Donald. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books,
Norman lays a groundwork for design considerations related to ordinary,
everyday objects. His examples include touch-tone telephones, analog
clocks and digital watches, VCRs (confusing!), doors, switches, remote controls,
stove-top burners, microwaves, water faucet handles, and keyboards. Rich with
illustrations and examples, The Design of Everyday Things proceeds
primarily on lament and critique: so much is bad with design. Norman sets
out to explain why. He draws on formalist conventions, however, usually
preferring the simple and plain to the ornate and complex: utility before
beauty, put yet another way.
This is a revision (toward popularization) of The Psychology of Everyday
Things (1988), a project motivated by questions about ordinary human error,
its causes, its remedies (compared with I.A. Richards’ def’n of rhetoric as the
study of misunderstanding and its resolve, this could be a rhetoric of everyday
things, I suppose). Norman approaches design problems from the standpoint of
cognitive psychology. That is, he tries to understand the convergence
of things-as-used, things-as-designed, and the many variables that
create problems (constraints, on one hand, and errors, slips, and
mistakes, on the other hand).
The first two-thirds of the book is what I would describe (in fairness, at a
very general level) as utopian (design is perfectible) and formalist ("good"
design follows reductive principles). But the final third of the book
opens more explicitly to design as a complex process of the evolution of
things within systems. In other words, the extent to which things are made by
users whose knowledge, memories, contexts, needs, and such vary considerably,
failsafe design is something of a crapshoot. Certain examples also position
design as a scapegoat for user ineptitude.
What could I write about related to this?
- Norman emphasizes visibility. Briefly he mentions sound
(auditory feedback) for visibility. An odd turn. Why not odor? (As
in the scented additives in propane, for example).
- Environmental feedback (104). Norman describes the two-in-one
light switch that also controls the low-noise ventilation system. He was
at a friend’s house but couldn’t tell whether the fan was working. The
question of environmental feedback might look at whether the air was in fact
noticeably drier, given that he’d showered there a number of times.
- Design in complex systems (142): rarely are re-designs of seemingly
discrete objects all that discrete (standalone). Other constraints,
including physical evolution (21), cost, and findability (215) interfere.
- **Models of human thought: schema-frame and connectionist
(115). Also wide and deep structures (119).
- Norman’s idea of knowledge in the world jibes with Bazerman on
discursively structured activities. What Bazerman calls
"agenda-setting" overlaps with what Norman sees as the structuring functions
of designed things (both symbolically and materially) as users develop
knowledge about how to use them.
Finally, the book is organized by a number of lists. Each item
typically accompanies a brief section explaining what it means and how it
applies to design.
Knowing what to do: constraints and mappings are key, as are
visibility and feedback (99).
Seven stages of action (48): forming the goal, forming the intention, specifying
an action, executing the action, perceiving the state of the world, interpreting
the state of the world, evaluating the outcome.
Knowledge in the head and in the world (55): Information is in the world; Great
precision is not required; Natural constraints are present; Cultural constraints
Classification of everyday constraints (84): physical, semantic, cultural,
Categories for slips (107): capture errors, description errors, data-driven
errors, associate activation errors, loss-of-activation errors, and mode errors.
Seven design principles (188):
- Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.
- Simplify the structure of tasks.
- Make things visible: bridge gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.
- Get the mappings right.
- Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial.
- Design for error.
- When all else fails, standardize.
Key terms: "visibility" (4), "natural design" (4), "mapping" (5, 23),
"psychology of materials" (9), "psychology of causality" (9), "conceptual
models" (12), "mental models" (17), "system image" (17), "naive or folk
understandings" (36), "learned helplessness" (42), "taught helplessness" (42),
procedural and declarative knowledge (57), "natural mappings" (75), "forcing
function" (132), "physical anthropometry" (161), "creeping featurism" (172),
"POET [The Psychology of Everyday Things] is an outgrowth of my
repeated frustrations with the operation of everyday things and my growing
knowledge of how to apply experimental psychology and cognitive
"Other clues [in addition to conceptual models] to how things work come from
their visible structure–in particular from affordances,
constraints, and mapping" (12).
"We have now encountered the fundamental principles of designing for people:
(1) provide a good conceptual model and (2) make things visible"
"Mental models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, events
take place, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of
things. These models are essential in helping us understand our experiences,
predict the outcomes of our actions, and handle unexpected occurrences. We base
our models on whatever knowledge we have, real or imaginary, naive or
"Affordances can signal how an object can be moved, what it will
support, and whether anything will fit into its crevices, over it, or under it"
"What are not everyday activities? Those with wide and deep
structures, the ones that require considerable planning and thought, deliberate
trial and error: trying first this approach, then that–backtracking" (124).
"For understanding mistakes, social structure is every bit as
essential as physical structure" (129).
"The designer shouldn’t think of a simple dichotomy between errors and
corrective behavior; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as
a cooperative endeavor between person and machine, one in which
misconceptions can arise on either side" (140).
"In their work, designers often become expert with the device
they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they
are trying to perform with the device" (156).
"Creeping featurism is the tendency to add to the number of features
that a device can do, often extending the number beyond all reason" (173).
"Imagine that this book was in hypertext. How would it work? Well,
I’ve used several devices that relate to hypertext: one is the footnote,
another is parenthetical comments, and yet another is contrasting
- Related sources:
- Alexander, C. The Timeless Way of Building. New York: Oxford UP,
- Gibson, J.J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston:
Houghton Miflin, 1979.
- Simon, Herbert. The Sciences of the Artificial. Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press, 1981.