Book Review: The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman

Have you ever pushed on a door when it was supposed to be pulled? Or forgot to save your work on a document? Or had trouble using a new phone or app? We tend to blame ourselves when these things happen, but we shouldn’t. They’re problems with design.

The Design of Everyday Things is an excellent primer on how design decisions should be made, and why products tend to deviate from ideal designs. It’s essential for designers, and very helpful for engineers who often have to–or want to–take on design themselves. It’s actually an interesting read for anyone who wants to understand why products are made the way they are.

My boyfriend recommended it to me since I’m interested in learning more about the field of user experience (UX) design and human-computer interaction (HCI). His college class on HCI used this book as an introduction to the field, and given its anecdotal style, it’s actually quite an interesting and engaging read. Don’t be turned off by its focus on everyday objects, or the fact that it was published in 1988; the lessons you learn in this book can be applied to any product, and that’s why Norman wrote it this way. It’s still relevant today.

There were a few points that Norman made that stood out to me. Given what I’ve seen in software development, I found this passage to be especially true about the design process:

“Most designers live in a world where the gulf of evaluation is infinite. True, we often know the product too well to envision how people will use it, yet we are separated from the end users by multiple layers of corporate bureaucracy, marketing, customer services, etc. These people believe they know what customers want and feedback from the real world is limited by filters they impose. If you accept the problem definition (product requirements) from these outside sources without personal investigation you will design an inferior product regardless of your best intentions. If this initial hurdle is overcome you are only halfway home. The best design ideas are often ruined by the development-manufacturing process that takes place when they leave the design studio. What this really points out is that the process by which we design is flawed, probably more so than our conception of how to create quality designs.” [p.158]

In software, as in many industries, coming up with a design is essentially a game of telephone. One person (perhaps a product manager) directly talks to the customer, who tells someone what the customer said. This message gets passed down the line to engineering leads, who then decide to either come up with a design themselves, or pass this message along one more time to a designer or to their team of engineers. There are so many potential points of failure, even if the design is excellent. How do the designers or engineers know that what they’re hearing is exactly what the customer wanted? They don’t. They have to trust that the message got passed along accurately. Communication is key here, and while some places attempt to keep the engineers, designers, and product managers talking together, some don’t, or some don’t do it well enough.

Another point in this book that spoke to me was about how quickly technology is advancing, and how that impacts us in how we use everyday things:

“Don’t these so-called advances also cause us to lose valuable mental skills? Each technological advance that provides a mental aid also brings along critics who decry the loss of the human skill that has been made less valuable. Fine, I say: if the skill is easily automated, it wasn’t essential.

I prefer to remember things by writing them on a pad of paper rather than spending hours of study on the art of memory. I prefer using a pocket calculator to spending hours of pencil pushing and grinding, usually only to make an arithmetic mistake and not discover it until after the harm has been done. I prefer prerecorded music to no music, even if I risk becoming complacent about the power and beauty of the rare performance. And I prefer writing on a text editor or word processor so that I can concentrate on the ideas and the style, not on making marks on the paper. Then I can go back later and correct ideas, redo the grammar. And with the aid of my all-important spelling correction program, I can be confident of my presentation.

Do I fear that I will lose my ability to spell as a result of overreliance on this technological crutch? What ability? Actually, my spelling is improving through the use of this spelling corrector that continually points out my errors and suggests the correction, but won’t make a change unless I approve. It is certainly a lot more patient than my teachers used to be. And it is always there when I need it, day or night. So I get continual feedback about my errors, plus useful advice. My typing does seem to be deteriorating because I can now type even more sloppily, confident that my mistakes will be detected and corrected.

In general, I welcome any technological advance that reduces my need for mental work but still gives me the control and enjoyment of the task. That way I can exert my mental efforts on the core of the task, the thing to be remembered, the purpose of the arithmetic or the music. I want to use my mental powers for the important things, not fritter them away on the mechanics.” [p.193]

When people worry about what technological advances are doing to our society, this argument explains my viewpoint exactly. These days we may not be spending as much time on the fine details of spelling or typing or doing mathematics by hand, but this frees us up to spend our time on other pursuits that may advance our knowledge of the world. Pursuits that would otherwise not be possible.

Another interesting anecdote from this book answers the question of why we still have “querty” keyboards. It’s not an ideal layout; why do we still use it on the majority of keyboards? The more efficient Dvorak layout has been proven to allow for about 10 percent faster typing. Initially, the “querty” layout was chosen for mechanical reasons. Around the time of this layout’s development, keyboards became popular, and it was good enough that nearly all manufacturers used it as their layout. Now, for the average keyboard user, changing your layout and having to re-learn how to type is too much effort for only a 10 percent improvement in typing speed. It’s an interesting example of why ideal designs don’t always end up being the most popular.

I don’t often read nonfiction, but since I could relate to the content of this book so well, I enjoyed it. It’s also a lot more interesting than a typical textbook because of its anecdotal style. I highly recommend giving it a read if this sort of content interests you. However, if you take nothing else from this review, take this: If you encounter a poorly designed product, don’t blame yourself. Tell the company that created it about the problem, and be descriptive. They’re listening.