/ design

The Design of Everyday Things

My rating on GoodReads: 2 stars

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition is a disappointment. Maybe I don't appropriately appreciate this book because (like Shakespeare) its ideas were so revolutionary that they now seem trivial and obvious to the modern reader who couldn't imagine things any other way. Tough to say without more historical context.

The main message of this book is that you need to focus on how people will use your product and make sure it is intuitive and understandable. Well... obviously, right? Don Norman apparently was a high-up guy at Apple and so I guess he knows what he's talking about. But for the most part, this book reads like an snail's-pace tour through excruciatingly obvious aspects of design.

In this updated version, Norman joins the dialogue that Brynjolfsson and McAfee started about human/machine cooperation and he pulls in some modern examples of human/machine interaction. He also echoes David Allen a bit when he talks about the importance of writing things down. Overall though, the book felt very obvious and derivative. Maybe it was original when it was first published, but I doubt it's worth reading today.

Some of my favorite quotes below:


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.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding.

It is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand people. It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless dictates of machines.

So we must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors.

Experience is critical, for it determines how fondly people remember their interactions.

An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could possibly be used.

Affordances determine what actions are possible. Signifiers communicate where the action should take place.

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.

Good conceptual models are the key to understandable, enjoyable products: good communication is the key to good conceptual models.

Emotion is highly underrated. In fact, the emotional system is a powerful information processing system that works in tandem with cognition. Cognition attempts to make sense of the world: emotion assigns value. It is the emotional system that determines whether a situation is safe or threatening, whether something that is happening is good or bad, desirable or not. Cognition provides understanding: emotion provides value judgments. A human without a working emotional system has difficulty making choices. A human without a cognitive system is dysfunctional.

The flow state occurs when the challenge of the activity just slightly exceeds our skill level, so full attention is continually required. Flow requires that the activity be neither too easy nor too difficult relative to our level of skill. The constant tension coupled with continual progress and success can be an engaging, immersive experience sometimes lasting for hours.

Do common technology and mathematics phobias result from a kind of learned helplessness? Could a few instances of failure in what appear to be straightforward situations generalize to every technological object, every mathematics problem? Perhaps. In fact, the design of everyday things (and the design of mathematics courses) seems almost guaranteed to cause this. We could call this phenomenon taught helplessness.

The designs of our products and services must also follow this philosophy. So, to the designers who are reading this, let me give some advice:

  • Do not blame people when they fail to use your products properly.
  • Take people’s difficulties as signifiers of where the product can be improved.
  • Eliminate all error messages from electronic or computer systems. Instead, provide help and guidance.
  • Make it possible to correct problems directly from help and guidance messages. Allow people to continue with their task: Don’t impede progress—help make it smooth and continuous. Never make people start over.
  • Assume that what people have done is partially correct, so if it is inappropriate, provide the guidance that allows them to correct the problem and be on their way.
  • Think positively, for yourself and for the people you interact with.

But in my experience, human error usually is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account. Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by someone else.

The insights from the seven stages of action lead us to 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.

Many of us manage quite well when in novel, confusing situations where we do not know what is expected of us. How do we do this? We arrange things so that we do not need to have complete knowledge or we rely upon the knowledge of the people around us, copying their behavior or getting them to do the required actions. It is actually quite amazing how often it is possible to hide one’s ignorance, to get by without understanding or even much interest.

Consider the constraints of rhyming. If you wish to rhyme one word with another, there are usually a lot of alternatives. But if you must have a word with a particular meaning to rhyme with another, the joint constraints of meaning and rhyme can cause a dramatic reduction in the number of possible candidates, sometimes reducing a large set to a single choice. Sometimes there are no candidates at all. This is why it is much easier to memorize poetry than to create poems. Poems come in many different forms, but all have formal restrictions on their construction. The ballads and tales told by the traveling storytellers used multiple poetic constraints, including rhyme, rhythm, meter, assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, while also remaining consistent with the story being told.

Unless it is your ambition to become a nightclub performer and amaze people with great skills of memory, here is a simpler way to dramatically enhance both memory and accuracy: write things down. Writing is a powerful technology: why not use it? Use a pad of paper, or the back of your hand. Write it or type it. Use a phone or a computer. Dictate it. This is what technology is for. The unaided mind is surprisingly limited. It is things that make us smart. Take advantage of them.

In an earlier book, Things That Make Us Smart, I argued that it is this combination of technology and people that creates super-powerful beings. Technology does not make us smarter. People do not make technology smart. It is the combination of the two, the person plus the artifact, that is smart. Together, with our tools, we are a powerful combination. On the other hand, if we are suddenly without these external devices, then we don’t do very well. In many ways, we do become less smart.

The partnership of technology and people makes us smarter, stronger, and better able to live in the modern world. We have become reliant on the technology and we can no longer function without it. The dependence is even stronger today than ever before, including mechanical, physical things such as housing, clothing, heating, food preparation and storage, and transportation. Now this range of dependencies is extended to information services as well: communication, news, entertainment, education, and social interaction. When things work, we are informed, comfortable, and effective. When things break, we may no longer be able to function. This dependence upon technology is very old, but every decade, the impact covers more and more activities.

Most industrial accidents are caused by human error: estimates range between 75 and 95 percent. How is it that so many people are so incompetent? Answer: They aren’t. It’s a design problem. If the number of accidents blamed upon human error were 1 to 5 percent, I might believe that people were at fault. But when the percentage is so high, then clearly other factors must be involved. When something happens this frequently, there must be another underlying factor.

The Japanese have long followed a procedure for getting at root causes that they call the “Five Whys,” originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used by the Toyota Motor Company as part of the Toyota Production System for improving quality. Today it is widely deployed. Basically, it means that when searching for the reason, even after you have found one, do not stop: ask why that was the case. And then ask why again. Keep asking until you have uncovered the true underlying causes. Does it take exactly five? No, but calling the procedure “Five Whys” emphasizes the need to keep going even after a reason has been found.

Mode error is really design error. Mode errors are especially likely where the equipment does not make the mode visible, so the user is expected to remember what mode has been established, sometimes hours earlier, during which time many intervening events might have occurred. Designers must try to avoid modes, but if they are necessary, the equipment must make it obvious which mode is invoked.

One paradox of groups is that quite often, adding more people to check a task makes it less likely that it will be done right. Why? Well, if you were responsible for checking the correct readings on a row of fifty gauges and displays, but you know that two people before you had checked them and that one or two people who come after you will check your work, you might relax, thinking that you don’t have to be extra careful. After all, with so many people looking, it would be impossible for a problem to exist without detection. But if everyone thinks the same way, adding more checks can actually increase the chance of error. A collaboratively followed checklist is an effective way to counteract these natural human tendencies.

Rather than stigmatize those who admit to error, we should thank those who do so and encourage the reporting. We need to make it easier to report errors, for the goal is not to punish, but to determine how it occurred and change things so that it will not happen again.

US commercial aviation has long had an extremely effective system for encouraging pilots to submit reports of errors. The program has resulted in numerous improvements to aviation safety. It wasn’t easy to establish: pilots had severe self-induced social pressures against admitting to errors. Moreover, to whom would they report them? Certainly not to their employers. Not even to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), for then they would probably be punished. The solution was to let the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set up a voluntary accident reporting system whereby pilots could submit semi-anonymous reports of errors they had made or observed in others (semi-anonymous because pilots put their name and contact information on the reports so that NASA could call to request more information). Once NASA personnel had acquired the necessary information, they would detach the contact information from the report and mail it back to the pilot. This meant that NASA no longer knew who had reported the error, which made it impossible for the airline companies or the FAA (which enforced penalties against errors) to find out who had submitted the report. If the FAA had independently noticed the error and tried to invoke a civil penalty or certificate suspension, the receipt of self-report automatically exempted the pilot from punishment (for minor infractions).

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) can be trusted. NTSB conducts careful investigations of all major aviation, automobile and truck, train, ship, and pipeline incidents.

James Reason likes to explain this by invoking the metaphor of multiple slices of Swiss cheese, the cheese famous for being riddled with holes. If each slice of cheese represents a condition in the task being done, an accident can happen only if holes in all four slices of cheese are lined up just right. In well-designed systems, there can be many equipment failures, many errors, but they will not lead to an accident unless they all line up precisely. Any leakage—passageway through a hole—is most likely blocked at the next level. Well-designed systems are resilient against failure.

An important approach is resilience engineering, with the goal of designing systems, procedures, management, and the training of people so they are able to respond to problems as they arise. It strives to ensure that the design of all these things—the equipment, procedures, and communication both among workers and also externally to management and the public—are continually being assessed, tested, and improved.

One of my rules in consulting is simple: never solve the problem I am asked to solve. Why such a counterintuitive rule? Because, invariably, the problem I am asked to solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem. It is usually a symptom. Just as in Chapter 5, where the solution to accidents and errors was to determine the real, underlying cause of the events, in design, the secret to success is to understand what the real problem is.

Designers understand what people really need. Marketing understands what people actually buy. These are not the same things, which is why both approaches are required: marketing and design researchers should work together in complementary teams.

How many people should be studied? Opinions vary, but my associate, Jakob Nielsen, has long championed the number five: five people studied individually. Then, study the results, refine them, and do another iteration, testing five different people. Five is usually enough to give major findings. And if you really want to test many more people, it is far more effective to do one test of five, use the results to improve the system, and then keep iterating the test-design cycle until you have tested the desired number of people. This gives multiple iterations of improvement, rather than just one.

The HCD process describes the ideal. But the reality of life within a business often forces people to behave quite differently from that ideal. One disenchanted member of the design team for a consumer products company told me that although his company professes to believe in user experience and to follow human-centered design, in practice there are only two drivers of new products:

Adding features to match the competition
Adding some feature driven by a new technology
“Do we look for human needs?” he asked, rhetorically. “No,” he answered himself.

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.

“Why can’t things be made simple?” goes the cry. Well, one reason is that life is complex, as are the tasks we encounter. Our tools must match the tasks. I feel so strongly about this that I wrote an entire book on the topic, Living with Complexity, in which I argued that complexity is essential: it is confusion that is undesirable. I distinguished between “complexity,” which we need to match the activities we take part in, and “complicated,” which I defined to mean “confusing.” How do we avoid confusion? Ah, here is where the designer’s skills come into play.

Most companies compare features with their competition to determine where they are weak, so they can strengthen those areas. Wrong, argues Moon. A better strategy is to concentrate on areas where they are stronger and to strengthen them even more. Then focus all marketing and advertisements to point out the strong points.

The lesson is simple: don’t follow blindly; focus on strengths, not weaknesses. If the product has real strengths, it can afford to just be “good enough” in the other areas.

These fears have long been with us. In ancient Greece, Plato tells us that Socrates complained about the impact of books, arguing that reliance on written material would diminish not only memory but the very need to think, to debate, to learn through discussion. After all, said Socrates, when a person tells you something, you can question the statement, discuss and debate it, thereby enhancing the material and the understanding. With a book, well, what can you do? You can’t argue back.

No, on the contrary, it unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of tending to the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and the critical. Reliance on technology is a benefit to humanity. With technology, the brain gets neither better nor worse. Instead, it is the task that changes. Human plus machine is more powerful than either human or machine alone.

Moreover, Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that the same pattern is found in many activities, including both business and science: “The key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines. Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership.”

The society of the future: something to look forward to with pleasure, contemplation, and dread.

In Western cultures, design has reflected the capitalistic importance of the marketplace, with an emphasis on exterior features deemed to be attractive to the purchaser. In the consumer economy, taste is not the criterion in the marketing of expensive foods or drinks, usability is not the primary criterion in the marketing of home and office appliances. We are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use.

The design of everyday things is in great danger of becoming the design of superfluous, overloaded, unnecessary things.

Max Nova

Max Nova

I love books! My reading theme for 2017 is "The Integrity of Western Science." I'm also the founder of www.SilviaTerra.com.

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