The Design of Everyday Things

This is a pretty cool book. Basically, the author, Donald A. Norman, discusses various pitfalls in the designs of many everyday objects. Norman, a psychologist, discusses the ways that humans respond to new devices and how to design them so they are immediately usable. Many examples are given illustrating bad designs and common problems people have with them. He mentions many common, everyday errors all people make and how simple mistakes in the use of badly designed objects can lead to catastrophe. This book is a good introduction to understand the necessity of good design and user interfaces.

This book was very easy to read. Norman uses plain English in a conversational tone to explain his research and discoveries. No overly technical jargon is used in presenting the material. In addition to this, he gives many simple, real-world examples that perfectly illustrate the concepts he discusses.

A few topics in the book piqued my interest. First of all, Norman mentions many common household items, such as light switches and doors, that millions of people have problems with every day. This strikes me that such simple things should be so hard to use. What is even more striking to me, though, is that little or no effort seems to have been made to change standard items like these on a large scale. Light switches today are functionally the same as light switches fifty years ago.

Another topic that I found fascinating was the tendency of people to blame themselves when having trouble with what should be a simple object. In fact, the improper designs of these objects do not give some sort of natural mapping or clearly illustrate the proper use. The result of such poor designs is really to blame for the troubles people have with telephones, air conditioners, refrigerators, and many more seemingly simple items.

Finally, the last thing I enjoyed from this book was the presentation of many common slips and errors that people make on a daily basis. This may be partially because of the humor in the examples, but also due to the ability to personally relate to the topic. For example, people frequently start a sentence over, stutter, or pause many times during speech, implying that many small errors are being made. People are so used to such errors that many go unnoticed. Norman presented several common types of errors people make all the time. For example, many people start performing a frequently-done activity when trying to do something else, like driving to work when intending to drive to the store or throwing a dirty shirt into the toilet instead of the laundry bin. I found the somewhat formal description of several different, specific types of error fascinating, as I could relate to all the types he presented. Perhaps this chapter helps people feel less clumsy, since it shows that all humans have many slips.

This book was definitely a good read, and it is definitely one of the most interesting books I have read for any class. I think it was a good introduction to Human-Computer Interaction, even though it doesn't deal with computer interaction. It presents the fundamentals of good design for anything.

2 comments of glory:

George said...

I liked the part about assigning blame too. The funny thing is that when trying to help people using computers, particularly those who are everyday users, I have found that they do not often blame themselves but are more likely to blame the machine for their own errors and then give up because the computer is broken.

Now this likely means that the computer isn't being clear or obvious enough or isn't fault tolerant enough, but because of their learned helplessness people don't think there is any way to get it to work because 'its broken'. So often they are making a mental slip to create that error, but because the machine is so complex and liable to break they automatically assume it is broken.

Of course then there are those nefarious occasions when the machine actually is broken (cable routers anyone?)

John said...

I agree. The nefarious occasions when the cable router is broken, indeed!

We should be wary of the concerns of assigning too little self-blame, too. We all make slips as users; however, we shouldn't be too quick to assign blame at the designer's feet. I'm not sure the author agrees totally with that, though.

One thing to note, with regard to light switches, it is sometimes better to simply let what has been expected remain. In other words, if it isn't broke, don't (try to) fix it. It might just confuse the user even more than it's worth.

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