The Design Of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman

On reading Nudge, I found ‘The Design Of Everyday Things’ by Don Norman as a recommended read. This is how I discovered this book. Also, I have heard about this book many times in various discussions.

When we try to use a new product and for some reason, it is complicated to set up or we make a mistake, instead of blaming it on the poor design of the product, we blame it on ourselves. We think that we are not competent enough to use the product. However, it is the designer who needs to ensure people find it easy to use the products they design.

We encounter design challenges on an everyday basis. We push the door which needs to be pulled, pull the door which needs to be pushed, or push the door when it needs to be slid. The two most important characteristics of a good design are discoverability and understanding. On complex devices discoverability and understanding need manuals. We also encounter design problems with washer-dryer devices. There are way too many buttons and it is difficult to understand and use. The manuals also do not help. We end up just pressing one button and memorizing it. This is just bad design and the purpose of the design is lost. Automotive dashboards are another great example where it is extremely difficult to set up (or) get your Bluetooth connected.   

The Psychopathology of Everyday Things: 

Designers need to focus their attention on the cases where things go wrong and not just on the things that work as planned. Great Designers produce pleasurable experiences. For good discoverability you need 1. Affordances, 2. Signifiers, 3. Constraints, 4. Mappings, 5. Feedback and 6. Conceptual Model of the System. 

Affordance: The term Affordance refers to the relationship between a physical object and a person. Affordance is a relationship and not a property. E.g. My Chair affords sitting, Glass affords transparency. The blockage of passage can be categorized as anti-affordance (the prevention of interaction). To be effective Affordances and Anti Affordances have to be discoverable. However, if this discoverability or the action we need to do is not clear, we need signifiers. 

Signifiers:  Any sign that communicates the appropriate behavior to a person is a signifier. E.g Push or Pull labels/stickers in a door, or Men or Women picture signs for a restroom. A bookmark is also a signifier placed in a book to know the page. Signifiers signal things to the user. It is a communication tool. 

Mapping: Mapping is the relationship between two sets of things. For example, the relationship between a light and a switch or a bunch of lights in a ceiling and the corresponding switches. The relationship between a control and its results is easy to learn when there is a mapping between the controls, actions and the intended action. Controls should be close to the item being controlled. 

Feedback: Feedback is an important part of great design. The feedback (e.g a beep sound when something is complete (e.g alarm clock). However, too much feedback can be annoying and also dangerous, like passengers giving too many instructions to the driver when driving a car. Feedback has to be planned (when to be provided on what action and more).  

Conceptual Models: The user’s perception of how a device will work. A good example is how there are no actual folders inside a computer. The folders are conceptualizations designed to make them easier to use. Mental models are conceptual models in people’s minds that represent the understanding of how things work.  The sizes of the holes provide constraints to limit the possible nails to use a product. Thermostats and refrigerators sometimes are difficult to use because we do not have a good conceptual model in our mind. This is the problem with the design and not the user. The user’s conceptual model comes from the system image, through interaction with the product, reading, searching online for information and the manuals that are provided. Communication is an important part of good design. If a product gets a lot of service calls, the problem needs to be solved with better design. 

Chapter 2: The Psychology of Everyday Actions:

When people want to use a product, they evaluate and execute. The role of the designer is to help bridge the gap between both. The authors write about the 7 stages of action 1. Goal (form the goal), 2. Plan (the action), 3. Specify (an action sequence), 4. Perform (the action sequence), 5. Perceive (the state of the world), 6. Interpret (the perception) and 7. Compare (the outcome with the goal). Observational skills are the key.  How does one create new product categories in the marketplace? New radical ideas that change the world? We need to reconsider the goal. For example, people do not buy a drill to put a hole in the wall, they need to buy a drill to put a hole in the wall because they need to hang something on the wall. The goal here is to hang something on the wall. If you consider the root cause analysis of the problem (hanging something in the wall) , then you do not need a hole, do not need a drill and a new category can be created. Attractive things work better. 

Storytelling helps with design. Conceptual models are a form of a story. When the delay can be predicted, some systems provide time estimates as well as progress bars to indicate how far along the task has gone. Here are some best practices when it comes to design. 

1. Do not blame people when they fail to use your products properly.

2. Take people’s difficulties as signifiers on where the product can be improved.

3. Allow people to continue with their task, help make it continuous, never make them start over.

Human error is usually a result of poor design. Even after reading your manuals, people make mistakes. Designers should anticipate that when people use their products things will not go as planned. The work is to make things work even when things do not go as planned.  (e.g Nest, thermostat device is not perfect, however marks significant improvement in collaborative interaction). 

When you fill out forms, sometimes, you have to enter the whole information again. It becomes a frustrating experience. When it comes to dates, why not offer all the formats and the system auto adjusts? Some companies have done an excellent job when it comes to forms. 

Seven Fundamental Design Principles:

1. What do I want to accomplish?

2. What are the alternative action sequences?

3. What action can I do now?

4. How do I do it?

5. What happened?

6. What does it mean?

7. Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?

The author writes that the next time we have a problem operating a shower in the hotel room or trouble using a television set or a kitchen appliance, the problem lies in the design and not us. The authors also suggest that next time we see a greatly designed product, pause a moment and see how it has been designed or how it addresses the design principles? 

Chapter 3: Knowledge in the head and in the world

The knowledge is both in the head and in the world. In this chapter, the author writes about memory (short-term memory and long-term memory). For example, we learn how to operate a keyboard and it becomes a practice. There is a learning curve and we do not look at the keys to type. It is just ingrained in us. There is a lot of knowledge available in the environment and it is surprising how little we need to learn to operate. 

The author writes about coins and currencies and how they vary based on the culture. In the US, all the bills irrespective of $1 or $10 or $100 are the same size (length and width) and when someone looks at the bill they know that they need to look at the number to determine the value of the bill. However the coins vary in size, so they look at the size. Great Britain and people from Europe may get confused when looking at American bills as they use size and color to distinguish paper currency. The bottom line is that design also varies by culture. 

Descriptions also play a role in design. For example, if there is only one red notebook, we can describe it as a notebook. However, if there are multiple red notebooks, then we need better descriptions to identify them.  Constraints are powerful tools for designers. They reduce the amount that must be learned to identify. 

Sleep plays an important role in strengthening the memory of each day’s experiences. Memories in our brain are changing all the time and it is easy to implant false memories to people’s minds. The most effective way of making people remember is to make it unnecessary. 

Knowledge in the head: How do people remember things? They write down, calendar invites, telephone all play a vital role in remembering things. In planes, pilots need to remember things. The easier it is to enter information into the relevant equipment, the easier it gets to remember things. Both Knowledge in the world and head are essential for daily functioning. 

Natural mappings are those where the relationship between the controls and the object being controlled is obvious. A good example of natural mapping would be gesture-controlled faucets, soap dispensers, hand dryers. These devices are not perfect. Sometimes, we still do not know if water is released even after gestures in the faucets. The author also writes about the design of the kitchen stove and the keys associated with it to light the same. With bad mapping, the burden is placed on the memory and more chances of error. 

When countries decide which side of the road the cars should drive on, people eventually adjust. However, there was a period of confusion until people adapted to the new systems. It is possible to break the convention. 

Chapter 4: Knowing what to do? Constraints, Discoverability and Feedback:

This chapter focuses on how designers could give meaningful information that allows people to know what to do even when they experience an unfamiliar situation. The author writes about four different constraints. Physical, Cultural, Semantic and Logical. Large peg cannot fit into a small hole (This is a great example of a physical constraint and the options for a large peg to fit will be limited). 

Legacy Problem and Inelegant Designs: Why does inelegant design persist for so long? This is a legacy problem. We still end up using old standards. 

Cultural Constraints could vary based on the culture you are a part of. In some cultures, bowing and shaking hands is common and even hugging and kissing total strangers. However it is completely new and unacceptable in certain cultures. 

Semantic Constraints: Semantics is the study of meaning. What do we make of a situation? When the cars are automated, what will happen to the red lights? What do we make out of it? 

Logical Constraints: Let’s say all the Lego blocks or pieces of a puzzle are complete and there is only one piece left, it becomes a logical constraint. There is only one place this could go. 

If a door needs to have a sign which says Push or Pull, it means the door is poorly designed. The cabinets in the kitchen, sometimes we give so much importance to aesthetics and end up not knowing how to use the kitchen cabinets.

In an auditorium, if we need to turn on the lights, they may not be properly mapped. We may not know which switch maps to the light and we usually fumble. We turn on all the switches, see which light turns on and off. The author writes that someday we will get rid of the hard-wired switches which require excessive running of electrical cable, add to the cost, difficulties in home construction and more. We will use the Internet or wireless signals to connect switches to the devices being controlled. 

Activity centered controls are the proper way to go if the activities are carefully selected to match actual requirements. Some apps play only on a certain device and they make it very difficult to work on a competitor’s device or platform. In these cases, design is used as a business strategy. 

Destination Controlled Elevators: 

Modern elevators were first installed in the buildings in the late 1800’s and until now, we mostly use the same pattern where we select the floor we need to go to once we get into the elevator and people get down on their respective floors one after the other. Instead in 1985 Destination Controlled elevators were invented and put to use (installed) by Scheiner Elevators in 1990. In these elevators, we provide the floor number to go to even before you step inside an elevator and it groups people getting to the same floor together. This works very well in tall buildings and hotels. This is an efficient way to club people together, saves time and a much more efficient design. This is slowly taking off as we see it now in tall buildings. Still, most elevators are traditional and you press the button for the elevator to arrive, go inside, choose the floor and each person gets off on their desired floor. This is a legacy problem and when new things are introduced people resist change. 

Faucets, Feedback and Sounds: Design principles also apply to Faucets. We often do not know which way to turn for hot water or cold (sometimes we also end up breaking the faucet). This is just poor design. However the faucet company will tell us that we do not know how to use their product. Feedback is put to use in most faucets because when we turn the wrong way, we get the wrong result and we will know which way to turn for the water we desire (Hot or cold). 

Sounds are also used as signifiers, like the click when the toast pops up. We want less sound in our cars, Electric vehicles produce very little sound. The nature of the sound can also be used as a design strategy for brand communication: E.g., the sound emitted in a BMW while driving may be smooth and will differ from the sound emitted by another brand. Sound can also be used as a differentiator. However, if there is no sound, it does not help either because the blind use sound as a signifier to cross streets or walk in the roads. 

Chapter 5: Human Error? No Bad Design

Most industrial accidents are caused by human error (75 to 95%). Why is it that there are so many human errors? There are many reasons for it – Staying up late hours, fatigue and more. It is important to get to the root cause of the problem. The Japanese have a practice of getting to the root cause of the issue. Sakichi Toyoda – keep asking until you have uncovered the true underlying causes. If a system lets you make an error, it is badly designed. We try to do too many things at the same time. 

The errors can be of two types, – Slips and Mistakes. Slip could be an action based slip or a memory based slip (forgot to turn off the gas burner on the gas burner after cooking dinner). Mistakes could also be both knowledge-based (weight of fuel was calculated in pounds instead of Kilograms) or Memory lapse mistake (mechanic failed to complete troubleshooting because of distraction).

In order to avoid these slips or mistakes, designers need to ensure that controls and displays for different purposes are significantly different from each other.  For example, ATMs often require removal of a card before dispensing money, so that we do not forget the card.  Simple design is great, however it should not come at the cost of adding complexity to the usage. To operate devices sometimes we need to use them in different modes. Mode Errors are design errors. Designers should try to avoid modes, however if needed, the equipment should make it clear on which mode is being used. To avoid knowledge based mistakes a good user manual could also do the job. 

Social and Institutional pressures are also causes of mistakes (e.g cheating in exams, driving too fast and more). Social pressures can also make sensible people to do things that are wrong and possibly dangerous. Good design alone is not sufficient. We need to reward safety and put it above economic pressures.

Checklists are another way to avoid errors. It is also gaining traction in the medical profession. When senior doctors ask for checklists, it improves their credibility. For error-proofing Poka-yoke is a japanese method (used in Toyota Production systems) – where affordances, signifiers, mapping and constraints are used along with forcing functions to avoid error. 

When there are mistakes there is a good probability that we misunderstand the mistakes and may not get to the root cause of the problem. Most systems make it difficult to resume after an interruption. The tricky part is to design when things go wrong. 

Adding constraints blocks errors. For example, in automobiles, we have petrol, diesel, oil and various areas to pour liquid into the car. If we pour the wrong liquid, it could jam the operation. How do you avoid it? Separating the most commonly used areas (e.g petrol tank and the place in an automobile where you pour oil are not close to each other). Many slips can be minimized by ensuring that the actions and their controls are dissimilar and physically far apart from each other. Good design can prevent slips and mistakes. Design can save lives. 

Undo is a powerful tool (especially in electronic systems) – This way we can use the systems with more ease. E.g. if we delete a wrong paragraph, we are able to undo the operation in Word (restoring it to the latest condition) – Apple iPhone offers this, enabling you to restore the phone to a certain date. 

An error/accident will occur, only if holes in all four slices of cheese are lined up just right (The Swiss Cheese Model of How Errors Lead to Accidents). Sometimes people are at fault.  Automation can reduce accidents (e.g Self driving cars).

Here are key design principles:

1. Knowledge (User Manual)

2. Setting up constraints, forcing functions and natural mapping

3. Bridge the Gulf of Execution and Gulf of Evaluation (of using a system)

Chapter 6:  Design Thinking

The key focus when it comes to Design Thinking is not on solving the problem at hand. However, getting deep into the root cause of the problem. It is easier to see the surface-level problems, not dig deep to address the real issues. Good designers do not search for a solution until they determine the real problem. The first phase is to find the right problem and the next phase is to find the right solution.

The Human Centered Design Process: The four steps on a Human-Centered Design Process include: 

1. Observation

2. Idea Generation

3. Prototyping and 

4. Testing

Observation: You observe the user’s problem. This could involve traveling to the user’s location and spending time with them. You observe the customer’s natural environment and understand their problems so you can come up with a solution with a Human Centered Design. 

You also do design and marketing research. Design research involves how people will use the product and marketing research involves if people will use the product. What is the user base and more?

Idea Generation: In this step, generate numerous ideas and do not have any constraints. Ask any number of questions and even ask stupid questions. This will help to get to a better design.

Prototyping: In this prototype stage, mimic a huge, powerful system long before it can be built. Build a prototype quickly and move it to the testing phase.

Testing: If a product will be used by one person, test it with a person and if it will be used by a group of people, test it with a group. Even if a product will be used by one person, having two people to test the same is a good idea. A question is often asked, how many people should be testing the product and providing feedback? The answer is five. Have 5 people use the product, provide feedback, iterate and have another 5 people test the product. This gives multiple iterations of improvement. Fail frequently and fail fast. 

The hardest part of design is to get the requirements right. Requirements are developed by watching people in their natural environment. Have deadlines. Both cost and time deadlines. This will also help with design.

Activity Centered Design: If you are designing a product for use across the globe or a product for the mass market (e.g iPhone, iPod, Automobiles) activity based design is a better approach. In Human-Centered Design, the focus is on the individual, however in activity based design the product is intended to be used across the world. Most manufacturers make the same product for everyone. Why does activity based design work? Because people’s activities across the world seem to be similar. 

Activity Vs Task: Activity is a high-level structure. (e.g go shopping), a task is a lower level component of an activity – e.g find a shopping basket. Focussing on tasks is limiting. E.g Apple iPods focused on the activity of listening to music, which led to an entire ecosystem being built around the iPod. 

Oftentimes, with design we are constrained by adding features to match the competition, adding features driven by some new technology (market driven pressures). We are also constrained by costs. If people complain more, better design will be created. However sometimes people do not want to pay a higher price and this restricts design thinking. Have design researchers always on the field listening to customers. How can one person work across many different domains? Because the fundamentals for designing for people are the same across all domains.

Design for Special Needs: When designing for things, it is also important to design for special needs. Even if it is 5% of the population who need special design (in a country like India, it would be 50 million people or more). This is a lot. There could be people who are short, tall and more. When designing for special needs marketing is also important. For example, people do not want to be seen with a walker or wheelchair. However if the design is cool and also serves a purpose , everybody and even people with disabilities will use it. However it is not marketed specially for people with disabilities. A great example of this is Sam Farber who wanted to design household tools for his arthritic wife. Even though the peeler was designed for someone with arthritis it was advertised as a better peeler for everyone. Special features made for people with special needs often turn out to be useful for a wide variety of people.

Complex Design with purpose: Sometimes you also make the design complex for a purpose. E.g If you do not want kids to open a certain door, you make the door complex. The complex design is made with purpose. 

Standards: The author writes that the standardization of tools help in the overall usage of the product. We should not standardize too soon or too late. The problem with standardizing too soon is that it may not be great to use it and if we standardize too late, people may find it difficult to use. The author writes about the QWERTY keyboard which has become the standard tool. On which side of the road do you drive? The location of the steering wheel in a car (It is a standard and varies by country). The author also writes about his personal experience of standardizing high-definition resolution in the US when high-definition TVs were introduced in Japan. They finally agreed on different standards for resolution (480i, 480p, 720p, 1080i). It was a long process that took several years, however they did make it work. 

Clocks: The clocks are standardized throughout the world. The locations of 12 and 6 are standard across the world. Clocks rotate clockwise. What if it rotates anti-clockwise? It would create a lot of confusion.  Also the way the day is designed, you have 12 hours and it also repeats itself.  If you say 6 o clock, you will also need to add an AM or PM to it. The day has 24 hours, each hour 60  minutes, and each  minute 60 seconds. This is a standard. During the French Revolution (1792), the French proposed to change time to be in the decimal system when the major shift to metric system took place. The metric for weights and lengths took hold, not time.  Are there better ways to design time? The author thinks so and prefers it. 

The author writes that any company that is working on creating a standard needs to work with all the parties involved, including government agencies. It takes at least 5 years to get to a standard. Design brings together technology and people, business, politics, culture and commerce. 

Chapter 7 – Design in the World of Business

Competition drives design and many times customers just keep adding features to the product to keep up or stay ahead of the competition. The market may be saturated, so to keep up, we add new features so people can upgrade. Manufacturers compete on three most important things, 1. Price, 2. Features and 3. Quality. If a competing company adds a new feature, other companies start to follow. In her book ‘Different’ Harvard Professor Yongme Moon writes that it is competition that causes all the products to be the same. If the product has real strengths it can afford to just be good enough in other areas.  When it comes to keyboards, the author writes that we can bypass typing altogether through handwriting recognition and speech understanding. Quick tracing of fingers over the relevant letters created the Swype keyboard in the 2010s. The author also writes that in the 21st century we will not have any phones. Though we will still talk to each other over a distance, there will not be a thing called a phone  (similar to how fax was killed).

How long does it take to introduce a new product?  Technology changes rapidly, but people and culture change slowly. Even our most modern technologies are fast to be invented, slow to be accepted/adopted and even slower to fade away or die. Most radical ideas fail and then later succeed. Touch sensitive displays were in the works for almost 30 years. A company called FingerWorks was developing touch displays, but failed, finally to be acquired by Apple and adopted by them. It is about the timing. The components required to manufacture the product need to be available at affordable prices. (It took three decades for touchscreen displays to get to the market). The videophone was conceived in 1879 and it is still not here (though other forms of video interaction have been adopted). The author also writes about Stigler’s Law – The names of famous people get attached to ideas even though it has nothing to do with them. With a brand new concept, it may take decades before the public could use it. The author writes that he has been associated with many products that failed, then the same product will be reintroduced by another company at a later time and be successful (timing).

Incremental Vs Radical Innovation: The author writes about Incremental Vs Radical Innovation. The most powerful form of innovation is small and incremental. You take baby steps, get feedback and innovate. Radical Innovation disrupts things or changes paradigms. The author writes that education, transportation, medicine and housing are industries that are overdue for a radical innovation (major transformation). Humans combined with machines are more powerful than just humans alone. Most fundamental principles of design always remain the same. 

Products becoming Obsolete: In the 1920s, manufacturers deliberately planned ways for making products obsolete (even though this practice existed earlier).  The author shares the story of Henry Ford buying scrapped Ford cars to see which parts lasted and which did not (failed). The reason he did this, Ford explained, was to find the parts that lasted long, so they can be designed in a way to fail at the same time (and in turn, saving money). In the future cars will not just be a mode of transportation to get you from point A to point B, but also start offering lots of entertainment during travel (We already have entertainment in terms of music, however a lot more could be added) . The author writes that the designers will be more effective if they learn more about sales, marketing and financial parts of the business.  

My take on the book: First off, I am really delighted that I invested my time to not just read the book, but also write notes on the same and complete this blog. My biggest takeaway from this book is that when you find a product difficult to use, do not blame yourself for incompetency, however blame it on the designer. This book has been a great read and should also be read in schools and colleges.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *