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Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things
One sunny morning, a few months back, my kitchen design set my nice new jacket on fire.
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The jacket had been sitting on the kitchen counter next to the stove and was draped partially over one hotplate. My wife had intended to turn on a different hotplate, but, being in a rush she turned the wrong dial. A small fire soon broke out which melted a plastic container and left a smoldering hole in my jacket.
My wife was, naturally, apologetic, and she politely avoided mentioning that it was me who had left the jumper on the stove in the first place.
But I was mostly interested in metaphorically waving Don Norman's The Design of Everyday Things in her face and explaining how it was not her fault for turning on the wrong hotplate, nor was it my fault for leaving my jacket on the stove. The problem was bad design.
Don Norman has been on a 40 year crusade to change the way we think about the relationship between us and our objects. Specifically, he argues with great conviction that almost all of what we attribute to user error should instead be put down to a failure of design. If you build a door that is too big for the intended doorway, you don't label it "doorway error" and call it a day. The term "user error" is in most cases just as absurd. The user is a person, and people come with predictable behaviors and constraints which good design should take into account. Yet every day we interact with objects that fail at this criteria.
Have you ever:
Encountered a door that you didn't know whether to push or pull?
Owned an appliance who's functions you barely understood?
Lived in a house where you could never remember which light switch turned on which light?
Turned on the wrong hotplate on a stove?
These are all failures of design under Norman's model. It's not enough for it to be physically possible to perform an object's function - our objects should be optimized for us and all our quirks. If there is one passage from the book that sums up Norman's mindset, it's this:
During my family’s stay in England, we rented a furnished house while the owners were away. One day, our landlady returned to the house to get some personal papers. She walked over to the old, metal filing cabinet and attempted to open the top drawer. It wouldn’t open. She pushed it forward and backward, right and left, up and down, without success. I offered to help. I wiggled the drawer. Then I twisted the front panel, pushed down hard, and banged the front with the palm of one hand. The cabinet drawer slid open. “Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. I am so bad at mechanical things.” No, she had it backward. It is the mechanical thing that should be apologizing, perhaps saying, “I’m sorry. I am so bad with people.”
The Design of Everyday Things’ 1988 release helped to usher in a paradigm shift in design: user centric design, a term which Don Norman popularized. Here I’ll be reviewing the 2013 revised edition, which has a bit of extra content and up-to-date examples. It was written for designers, but it also has a lot of insight to offer to anyone who's ever used a thing and who plans on doing so again - so if that sounds like you, read on.
A lot of the value that The Design of Everyday Things offers is in defining a linguistic framework for thinking and talking about user centric design. Maybe this doesn't sound like an overly lofty achievement, but sometimes lacking the right language can limit the way we think. George Orwell warned us about totalitarian governments controlling our thoughts by controlling our language - but this also works in reverse. Expanding your language can open up new ways to think about the world.
If you want to adopt Norman's mindset, where our objects are at fault for many of our mistakes, then you need to be able to talk about these mistakes in terms of properties of the objects. In this section we’ll walk through some definitions, starting with discoverability and understanding. But first, let's talk about doors.
Doors are the prototypical Don Norman example, as the man himself will tell you:
My problems with doors have become so well known that confusing doors are often called “Norman doors.” Imagine becoming famous for doors that don’t work right. I’m pretty sure that’s not what my parents planned for me. (Put “Norman doors” into your favorite search engine—be sure to include the quote marks: it makes for fascinating reading.)
I'm not sure who calls them that exactly, but he's right about the search results. So what problems does he have exactly?
“Doors?” I can hear the reader saying. “You have trouble opening doors?” Yes. I push doors that are meant to be pulled, pull doors that should be pushed, and walk into doors that neither pull nor push, but slide. Moreover, I see others having the same troubles—unnecessary troubles.
We all encounter such doors. A door with a handle that is meant to be pushed. A door that should be pushed, but doesn't indicate which side. Such doors have poor discoverability, meaning that it is not obvious how you should interact with them, or even which parts should be interacted with. You would probably feel embarrassed after pushing a door with a big “pull” label on it - but if the door requires a label then the problem started well before you walked into it. What can be done about this? Help us out here please Don:
Whether the device is a door or a stove, a mobile phone or a nuclear power plant, the relevant components must be visible, and they must communicate the correct message: What actions are possible? Where and how should they be done? With doors that push, the designer must provide signals that naturally indicate where to push. These need not destroy the aesthetics. Put a vertical plate on the side to be pushed. Or make the supporting pillars visible. The vertical plate and supporting pillars are natural signals, naturally interpreted, making it easy to know just what to do: no labels needed.
Related to discoverability is understanding. As well as knowing how to interact with something (discoverability), you also need to know what the result of the interaction will be (understanding). Doors don't generally have problems with understanding, but our appliances do. If you pick up the remote for a new TV, the appropriate interaction is obvious - you know that you're supposed to push the buttons. No discoverability problems there. But you may not know what the results of pressing the buttons will be, which is a problem that falls into the realm of understanding. Complexity is frequently the enemy of understanding:
Many products defy understanding simply because they have too many functions and controls. . . Faced with a bewildering array of controls and displays, we simply memorize one or two fixed settings to approximate what is desired. In England I visited a home with a fancy new Italian washer-dryer combination, with super-duper multisymbol controls, all to do everything anyone could imagine doing with the washing and drying of clothes. The husband (an engineering psychologist) said he refused to go near it. The wife (a physician) said she had simply memorized one setting and tried to ignore the rest. I asked to see the manual: it was just as confusing as the device. The whole purpose of the design is lost.
If you're thinking "why don't people just keep the manual nearby and refer to it when they need to?", then you're missing the point. The very fact that most people don't do this shows that this system doesn't work. Manuals get lost. People don't have time. People find a way to use the appliance that works for them - a local maxima - which may not be the best way, but to do anything else requires time, mental effort and establishing new habits.
Case in point, I don't know how to use any function on my microwave except for +30 seconds. It probably wouldn't take me long to figure it out (it's something ridiculous like: press Microwave button -> choose power -> input time -> press start), but the only times I run into the problem of "I barely know how to use my microwave" are times when I also have the more pressing problem of "I'm hungry and this food is too cold". By the time the second problem is resolved, the first no longer seems important. This status quo hasn't changed in the 10 years I've owned it (and it seems I’m not alone).
In the past I've used an older style microwave where the only inputs were two dials - one for power, and one for time. Turn the time dial up and the microwave starts. My god is this a better system. It's immediately obvious how it works, and with one motion I get more precision than I do with my "press 30 seconds 3-5 times" method. The only changes I would make would be to add a digital display and maybe make the dial logarithmic.
Moving on to affordances. An affordance is any action made possible by a combination of the properties of an object and the abilities of its user. A button affords pushing. A chair affords sitting. A chair affords lifting, so long as the lifter is strong enough. An anti-affordance is the opposite - where a possible interaction is prevented by an object's properties. A window has an anti-affordance property for blocking passage, (but affords being seen through).
A stove affords support for other objects, as well as heat transfer to those objects. This combination is part of what gives electric and gas stoves the potential to start fires. Removing either of these affordances would make stoves safer. Induction stoves have succeeded with the latter - they afford heat transfer only for magnetic metals, meaning stray dishcloths (and jackets) are safe from harm.
Signifiers communicate an objects function to the user:
For me, the term signifier refers to any mark or sound, any perceivable indicator that communicates appropriate behavior to a person. Signifiers can be deliberate and intentional, such as the sign PUSH on a door, but they may also be accidental and unintentional, such as our use of the visible trail made by previous people walking through a field or over a snow-covered terrain to determine the best path.
Signs and labels are types of highly deliberate signifiers, but signifiers can also take the form of perceived affordances. For example, a handle on a door suggests that the door affords pulling (which may or may not be true). A well designed object should have signifiers for all its intended affordances, and no false signifiers for non-existent affordances.
Affordances and signifiers can also be unintentional or undesirable, as in this example from the book:
Constraints are restrictions on what actions are possible. A 9 volt battery has a constraint on its attachment point that means it is only possible to connect it one way. AA batteries don't have this constraint, thus it is possible to insert them the wrong way. Button batteries are even worse.
The book actually has an example of a design for a AA shaped battery that can be inserted either way, where each end has both a negative terminal (a ring around the edge) and a positive one (the center). Maybe in another world this could have been the standard, but sadly it is not in ours. We can at least be grateful to USB-C for making this meme obsolete:
Constraints can themselves act as signifiers. You don't have to know anything about electronics to be able to work out how most of the cables should be inserted into a TV (HDMI, antenna, power). This information is communicated by the fact that these cables only fit into one port. The exception is the RCA cables (the red/white/yellow ones), which instead use color as a signifier. This is not ideal in many situations - when you can't easily see the ports, if you're colorblind, if your device doesn't follow convention etc.
Most of us know what Feedback is, and how frustrating it can be when it is lacking:
Ever watch people at an elevator repeatedly push the Up button, or repeatedly push the pedestrian button at a street crossing? Ever drive to a traffic intersection and wait an inordinate amount of time for the signals to change, wondering all the time whether the detection circuits noticed your vehicle (a common problem with bicycles)? What is missing in all these cases is feedback: some way of letting you know that the system is working on your request.
Then there's Mapping, which refers to the relationship between the controls and the device being controlled. Think of how a row of light switches relate to their corresponding lights. Ideally this relationship has some kind of intuitive logic to it - the switch on the left controls the light on the left, etc. The gold standard of mapping is natural mapping, where the controls mirror some aspect of the real world:
This passage feels relevant for us:
Did you ever turn the wrong burner of a stove on or off? You would think that doing it correctly would be an easy task. . . In fact, the task appears to be so simple that when people do it wrong, which happens more frequently than you might have thought, they blame themselves: “How could I be so stupid as to do this simple task wrong?” they think to themselves. Well, it isn’t so simple, and it is not their fault: even as simple a device as the everyday kitchen stove is frequently badly designed, in a way that guarantees the errors.
Almost all stoves I’ve seen have their hotplates arranged in a grid, while their dials are arranged in a line:
With this arrangement users must rely on checking the labels (which hopefully have not rubbed off) to know which dial corresponds to which hotplate. This leaves room for errors, which can and do happen.
Every stove seems to be different. Even different stoves from the same manufacturer differ. No wonder people have trouble, leading their food to go uncooked, and in the worst cases, leading to fire.
I can attest to that. A stove with naturally mapped controls does not have this problem. Here are two examples:
The dials are arranged in a way that mirrors the arrangement of the hotplates, so it is immediately obvious which corresponds to which. It's hard to imagine making the same mistake with good natural mapping.
Lastly we have conceptual models. Conceptual models are the way we understand an object to function. It doesn't matter if they're accurate, as long as they are useful.
The files, folders, and icons you see displayed on a computer screen help people create the conceptual model of documents and folders inside the computer, or of apps or applications residing on the screen, waiting to be summoned. In fact, there are no folders inside the computer—those are effective conceptualizations designed to make them easier to use.
When the function of an object is not transparent, people will form their own conceptual model of how it may work. But these models are often erroneous. A common example is the thermostat - people often believe that setting it to its maximum will make the room heat faster than setting it to the desired temperature. This is nicely demonstrated in this scene from Peep Show:
Jeremy's conceptual model is that the thermostat acts as a faucet, therefore he wants the temperature to be set high to be sure that it is turned all the way on. Mark is correct that it actually operates as an on/off switch - but how would one know that without being told or doing deliberate experimentation? The comment section on that video is full of people who had the same misconception as Jeremy.
Aside from these definitions and examples, much of the rest of the book is made up of breakdowns of the psychology behind how we interact with objects and of the processes that go into doing good design. These breakdowns can be insightful but can also tend towards tedious - the ugly diagrams of things like "The Double-Diamond Model of Design" kind of give the feeling that you're stuck in an 80s corporate training presentation.
There were a couple of other sections I wanted to highlight, just for fun. To illustrate the difficulty of establishing industry standards, Norman tells a story about his involvement in HDTV definitions. Under a section titled "A standard that took so long, technology overran it" (I've cut some sentences for length):
In the 1970s, the Japanese developed a national television system that had much higher resolution than the standards then in use: they called it “high-definition television.”
In 1995, two decades later, the television industry in the United States proposed its own high-definition TV standard (HDTV) to the FCC. But the computer industry pointed out that the proposals were not compatible with the way that computers displayed images, so the FCC objected to the proposed standards. Apple mobilized other members of the industry and, as vice president of advanced technology, I was selected to be the spokesperson for Apple.
The battle was heated. The FCC told all the competing parties to lock themselves into a room and not to come out until they had reached agreement. We ended up with a crazy agreement that recognized multiple variations of the standard, with resolutions of 480i and 480p (called standard definition), 720p and 1080i (called high-definition), and two different aspect ratios for the screens (the ratio of width to height), 4:3 and 16:9. Yes, it was a standard, or more accurately a large number of standards. It was a mess, but we did reach agreement. After the standard was made official in 1996, it took roughly ten more years for HDTV to become accepted, helped, finally, by a new generation of television displays that were large, thin, and inexpensive. The whole process took roughly thirty-five years from the first broadcasts by the Japanese.
Was it worth the fight? Yes and no. In the thirty-five years that it took to reach the standard, the technology continued to evolve, so the resulting standard was far superior to the first one proposed so many years before. Moreover, the HDTV of today is a huge improvement over what we had before (now called “standard definition”). But the minutiae of details that were the focus of the fight between the computer and TV companies was silly. My technical experts continually tried to demonstrate to me the superiority of 720p images over 1080i, but it took me hours of viewing special scenes under expert guidance to see the deficiencies of the interlaced images (the differences only show up with complex moving images). So why did we care?
There's also this passage where he describes design in terms of gradient ascent:
Most design evolves through incremental innovation by means of continual testing and refinement. In the ideal case, the design is tested, problem areas are discovered and modified, and then the product is continually retested and remodified. If a change makes matters worse, well, it just gets changed again on the next go-round. Eventually the bad features are modified into good ones, while the good ones are kept. The technical term for this process is hill climbing, analogous to climbing a hill blindfolded. Move your foot in one direction. If it is downhill, try another direction. If the direction is uphill, take one step. Keep doing this until you have reached a point where all steps would be downhill; then you are at the top of the hill, or at least at a local peak.
Hill climbing. This method is the secret to incremental innovation. This is at the heart of the human-centered design process discussed in Chapter 6. Does hill climbing always work? Although it guarantees that the design will reach the top of the hill, what if the design is not on the best possible hill? Hill climbing cannot find higher hills: it can only find the peak of the hill it started from. Want to try a different hill? Try radical innovation, although that is as likely to find a worse hill as a better one.
Finally, my only real point of disagreement with the book - Norman complains that the new Lego set on the right was a step down from the 80s one on the left, because the new one can’t be assembled without instructions:
Featuritis Strikes Lego. Figure A shows the original Lego Motorcycle available in 1988 when I used it in the first edition of this book (on the left), next to the 2013 version (on the right). The old version had only fifteen pieces. No manual was needed to put it together. For the new version, the box proudly proclaims “29 pieces.” I could put the original version together without instructions. . . [With the new version] I gave up and had to consult the instruction sheet. Why did Lego believe it had to change the motorcycle?
I get the sense that Don Norman doesn't understand Lego.
Let's return to my scorched jacket, and the question of who or what was to blame. First of all, our stove (plus a narrow countertop) is positioned directly in front of our front door. The flat surface affords support for objects, which, combined with its positioning make it a convenient place to put things as you walk through the door. That morning I was playing outside with my child when I got hot, took off my jacket and hurriedly placed it on the nearest surface - the narrow countertop right next to the stove - so I could return to our game. My wife was late for work and was rushing around the kitchen preparing food and cleaning up. She wasn't paying full attention when she turned on the hotplate and accidentally turned the wrong dial - a mistake made possible by the poor mapping between our stove dials and their hotplates. A good signifier would have counteracted the poor mapping, but the labels next to the dials that indicate their corresponding hotplates had been mostly rubbed away. Selecting the correct dial required a process of elimination using the remaining labels, a process that my wife skipped in her rush and went off memory instead. The stove gave no feedback as to which hotplate had been turned on, and the first we knew about it was from the smell of burning plastic.
I opened this review by blaming my kitchen design for the fire somewhat in jest. Of course we humans share some of the blame and should adjust our behaviors accordingly. My wife should have checked which hotplate she was turning on more carefully, and as a rule should completely clear the stove before turning any of them on. I shouldn't have put my jacket where it was touching the stove. In a lot of cases our behavior is the only thing we have the power to adjust. But it is also true that with a few different design decisions this fire would not have happened. Decisions that take into account that people make mistakes, instead of blaming user error when they do and calling it a day.
Bad design causes us innumerable trivial inconveniences day to day, but it can lead to genuinely dangerous situations too. Like our fire, or worse:
I was called upon to help analyze the American nuclear power plant accident at Three Mile Island . . . In this incident, a rather simple mechanical failure was misdiagnosed. This led to several days of difficulties and confusion, total destruction of the reactor, and a very close call to a severe radiation release, all of which brought the American nuclear power industry to a complete halt. The operators were blamed for these failures: “human error” was the immediate analysis. But the committee I was on discovered that the plant’s control rooms were so poorly designed that error was inevitable: design was at fault, not the operators.
When we're operating objects with an element of risk - stoves, cars, nuclear power plants - good design may be the only thing protecting us from our potential for catastrophic error.
The Design of Everyday Things was originally published in 1988, with the revised edition released in 2013. How have we fared since then?
Unfortunately essentially all the examples in the book still feel relevant today. Solutions exist for many of them, but you rarely see them implemented. As much as Norman's ideas have penetrated the design world, they haven't filtered down to your local electrician wiring up your light switches.
The fields in design that have been most resistant are those where the purchaser is not the user:
Designers must please their clients, who are not always the end users. Consider major household appliances, such as stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, and clothes washers and dryers; and even faucets and thermostats for heating and air-conditioning systems. They are often purchased by housing developers or landlords. In businesses, purchasing departments make decisions for large companies; and owners or managers, for small companies. In all these cases, the purchaser is probably interested primarily in price, perhaps in size or appearance, almost certainly not in usability. And once devices are purchased and installed, the purchaser has no further interest in them. The manufacturer has to attend to the requirements of these decision makers, because these are the people who actually buy the product. Yes, the needs of the eventual users are important, but to the business, they seem of secondary importance.
Then there are the cases where we purchase things for ourselves, but have very different priorities at the time of buying as we do when we're using the object. My washing machine died last year, and when I went shopping for a new one I had a list of priorities - it had to be within our budget, it had to be front facing and energy and water efficient. Each one of those priorities cut down our options, and in the end there's not much room to consider the design.
There's very little in the way of selection effects working to improve the design of our appliances, because an appliance company does not live or die on the quality of its user experience. Most of the time you don't even know what it will be like to use before you take it home.
Usability is not often thought about during the purchasing process. Unless you actually test a number of units in a realistic environment, doing typical tasks, you are not likely to notice the ease or difficulty of use. If you just look at something, it appears straightforward enough, and the array of wonderful features seems to be a virtue. You may not realize that you won’t be able to figure out how to use those features.
Instead appliances are selected for things like price and fancy features, the latter of which can actively work against good design. Unfortunately we are generally stuck with our decisions for the lifetime of an appliance, making it a really low bandwidth feedback loop where the manufacturers aren't punished for poor usability until a decade later when you replace your appliance with a different brand. Maybe you can warn your friends away from the brand in the meantime - but you're not going to do that if you think that your difficulty in using it is your fault.
There is one big field that has taken user centric design to heart - software development. Websites, apps, games - these are fields with a fast turnaround in user attention and therefore a high bandwidth feedback loop. There are strong selection effects going on here. If you click on a link and can't figure out how the website works, you are very likely to click away and find a new link. If enough people are like you then this website will either have to improve its design or it will go out of business.
It is also easier in software development to iterate on the user experience based on feedback. You can adjust the product post launch - a luxury that traditional industries don't have. All of this has resulted in digital experiences that are generally very easy and pleasant to use, with particularly good discoverability, signifiers and feedback.
So what should you take away from this book?
If your work involves design - whether that's digital or physical - then the takeaways are numerous and you should just read this book. It includes a lot more in-depth psychology of design content than what I've covered here and I can almost guarantee you'll get something out of it.
And if not? Well, two things.
Firstly, we are all designers in one way or another. You probably designed your house layout, your diet, your exercise schedule, your phone's home screen, your wardrobe, your daily routine and so on. Understanding user centric design principles can help you to identify when your designs are flawed and to understand how to fix them.
Is there a surface in your house that is always attracting clutter? Can you move it? Can you put something nearby that better affords placing objects? Can you make the surface anti-afford placing objects?
Does your household have a problem with the toilet seat being left up? If half the population keeps leaving the toilet seat up and this annoys the other half, this is a problem with toilets, not people. You could try painting the underside of the seat as a signifier. (Note: when writing this I thought for sure that someone must sell some kind of timed magnetic mechanism that engages when the seat is lifted up and releases after a minute, but I can't find anything. Do we really enjoy blaming people for near universal human behavior so much that we've never thought of that?)
Is your exercise schedule designed for you? Or is it designed for a perfectly motivated version of you who always has spare time and never gets busy? Here's a test - are you able to stick to it? If not, then maybe it needs a rethink.
In reality it needs to be designed for the you that has 10% of the motivation and time that the present you has - that's who's going to be using it for the most part. How do you make sure that person sticks to the routine? Not possible? Then design a process by which you'll restart your routine when you slack off. If your plan requires you to always be motivated and never get busy, then you've designed a round door for a rectangular doorway.
The common thread is to do less changing of your behavior to suit your environment and more designing your environment to suit your behavior.
Secondly, we are all consumers, and it is useful to be able to recognise the difference between good and bad design when making purchasing decisions. A more design literate population might push our spaces and objects to do better, and it can certainly help you personally. Here's Don Norman's advice:
I urge you to test products before you buy them. Before purchasing a new stovetop, pretend you are cooking a meal. Do it right there in the store. Do not be afraid to make mistakes or ask stupid questions. Remember, any problems you have are probably the design’s fault, not yours.
Living in the age of the internet helps us here. Search for a product on YouTube and there's a good chance you'll find unboxing videos, in-depth reviews and instructional videos. Don't just pay attention to the users opinions, use them to help you picture what the product will be like to use day to day. Reviewers are as prone as anyone to thinking that a thick instruction book is good communication.
The flip side is recognising when there is nothing you can do about bad design and finding a work around instead. In many cases we don't have much control over how the objects in our life are designed. Maybe you're renting. Maybe factors other than design were important in your decisions. We're all people who are interested in making the world work for us, so how do we work around bad design in the meantime?
As with the toilet seat example above, you could try modifying your objects so that mistakes are harder to make. How about taking some paint or stickers and color coding your keys to their locks? If it's safe you could also do this with your stove hotplates and their associated dials. This is post-hoc band-aid design, and every time you need to take one of these approaches it represents some degree of failure on the manufacturer's part. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't make life easier for ourselves.
Finally, what does Don Norman want us to take from the book?
This is a starter kit for good design. It is intended to be enjoyable and informative for everyone: everyday people, technical people, designers, and nondesigners. One goal is to turn readers into great observers of the absurd, of the poor design that gives rise to so many of the problems of modern life, especially of modern technology. It will also turn them into observers of the good, of the ways in which thoughtful designers have worked to make our lives easier and smoother.
. . .
If you are a designer, help fight the battle for usability. If you are a user, then join your voice with those who cry for usable products. Write to manufacturers. Boycott unusable designs. Support good designs by purchasing them, even if it means going out of your way, even if it means spending a bit more. And voice your concerns to the stores that carry the products; manufacturers listen to their customers.
. . .
Realize that even details matter, that the designer may have had to fight to include something helpful. If you have difficulties, remember, it’s not your fault: it’s bad design.
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