The Psychology of Everyday Things By Donald A. Norman

Jeff Garzik gave me a copy of this back when he was building the Linux network stack in Home Park; I'd seen it praised by a few other people by that time as well (via the GT newsgroups, most likely). I was underwhelmed -- there were a few good case analyses (the oven UI I recall being particularly effective), but very little usable, general principles came out of the read. I went back in 2006, thinking I'd perhaps missed something, but didn't find much more. then again, i'm probably not the target audience. this book seems to receive much play in computer science programs, but it's really much more of an industrial design text; its prevalence in CS programs evidences IMHO the sad state of HCI textbooks.

I'm still eagerly waiting for a single textbook which unifies theory and practice of effective, attractive UI design. Instead, we seem to have the GUI metrics crowd, fetishists assuming the existence of some spiritus mundi, just waiting for the right Gaussian to be fitted (thus giving rise to twin abominations, MacOSX and GNOME3); meanwhile the design crown speaks in riddles, playing a game where men throw ducks at baloons, and nothing is as it seems...but this is why, I suppose, I only write backends and libraries. Donald A. Norman This took me FOREVER to read - but it isn't the book's fault. It was me just picking it up at odd moments & it giving me a lot to think about each time. I don't design every day things, so had absolutely no need to read this book, but found it extremely interesting. If you have any part in designing anything, you MUST read this book.

Norman points out the obvious - things I took for granted - & made me think about them in an entirely new light. He breaks down the simplest devices into their basic functions & features, then rebuilds them in a way that is both obvious & yet entirely new. He then points out places where the design elements are good & bad. He gets into the basic aspects of design that I never thought about such as aligning the number of controls with the number of functions. Best of all, he lays all of this out in an interesting manner with common examples as he delves deeper into the problems & solutions.

When you walk up to a door, how do you know how to deal with it? I never thought about it, just used it. Norman points out the clues I use, such as where the handles & hinges are located, as well as the conventions, such as pushing to go out of a commercial door, that I just KNOW & intuitively use. But what happens when designers fiddle around to make look pretty? Can anyone screw up something as mundane & venerable as a door? Unfortunately, yes indeedy!

He relates a funny story about getting stuck briefly in the foyer of a commercial building because of the 'modern' design of the doors. Hidden hinges, lots of glass, & handles that stretched across the entire center of the door gave no clue as to which way they opened. Couple that with one set of doors opening in the opposite direction from the others & a simple task - walking into a building without much thought (actually while thinking of other things, like the upcoming meeting) - became an irritating puzzle. Not a big deal? Actually, it is.

Norman pulls out some truly horrific numbers to make a great point on how important intuitive design is. The average person has something like 30,000 different instruction sets to remember on a regular basis. If each one of these took just a minute to remember, you'd spend several months learning them, assuming a 40 hour week devoted to the task! That we've absorbed these instructions & conventions over decades & are facing an increasing number of them on a daily basis makes it particularly irritating when they get redesigned into a problem.

Note: This book was published in the late 80's. While there are some desktop computing examples given, this book is pre-Internet. Think of how much additional information is required in the wake of that. (Think browsers, email, scams, viruses, ....)

While some of the examples are a bit dated, such as VCR's, they're not terrible. The multifunctional switches, confusing menus, & seemingly random options packed into those machines have carried over into their descendents in spades. Other examples, such as phone systems & stoves, are still so on target that it's absolutely infuriating. OK, phone systems are complicated, extremely proprietary & full of more options than ever, but do they HAVE to be so hard to use? I don't think so.

I know damn well that designers could do a much better job of laying out the controls for something as simple as a stove. They've had over a century & it's still a complete PITA to figure out which knob operates which burner. I can't walk up to any stove & put my hand on the correct knob. I have to read, sometimes even puzzle out symbols to figure out which is which. Even on my own simple stove, which we've had 5 years, I wind up reading to figure out the controls. OK, Marg usually cooks, but that's just STUPID design - one more minor irritation in a world filled with them, but one that could so easily be rectified with just a bit of thought!!! It's just infuriating.

While I was reading this book, a couple of examples of its relevance slapped me in the face.
- Steve Jobs died. Why was he so successful? Many people say that he was an inventor. WRONG. He rarely came up with anything truly new. His forte was in timing & design. Microsoft had a tablet for years before the iPad but their offering never made it. Why? Because the hardware couldn't support the overall expected functionality properly AND the user interface wasn't nearly as well designed as the iPad. Microsoft tried too early, designed it poorly, & FAILED themselves right out of the market.
- Amazon took the ebook market by storm. The Kindle wasn't the first ereader & it isn't really all that great hardware-wise, but it has a great interface that leverages a wonderful support system - all good design. It does one thing & does it really well.

Long review, but design is one of the most misunderstood & important concepts of our lives. I was completely shocked by my own ignorance about it. I still don't claim to be any expert, but it sure made me see the world in a different way.

Update 13May2019 Here's a new article by Norman. I wrote the book on user-friendly design. What I see today horrifies me with a subtitle: The world is designed against the elderly, writes Don Norman, 83-year-old author of the industry bible Design of Everyday Things and a former Apple VP.

It's a fact. I'm now in my 60s & he's right. We're a large segment of the population that isn't cool, but we have the money & time. Design for us!

Update 14May2020 I listened to the audio version of a slightly later edition. Fantastic & I found it much easier. Was that because it was my second read or the media? I think a combination. If you've ever had trouble because it was too dense, maybe try the audio. That gives me the entire concept & I can come back to puzzle out any details in text. Anyway, I gave the audio version a 5 star review here:
Donald A. Norman This book is more for knowledge than for enjoyment. The writing is rather dry and textbook-like with many abstract/theoretical concepts and ideas. I feel like taking a short course in design, which is still quite helpful. Nevertheless, I was expecting more of smart designs, more fun and strange and inspiring stories, but Norman isn't there to entertain but to educate and so there are examples mostly to illustrate concepts and processes. Naturally I was a bit disappointed, but still in general a book is a good read. Donald A. Norman This was written in a decade before authors learned how to write stimulating non-fiction. Donald A. Norman This book has several very important ideas:

* Even if you aren't professional designer, you still use design everywhere in your life, including how you design your house, your resume, a report, some code, etc.

* Design is all about focusing on people's needs and abilities. You may think you know what those are by the virtue of being a human, but you don't, as most human actions are unconscious. Therefore, to be a good designer, you need to learn some psychology.

* Good design is all about finding the root cause (not just the stated problem) and using an iterative process (there are no failures, just experiments).

* Many of the things we attribute to human error are actually caused by poor design. This is because humans make mistakes _all the time_ and a good design _must_ take this into account.

For these alone, it's worth reading. That said, the book feels a little unfocused and scatter brained. It frequently goes off on tangents, most of which are interesting, but not always relevant to the main points. The book is also repetitive, repeating the same message about bad design, constraints, and culture over and over again.

Some good quotes:

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.

We are all designers in the sense that all of us deliberately design our lives, our rooms, and the way we do things. We can also design workarounds, ways of overcoming the flaws of existing devices.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. Discoverability: Is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls and settings mean?

All artificial things are designed. Whether it is the layout of furniture in a room, the paths through a garden or forest, or the intricacies of an electronic device, some person or group of people had to decide upon the layout, operation, and mechanisms. Not all designed things involve physical structures. Services, lectures, rules and procedures, and the organizational structures of businesses and governments do not have physical mechanisms, but their rules of operation have to be designed, sometimes informally, sometimes precisely recorded and specified.

Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet. This understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the thing to be defined is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition. The results can be products that truly meet the needs of people.

A conceptual model is an explanation, usually highly simplified, of how something works. It doesn’t have to be complete or even accurate as long as it is useful.

When people use something, they face two gulfs: the Gulf of Execution, where they try to figure out how it operates, and the Gulf of Evaluation, where they try to figure out what happened [...] The role of the designer is to help people bridge the two gulfs.

We bridge the Gulf of Execution through the use of signifiers, constraints, mappings, and a conceptual model. We bridge the Gulf of Evaluation through the use of feedback and a conceptual model.

Most of us start by believing we already understand both human behavior and the human mind. After all, we are all human: we have all lived with ourselves all of our lives, and we like to think we understand ourselves. But the truth is, we don’t. Most of human behavior is a result of subconscious processes. We are unaware of them.

When we speak, we often do not know what we are about to say until our conscious mind (the reflective part of the mind) hears ourselves uttering the words.

When we perform a well-learned action, all we have to do is think of the goal and the behavioral level handles all the details: the conscious mind has little or no awareness beyond creating the desire to act.

We need to remove the word failure from our vocabulary, replacing it instead with learning experience. To fail is to learn: we learn more from our failures than from our successes. With success, sure, we are pleased, but we often have no idea why we succeeded. With failure, it is often possible to figure out why, to ensure that it will never happen again.
Scientists know this. Scientists do experiments to learn how the world works. Sometimes their experiments work as expected, but often they don’t. Are these failures? No, they are learning experiences. Many of the most important scientific discoveries have come from these so-called failures.

Eliminate all error messages from electronic or computer systems. Instead, provide help and guidance.

Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account.

Eliminate the term human error. Instead, talk about communication and interaction: what we call an error is usually bad communication or interaction. When people collaborate with one another, the word error is never used to characterize another person’s utterance. That’s because each person is trying to understand and respond to the other, and when something is not understood or seems inappropriate, it is questioned, clarified, and the collaboration continues. Why can’t the interaction between a person and a machine be thought of as collaboration?

Our strengths are in our flexibility and creativity, in coming up with solutions to novel problems. We are creative and imaginative, not mechanical and precise. Machines require precision and accuracy; people don’t. And we are particularly bad at providing precise and accurate inputs. So why are we always required to do so? Why do we put the requirements of machines above those of people?

Seven fundamental principles of design:
1. Discoverability. It is possible to determine what actions are possible and the current state of the device.
2. Feedback.There is full and continuous information about the results of actions and the current state of the product or service. After an action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.
3. Conceptual model. The design projects all the information needed to create a good conceptual model of the system, leading to understanding and a feeling of control. The conceptual model enhances both discoverability and evaluation of results.
4. Affordances. The proper affordances exist to make the desired actions possible.
5. Signifiers.Effective use of signifiers ensures discoverability and that the feedback is well communicated and intelligible.
6. Mappings. The relationship between controls and their actions follows the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible through spatial layout and temporal contiguity.
7. Constraints. Providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints guides actions and eases interpretation.

Never criticize unless you have a better alternative.

When people err, change the system so that type of error will be reduced or eliminated. When complete elimination is not possible, redesign to reduce the impact.

When many people all have the same problem, shouldn’t another cause be found? If the system lets you make the error, it is badly designed. And if the system induces you to make the error, then it is really badly designed. When I turn on the wrong stove burner, it is not due to my lack of knowledge: it is due to poor mapping between controls and burners. Teaching me the relationship will not stop the error from recurring: redesigning the stove will.

Why do people err? Because the designs focus upon the requirements of the system and the machines, and not upon the requirements of people. Most machines require precise commands and guidance, forcing people to enter numerical information perfectly. But people aren’t very good at great precision. We frequently make errors when asked to type or write sequences of numbers or letters. This is well known: so why are machines still being designed that require such great precision, where pressing the wrong key can lead to horrendous results?

In many industries, the rules are written more with a goal toward legal compliance than with an understanding of the work requirements. As a result, if workers followed the rules, they couldn’t get their jobs done.

Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are.

Don Norman's Law of Product Development: The day a product development process starts, it is behind schedule and above budget.

Good designers are quick learners, for today they might be asked to design a camera; tomorrow, to design a transportation system or a company’s organizational structure. How can one person work across so many different domains? Because the fundamental principles of designing for people are the same across all domains. People are the same, and so the design principles are the same.

Every modern innovation, especially the ones that significantly change lives, takes multiple decades to move from concept to company success A rule of thumb is twenty years from first demonstrations in research laboratories to commercial product, and then a decade or two from first commercial release to widespread adoption. Except that actually, most innovations fail completely and never reach the public. Donald A. Norman

Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure our which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault, argues this fascinating, ingenious—even liberating—book, lies not in ourselves, but in product design that ignores the needs of users and the principles of cognitive psychology.The problems range from ambiguous and hidden controls to arbitrary relationships between controls and functions, coupled with a lack of feedback or other assistance and unreasonable demands on memorization. The book presents examples aplenty—among them, the VCR, computer, and office telephone, all models of how not to design for people.But good, usable design is possible. The rules are simple: make things visible, exploit natural relationships that couple function and control, and make intelligent use of constraints. The goal: guide the user effortlessly to the right action on the right control at the right time. But the designer must care.The author is a world-famous psychologist and pioneer in the application of cognitive science. His aim is to raise the consciousness of both consumers and designers to the delights of products that are easy to use and understand. The Psychology of Everyday Things

For a book that a lot of people rave about as being a 'bible of usability', I have to say it was one of the worst written and designed books I have ever been unfortunate enough to read. Donald A. Norman A praising of human creativity and problem-solving skills, shown on so normal and average examples one could never imagine that their history is so suspenseful.

Gosh, I didn´t know that there was such a huge bunch of other disciplines involved in the creation of everyday objects and how much scientific effort is made to pimp every single aspect until perfection.

Norman shows many examples of what works why, how even simple and banal seeming objects are filled with deep thoughts about each possible aspect and how products evolve. It amazed me that we, because of perfect product design, intuitively know how to use products and how quickly we learn when extra functions are added due to the evolution of tech. I hardly say that something changed my view of the world, but just as after enlightenment to mindful product praising, I tend to look at any design under this aspect now.

That usability and a more subtle way of manipulation by combining body and soul, hand and eye, joy and practicability, have long been ignored in just advertising and marketing products with quite simple jingles and without fusing the message, meaning and the look to ultimate seductiveness is stunning. To perfect how first our allegedly free, conscious minds can be mesmerized to buy a product that is so perfect, handy and good looking at the same time. Why can´t they start designing humans like that?

Reverse engineering why something seems so appealing is interesting for self-reflection, to find out what aspect of one's personality made one so vulnerable for exactly this product and how they could get so deep inside one's mind.

It will be interesting to see what Big Data and AI will make out of the field, I could easily imagine an individualization down to one single customer and her/his special wishes. Too far fetched? Until now, just simple market research, psychology, ergonomics, etc., made a pretty astonishing shopping experience possible and the key element was to know the wishes of all groups of customers. Now, with the collection of soon billions of profiles given in the fictional hands of an AI with 3D printing, nanotech, etc., everyone will be able to lose her/himself in the ultimate, senseless consumerism. But at least a unique one.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books: Donald A. Norman After reading this you will never look at any man-made object the same. You will question everything from doors to tea kettles to the most sophisticated computer program. The next time you fumble with an answering machine, web page, or light switch you will think back to the lessons from this book. It is almost liberating once you can see beyond the design of everyday things.

I highly recommend this book for anyone. You absolutely must read it if you will ever be in a position to create something (i.e. software, a chair, a cardboard box). If you don't, I will curse your name every time I am forced to use your product! Donald A. Norman Whenever programmers ask other programmers for book suggestions, there's always some smartass that says something like The Art of War because of blah blah blah about corporate politics. Hoo boy you're clever, you suggested a non-programming book, way to not play by the rules. You really march to the beat of your own drum there, slick.

Similarly, I constantly see The Design of Everyday Things suggested in these kinds of conversations. I think it's supposed to give engineers great insights into design and how humans interact with objects around them. This is supposed to change our outlook for the software we build for people.

Well, I don't think it did that at all. Really, the only thing to take away in that regard is think about how people use your software. In other words, I think a great many UX-centered books are vastly superior in this regard.

That's not to say this book is bad. In fact, I imagine there are people reading my review right now thinking who gives a shit that this guy is a software engineer? Indeed, this book is great. Very enjoyable, and very informative. It made me think about every day objects I've never even given a second thought to. There's an entire section on sink faucets that blew my mind. But ultimately, the book is really about exactly what the title says it is, the design of everyday things and objects. There's some hinting at a greater, broader meaning than this, but it never comes to much.

Definitely a great read, worth it for sure, but don't buy into the everyone who makes software should read this book hype. Donald A. Norman Too general to be valuable. Too many sentences like this: Each discipline has a different perspective of the relative importance of the many factors that make up a product. Donald A. Norman


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