing things correctly (1).  After this comes a discussion of the psychology of everyday actions (2), where people depend on both the knowledge that is in their head and knowledge in the world that does not have to be remembered.  This leads to a detailed discussion of these two types of knowledge (3) and how they can be harnessed in design through appropriate cues and sound mapping principles.  After this the author talks about how we know what to do (4) and how it is that many designs fail to properly inform us of what we are doing through visibility and feedback.  After this the author discusses various types of errors (5) and how it is that good designs help mitigate them, before moving to the design challenge (6) of avoiding feature creep and overreliance on computers.  The book then closes with a discussion about the importance of user-centered design (7) along with notes, suggested readings, and other reference and index material.

Why is it that communication is so difficult in this world?  Those things that are the easiest to use and that lead to the fewest problems share a set of circumstances, such as the fact that we can see what we are supposed to do with it and that the controls map well with the design of the device itself.  All too often, though, the desire for visual elegance is viewed as being much more important than being able to properly use something.  Devises win awards for elegant design even as they prove impossible to use in basic and fundamental ways.  Buildings are given awards for ambiguous doors and torturous office design that prove actively painful and unpleasant to use on the part of others.  And a great deal of this comes because people care more about things that look good than things that work, except for those who actually have to use them, and whose opinions and perspective is seldom taken into account by anyone who is involved in designing and purchasing devices for corporate use.  At the very least, this book is a helpful reminder to readers that they are not alone in struggling with poorly designed everyday objects, and that there is a better way for such things to be designed.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: The Design Of Everyday Things

  1. Pingback: An Introduction To The On Creativity Project | Edge Induced Cohesion

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