Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Design of Everday Things

Donald A. Norman's The Design of Everyday Things

As part of Human-Computer Interaction class, I read Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, a seminal work in the field of User Centered Design (UCD). It is an engaging, highly readable book that teaches interactive design principles to apply to daily life. My boyfriend, for example, a gift processing manager for a large, quickly expanding non-profit organization, uses the concepts to create user-centered methods to centralize gift entry in the national office. I have used the theories myself to construct a myriad of information management protocols.

Donald Norman, a cognitive science professor, uses mundane example of bad design from daily life to illustrate his points. Who among us hasn’t been flummoxed by our initial use of office telephones, shower knobs, or doors that we pushed when we should have pulled or vice versa?

The crux of the book is simple: user needs differ from designer needs. When designers fail to understand the processes by which devices work, they create unworkable technology. A well-designed object should be self-explanatory.

Norman recapitulates his points at the end of the book by listing the seven UCD principles for transforming difficult tasks into easy ones:

1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head.
2. Simplify the structure of tasks.
3. Make things visible.
4. Get the mappings right.
5. Exploit the powers of constraints, both natural and artificial.
6. Design for error.
7. When all else fails, standardize.

Below is an excerpt from the book:

"You would need an engineering degree from MIT to work this," someone once told me, shaking his head in puzzlement over his brand new digital watch. Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT… Give me a few hours and I can figure out the watch. But why should it take hours? I have talked with many people who can’t figure out how to work a sewing machine or a video cassette recorder, who habitually turn on the wrong stove burner.

Why do we put up with the frustrations of everyday objects, with objects that we can’t figure out how to use, with those neat plastic-wrapped packages that seem impossible to open, with doors that trap people, with washing machines and dryers that have become too confusing to use, with audio-stereo-television-video-cassette-recorders that claim in their advertisements to do everything, but that make it almost impossible to do anything?

The human mind is exquisitely tailored to make sense of the world. Give it the slightest clue and off it goes, providing explanation, rationalization, understanding. Consider the objects—books, radios, kitchen appliances, office machines, and light switches—that make up our everyday lives. Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly designed objects can be difficult and frustrating to use. They provide no clues—or sometimes false clues. They trap the user and thwart the normal process of interpretation and understanding. Alas, poor design predominates. The result is a world filled with frustration, with objects that cannot be understood, with devices that lead to error. This book is an attempt to change things.


Link to Donald A. Norman's website

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