E. Alex Credgington
Book Review, 2/14/06
COM 585, K. Gill
Deconstructing the Design of Everyday Things
An analysis of the book by Donald A. Norman
The book The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald A. Norman, is an insightful
exploration into the psychology of human behavior pertaining to everyday objects.
A funny thing happened as I began writing this review. I began the document as I often
do, saving it first so as not to loose my efforts in a random power surge or unexplainable
system malfunction. Since I was creating the document on my work laptop, I selected
the File menu and clicked “Properties” to replace the name of our system administrator
with my own (why all of my documents are labeled with his name and not mine, I’ll never
understand). I clicked on the Summary tab and began replacing information. I put my
name as the author, the subject of the paper, and my title. When I went to save the
document, my title appeared as the default file name. I was confused at first, and then
realized that the Summary form was requesting my document’s title, not mine.
This incident exemplifies one of Norman’s key points – a lack of user-centered design in
common objects. I made the assumption that the form was asking about me, and that it
was my document. Rather, the form was asking about itself.
Norman’s book is a refreshing mix of advanced ideas, common sense and entertaining
examples. I greatly enjoyed the book, and found that it provided a means to reflect on
the over-complication of our world through human invention, and more importantly,
lessons for how to redefine the needless insanity that we have created. His book
provides a guide through which we may understand our own projects and designs, and
how best to cater to our users. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in
design, but also to anyone interested in human nature.
PSYCHOLOGY, STUPIDITY AND GENERAL MALAISE
The first two chapters of Norman’s book delve specifically into the psychology of how we
perceive things, use things and do things. He provides intriguing anecdotes regarding
everyday objects of questionable functionality. Through these, he enables the reader to
visualize the problem inherent in the specific design, and then provides principles of
design that would improve this object from a human psychology perspective.
One such example is that of doors. Norman discusses a common and familiar problem
that we often have trouble using doors. Some are meant to be pushed, some pulled;
some on the right side, some on the left. I began to recall a few of many incidents I have
witness or experienced regarding the embarrassment of pushing a door rather than
pulling. It was fascinating to read about this simple example in terms of psychology.
Many of these doors, he states, are designed for aesthetic rather than use, and therefore
overlook the important aspect of visual cues – the features that help our minds to decide
how the door is to be opened.
Norman uses a number of such examples, from telephones to radios, to help build a
foundation for his principles of design. A few such principles include:
Create a proper conceptual model – a way in which we can predict the resulting
actions of object use.
Visibility – the relation of placement of a control to what it does.
Mapping – the relationship between two things.
Feedback – Sending information about what action has been performed and its
It is a comforting thought that Norman provides in his notion that our troubles are the
result of faulty design. I agree with him largely, and this notion makes me reflect on my
own designs. While they may be efficient or attractive, they may not be particularly user
friendly as a result. An interesting point that Norman covers in his chapter on the
psychology of actions, is that these fumbles we often experience are not necessarily our
fault. To extend this further, I wonder if this may also impact our self-image to some
degree. The sense of embarrassment that we feel from walking in the “out” door difficulty
programming our VCR might have great psychological impacts not explored in Norman’s
book. Regardless, he provides the basis for further thought on this matter. Further,
understanding the stages of action can help us to be better designers. Norman outlines
1. Forming the goal
2. Forming the intention
3. Specifying an action
4. Executing the action
5. Perceiving the state of the world
6. Interpreting the state of the world
7. Evaluating the outcome
It is profoundly interesting to consider these stages with common actions. In fact, I find
this analysis extremely useful in understanding my own designs and how they will be
used. Norman provides a simple way of understanding the science of action. It is this
science that is often overlooked or simply ignored by way of aesthetic, designer
assumptions or rapid production.
THINKING, KNOWING AND DOING
The third, fourth and fifth chapters of Norman’s book provide insight into how and why
we do things. He continues to provide useful examples as he describes important
notions of how the mind works, and how best to work with it.
I found Norman’s concept of memory to be particularly interesting. I am well known by
friends and family to be forgetful. I forget birthday’s, names, plans and so forth, yet I can
recall at a moment’s notice every account number, password and access code that I’ve
ever had. I remember important things and big-pictures, but am forgetful about small
details. Norman defines memory as “knowledge in the head” splits it into three major
Memory for arbitrary things
Memory for meaningful relationships
Memory through explanation
He talks about the conspiracy of memory in terms things created that extend past the
limits of our memory, such as US postal codes and phone numbers which are a few
digits past our ability to remember. I agree with Norman, but also add that to
compensate, we group these numbers into smaller segments in our mind. I can certainly
remember that someone lives in the Seattle area and therefore has a 206 area code,
and may be familiar with the first three digits of their number because they live near the
school with a similar prefix, and therefore I only need to recall the last four digits. This
would likely be classified as memory through explanation, according to Norman’s
classifications. The overall concept of memory is a critical one in design, and Norman’s
explanations and anecdotes help instill a sense of memory for how we can help users
understand and recall.
Knowing what to do is a different story. Norman provides a number of constraints to help
explain how people know or do not know how to perform a task. More importantly, he
describes how design can help signal the appropriate action. As designers, we must
take into account the potential constraints of our audience (such as physical or cultural),
and compensate in our design by providing assistance. Labels, consistency, location
and such are features that we can incorporate into our designs to help people do what
we want them to do, according to Norman.
Another interesting point that Norman makes is that of common error. We all make
mistakes, and with poor design these mistakes are more common. One such point that
caught my attention was that everyday errors are often intentions of doing one action,
but instead doing another. He explains these as simple events of our mental
mechanism, and attributes this to learning, routine or distraction. Either we have not yet
learned the function of an object, we have a routine that conflicts with it, or we are trying
to do too many things at once – a fairly common trouble in our current environment.
Studying these “slips” is an important part of effective design.
Norman provides a number of useful considerations that designers should maintain:
Understand the causes of error and design to minimize
Make it possible to reverse actions
Make it easier to discover and correct errors
Change the attitude toward errors
Be nice in error notifications
DESIGN CHALLENGES AND INSIGHTS
Norman’s final two chapters deal with the challenges designers face, and helpful insights
toward resolving such issues. While his previous chapters gave ample anecdotes and
real-world situations of poor design with basic solutions, these chapters are the pinnacle
of what Norman is teaching in this book.
He discusses how common designs have developed through time without stopping to
take firm notice of problems. The typewriter is a prime example of this, as its historical
foundations led to the modern-day keyboard and related problems.
Another notion is that designers are often not users. This is a particular pertinent point
for the high-tech industry. Software designers, for example, are trained to think in
particular ways that allow them to design. In this, it is often difficult for the designer to
step-back into the mindset of a user because they know what they know. Norman
encourages the notion of user testing and generally paying attention to use.
He also discusses a point of “creeping featurism” whereby designers continue to add
more features than users can typically handle – Another common problem in the
software industry. I call this the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” problem and I face it quite often.
Understanding this and other hurdles of effective design is the most prominent
usefulness of this book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and strongly recommend it. It is a clearly written guide for
understanding the common problems of design while providing thought provoking tips on
how to be a better designer. Before reading this book, I felt that I had a decent grasp on
how best to design. However, there are many aspects that I had admittedly overlooked –
some simple and some advanced. Through this book I have discovered new insights
and perspectives that are truly critical to the nature of design.