The New Media Parlour

“The Design of Everyday Things” Donald Norman

Norman, D, Design of Everyday Things, 2002, Preface and Ch 1

mp-technologyNorman focuses his writing on designs that have failed the user. His motivating factor for exploring how people use objects is the common misconception that if a user cannot correctly use an object, it is the fault of the user instead of the design. “Most accidents are attributed to human error, but in almost all cases the human error was the direct result of poor design.” Where Feenberg explored the philosophy of design, Norman researches the psychology of function. Both men looked at how users interact with a technology, but Feenberg focused on how users manipulate technology for their benefit while Norman looks at how users are misinterpreting the intended use of technology.

One of the most useful parts of the reading was the vocabulary and outlined principles that Norman give us as designers to use when discussing and analyzing user-centric design. In the introduction he highlights three important topics that are discussed in the book:

1. It’s not your fault – Objects should be designed for easy use by a person. A user should not have to change their mind-frame in order to use a object.

2. Design principles – Norman gives some important principles to follow when designing a product for users:

  • Conceptual model – “You form a conceptual model of the device and mentally simulate its operations. You can do the simulation because the arts are visible and the implications clear.” If we have a clear visual of the basic physics of an object we can quickly work through what different actions will do to the object. When you can see the hinges of a door, you know that you must push/pull the door on the side that is not bolted to the frame.
  • Feedback – “Without feedback, one is always wondering whether anything has happened.” This principle is very important for design of websites, because you are limited to the digital display of the monitor to help people navigate and function within your site. I know I am not the only person who is guilty of clicking a button 3, 4, 5 times when it does not respond instantly. The message that sometimes appears during online transactions “Do not click the back button during this process” would be unnecessary if the site gave a simple indication that your information has been sent/received/processed.
  • Constraints – “The surest way to make something easy to use, with few errors, is to make it impossible to do otherwise – to constrain the choices.” I never considered that warnings were a fail on the part of the design to even give people the option of working an object incorrectly.
  • Affordances – “A good designer makes sure that appropriate actions are perceptible and inappropriate ones invisible.”  I think affordances go hand in hand with constraints. When the affordance of an object is clear, there must be considerable constraints in place in order to prevent the user from straying from the primary role of the object.

3. The power of observation – This book is full of examples of good and bad design. The combination of relatable examples and simple principles to follow makes it easy to shift your perception of design all around you.

There were other keywords and principles that were addressed in the first chapter, such as:

Visibility – Norman stresses at the beginning of the book that this is the most important principle of design; “the correct parts must be visible, and they must convey the correct message.” This is the easiest way to help people create that mental model of the object and its proper function. If you lay out all the potential options for use that an object has, there is no question about what can and cannot be done with it. If there are some functions that are hidden, the user may never realize the object’s full potential unless they read the user manual.

Mapping – “The relationship between two things.” Mapping may be laid out in instructions with pictures or manuals, but the most useful mapping systems that we as humans can understand and process are ones that utilize connections that we already understand from previous experiences. “Natural mapping, by which I mean taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standards, leads to immediate understanding.”

This reading has helped me look more critically at objects that seem second nature, an unassuming part of my life. But I have also noticed that I don’t criticize design in objects enough because I have become so used to adapting myself to optimize the design of a product, instead of the other way around.


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