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Donald A. Norman: The Design of Everyday Things
(Currency/Doubleday: 1990)


“We are surrounded by large numbers of manufactured items, most intended to make our lives easier and more pleasant.... All these wonderful devices are supposed to help us save time and produce faster, superior results. But, wait a minute - if these new devices are so wonderful, why do we need special dedicated staff members to make them work - ‘power users’ or ‘key operators’? Why do we need manuals or special instructions to use the typical business telephone? Why do so many features go unused? And why do these devices add to the stresses of life, rather than reduce them? ...Business and industry have learned that their products ought to be aesthetically pleasing. A large community of designers exists to help improve appearances. But appearances are only part of the story: usability and understandability are more important, for if a product can’t be used easily and safely, how valuable is its attractiveness? ...Over the years, I have fumbled my way through life, walking into doors, failing to figure out water faucets, incompetent at working the simple things of everyday life.... My difficulties were mirrored by the problems of others. And, we all seemed to blame ourselves. Could the whole world be mechanically incompetent? ...Humans do not always err. But they do when the things they use are badly conceived and designed. Nonetheless, we still see human error blamed for all that befalls society.... While we all blame ourselves, the real culprit - faulty design - goes undetected. And millions of people feel themselves to be mechanically inept. It is time for a change.”
(Norman, pp.v-x)

The world of design is becoming an increasingly familiar one today, surrounded as we are by ever more - and different - objects, the seductive fruits of our burgeoning manufactures. Meanwhile, with the erosion of the apartheid line surrounding the self-congratulatory ghetto of the “fine” arts, design is increasingly being taken seriously by all. In fact, given the near-visceral contempt in “Theory” circles for anything that smacks of aesthetics, the world of design has - by default - become the new home of aestheticism...with all of the problems which that should imply...

Donald A. Norman is our best guide to this, our world, in which style trumps all, and what he terms “creeping featurism” and the worship of complexity are smuggled in under the seemingly simple surfaces of formidably desirable objects. For, given these trends, we truly need - now, more than ever - to comprehend just what it is that makes for good design, and why...so as to defend ourselves against those false images of the age...the objects of desire, rather than use.


“Designing well is not easy. The manufacturer wants something that can be produced economically. The store wants something that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appearance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person will pay more attention to functionality and usability. The repair service cares about maintainability: how easy is the device to take apart, diagnose, and service? The needs of those concerned are different, and often conflict.”
(Norman, p.28)

“At any lecture I give, my first demonstration needs no preparation. I can count on the light switches of the room or auditorium to be unmanageable.”
(Norman, p.92)

“If everyday life was ruled by aesthetics, life might be more pleasing to the eye but less comfortable; if ruled by usability, it might be more comfortable, but uglier. If cost or ease of manufacture dominated, products might not be attractive, functional, or durable. Clearly, each consideration has its place. Trouble occurs when one dominates all the others. Designers go astray for several reasons. First, the reward structure of the design community tends to put aesthetics first. Design collections feature prize-winning clocks that are unreadable, alarms that cannot easily be set, can openers that mystify. Second, designers are not typical users. They become so expert in using the object they have designed, that they cannot believe that anyone else might have problems; only interaction and testing with actual users throughout the design process can forestall that. Third, designers must please their clients, and the clients may not be the users.”
(Norman, p.151)

Here, we can already see some of the key reasons why usability has declined, albeit the full story is - unsurprisingly- much more complicated. For example, one (usually-ignored) part of the problem is that we tend to assume that the age-old processes which honed our most basic tools are still fully operative today - in a world now dominated by complex supply chains, widespread competition, and the insistent demand for novelty. But, as Norman explains, this is hardly the case:


“Much good design evolves: the design is tested, problem areas are discovered and modified, and then it is continually retested and remodified.... This natural design process is characteristic of products built by craftspeople...[but] natural design does not work in every situation: there must be enough time for the process to be carried out, and the item must be simple.... Most of today’s items are too complex, with too many variables, for this slow sifting of improvements. But, simple improvements ought to be possible.... Alas, the multiple forces of a competitive market seem not to allow this. One negative force is the demands of time: new models are already into their design process before old ones have even been released to customers. Moreover, mechanisms for collecting and feeding back the experiences of customers seldom exist. Another force is the pressure to look distinctive, to stand out, to make each design look different from what has gone before. It is the rare organization that is content to let a good product stand, or let natural evolution perfect it slowly. No, each year a ‘new, improved’ model must come out, usually incorporating new features that do not use the old as a starting point. In far too many instances, the results spell disaster for the consumer. [And] there is yet another problem: the...mixed curse [of] individuality, for through the desire to be different come some of our best ideas and innovations. But, in the world of sales, if a company were to make the perfect product, any other company would have to change it - which would make it worse - in order to promote its own innovation, to show that it was different. How can natural design work under these circumstances? It can’t.”
(Norman, pp.142-3)

In consequence, whilst many of the skill sets commonly required in a pre-industrial world have dropped out of regular usage, we now badly need to understand design for use - at a fundamental level - if only to protect us from the learned helplessness fostered by the genuinely lousy designs which predominate around us - and help us choose the better for our lives.

Moreover, such helplessness can deliver genuinely terrible outcomes, since the  comprehension and control problems Norman analyzes have been central to such disasters as Chernobyl...in which opaque and badly-designed control systems - far too “tightly coupled”, to use Charles Perrow’s phrase - inexorably drove their operators on to disaster...

As he observes, however, such systemic failings are not “planned” in any way, but are largely an emergent result of the dynamics of industrial organization/production and, as such, difficult to derail - except by deliberate policy, carefully applied.


“The development of a technology tends to follow a U-shaped curve of complexity: starting high; dropping to a low, comfortable level; then climbing again. New kinds of devices are complex, and difficult to use. As technicians become more competent and an industry matures, devices become simpler, more reliable, and more powerful. But then, after the industry has stabilized, newcomers figure out how to add increased power and capacity, but always at the expense of added complexity, and sometimes decreased reliability.”
(Norman, p.30)

“It is very hard to remove features of of a newly designed product that had existed in an earlier version. It’s kind of like physical evolution. If a feature is in the genome, and if that feature is not associated with any negativity (i.e., no customers gripe about it), then that feature hangs on for generations.... Designers are pretty bright people.... They can come up with a plausible-sounding explanation for almost anything [so as to justify its retention]. Hence, you get features, many many features, and these features hang on for a long time. The end result is complex interfaces for essentially simple things.”
(Norman, p.21)

The core of Norman’s analysis lies in the application of cognitive psychology - specifically the “heuristics & biases” work which is now (v.belatedly) transforming economics - to our built world, through the eyes of its users. For if Steven Vogel’s Cat’s Paws and Catapults allowed us to see that world from a builder’s viewpoint, Norman’s perspective offers us its necessary counterpart...how such a world is used, by those who never made it.

Because, what they do make, is plenty of errors...


“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.... Well-designed objects are easy to interpret and understand. They contain visible clues to their operation. Poorly-designed objects...provide no clues - or sometimes false clues. They trap the user, and thwart the normal process of interpretation and understanding. Alas, poor design predominates.”
(Norman, p.2)

“People do tend to find causes for events, and just what they assign as the cause varies.... In part, there seems to have to be some perceived causal relationship between the thing being blamed, and the result. The word perceived is critical: the causal relationship does not have to exist; the person simply has to think it is there.... One major part of the assignment of blame is that we frequently have little information on which to make the judgement, and what little we have may be wrong. As a result, blame or credit can be assessed almost independently of reality. Here is where the apparent simplicity of everyday objects causes problems...[since] if we believe that others are able to use the device, and if we believe that it is not very complex, then we conclude that any difficulties must be our own fault.... Interestingly enough, [this] common tendency to blame ourselves for failures with everyday objects goes against the normal attributions people make. In general, it has been found that people attribute their own problems to the environment, those of other people to their personalities...[and] just the opposite attribution, by the way, is made when things go well.”
(Norman, pp.40-1)

“People make errors routinely. Hardly a minute of normal conversation can go by without a stumble, a repetition, a phrase stopped mid-way through, to be discarded or redone. Human language provides special mechanisms that make corrections so automatic that the participants hardly take notice; indeed, they may be surprised when errors are pointed out. Artificial devices do not have the same tolerance.... Errors come in several forms. Two fundamental categories are slips and mistakes. Slips result from automatic behavior, when subconscious actions that are intended to satisfy our goals get waylaid en route. Mistakes result from conscious deliberations. The same processes that make us creative and insightful by allowing us to see relationships between apparently unrelated things, that let us leap to correct conclusions on the basis of partial or even faulty evidence, also lead to error.... Form an appropriate goal but mess up in performance, and you’ve made a slip. Slips are almost always small things: a misplaced action, the wrong thing moved, a desired action undone. Moreover, they are relatively easy to discover by simple observation and monitoring. Form the wrong goal, and you’ve made a mistake. Mistakes can be major events, and they are difficult or even impossible to detect - after all, the action is appropriate to the goal.”
(Norman, pp.105-6)

“There are lots of ways for a designer to deal with errors. The critical thing, however, is to approach the topic with the proper philosophy. The designer shouldn’t think of a simple dichotomy between errors and correct behavior; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as a cooperative endeavour between person and machine, one in which misconceptions can arise on either side.”
(Norman, p.140)

“Assume that any error that can be made will be made. Plan for it. Think of each action by the user as an attempt to step in the right direction; an error is simply an action that is incompletely or improperly specified. Think of the action as part of a natural, constructive dialogue, between user and system. Try to support, not fight, the user’s responses. Allow the user to recover from errors, to know what was done and what happened, and to reverse any unwanted outcome. Make it easy to reverse operations; make it hard to do irreversible actions. Design explorable systems. Exploit forcing functions.”
(Norman, p.200)

Like that of many other areas in the human sciences, this approach can often appear deceptively simple, its take-home lessons truisms we already “know”. Yet, we should strongly resist jumping to this conclusion since, were it actually correct, a design analyst/critic such as Norman would hardly find anything to write about...instead of being nigh-on overwhelmed by examples of rotten design. Rather, I would argue we should force ourselves to think through such “truisms” when offered as the fruits of empirical research, since it is only by doing so that we can help re-educate our common sense.

Truisms, clichés & aphorisms, in fact, provide us w/the very best support for this type of approach, since a little thought can almost always supply a counter-example to any commonly acknowledged “truth” about the human world. The reason for this is simple; such “truths” are strongly context-dependent, and so, empirical work can help us to understand exactly when too many cooks will spoil the broth...and precisely where many hands will make for light work...

For this reason, I would argue, it is important not to skip through the seemingly “obvious” points in works such as this, but to attempt to grasp exactly how these relate to the more novel information and ideas that seize our imaginations. For both are necessary - and inseparable - to our proper understandings.


“There already exists the start of a psychology of materials and of things, the study of affordances of objects. When used in this sense, the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used.... Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into.... When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction is required. Complex things may require explanation, but simple things should not. When simple things need pictures, labels, or instructions, the design has failed.”
(Norman, p.9)

Mapping is a technical term meaning the relationship between two things, in this case between the controls and their movements and the results in the world.... Natural mapping, by which I mean taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standards, leads to immediate understanding. For example, a designer can use spatial analogy: to move an object up, move the control up.... Some natural mappings are cultural or biological, as in the universal standard that a rising level means more, a diminishing level, less.... [However,] there is no natural concept of more or less in the comparison of different pitches, or hues, or taste qualities. Other natural mappings follow from the principles of perception, and allow for the natural grouping or patterning of controls and feedback.... The principles are simple, but rarely incorporated into design. Good design takes care, planning, thought. It takes conscious attention to the needs of the user. And sometimes, the designer gets it right.”
(Norman, pp.23-5)

In fact, the more closely you examine (and re-read) The Design of Everyday Things, the more insight you will find. For, directly contra one of the unspoken assumptions of postmodernism - that complexity can only be justly treated via further complexities - the attempt to produce understanding of such via basic heuristics is enormously fruitful, especially when the author is capable of wielding a wide variety of same, and never glosses over the partial nature of the insights we are working with...


“Knowledge (or information) in the world and in the head are both essential in our daily functioning. But to some extent, we can choose to lean more heavily on one or the other. That choice requires a trade-off.... Knowledge in the world acts as its own reminder. It can help us recover structures that we would otherwise forget. Knowledge in the head is efficient: no search and interpretation of the environment is required.[But] in order to use knowledge in the head, we have to get it there, which might require considerable amounts of learning. Knowledge in the world is easier to learn, but often more difficult to use. And it relies heavily upon the continued physical presence of the information; change the environment, and the information is changed.... Reminders provide a good example of the relative tradeoffs between the roles of internal versus external knowledge. Knowledge in the world is accessible. It is self-reminding. It is always there, waiting to be seen, waiting to be used. That is why we structure our offices and our places of work so carefully...and teach ourselves (knowledge in the head) to look in these standard places routinely. We use clocks and calendars and notes. Knowledge in the mind is ephemeral: here now, gone later. We can’t count on something being present in mind at any particular time, unless it is triggered by some external event, or unless we deliberately keep it in mind through constant repetition (which then prevents us from having other conscious thoughts). Out of sight, out of mind.”
(Norman, pp.79-80)

“People learn better and feel more comfortable when the knowledge required for a task is available externally - either explicit in the world, or readily derived through constraints. But knowledge in the world is useful only if there is a natural, easily interpreted relationship between that knowledge and the information it is intended to convey about possible actions and outcomes. Note, however, that when a user is able to internalize the required knowledge - that is, to get it into the head - performance can be faster and more efficient. Therefore, the design should not impede action, especially for those well-practiced, experienced users who have internalized the knowledge. It should be easy to go back and forth, to combine the knowledge in the head with that in the world. Let whichever is more readily available at the moment be used without interfering with the other, and allow for mutual support.”
(Norman, p.189)

“When something can’t be designed without arbitrary mappings and difficulties, there is one last route: standardize. Standardize the actions, outcomes, layout, displays. Make related actions work in the same way. Standardize the system, the problem; create an international standard. The nice thing about standardization is that no matter how arbitrary the standardized mechanism, it has to be learned only once. People can learn it and use it effectively. This is true of typewriter keyboards, traffic signs and signals, units of measurement, and calendars. When followed consistently, standardization works well. There are difficulties. It may be hard to obtain an agreement. And timing is crucial: it is important to standardize as soon as possible - to save everyone trouble - but late enough to take into account advanced technologies and procedures. [But] the shortcomings of early standardization are often more than not made up for by the increase in ease of use.... Standardization is only essential when all the necessary information cannot be placed in the world, or when natural mappings cannot be exploited. The role of training and practice is to make the mappings and required actions more available to the user, overcoming any shortcomings in the design, minimizing the need for planning and problem solving.... If we examine the history of advances in all technological fields, we see that some improvements naturally come through technology, others come through standardization.”
(Norman, pp.200-1)

We ignore, to our peril, the nature of those tools we take for granted...even as we curse their recalcitrance, and yet blame ourselves for their failings... For, just like our mental tools, they structure our world - and ourselves - in ways that are all too easily overlooked. This is the deeper reason why our general understandings require works such as this, which can not only teach designers what they need to know, but can also educate the rest of us as to what we are doing to ourselves with the objects in our lives. Not to mention helping us choose better - rather than more seductive - ones, for ourselves...


“Apparent complexity and actual complexity are not at all the same. Consider a surfboard, ice skates, parallel bars, or a bugle. All are simple looking. Yet years of study and practice are required to be good at using any of these objects. The problem is that each of the apparently simple devices is capable of a wide repertoire of actions, but because there are no controls (and no moving parts), the rich complexity of action can be accomplished only through a rich complexity of execution by the user.... [But,] actually, increasing the number of controls can both enhance and detract from ease of use.... To make something easy to use, match the number of controls to the number of functions, and organize the panels according to function. To make something look like it is easy, minimize the number of controls. How can these conflicting requirements be met simultaneously? Hide the controls not being used at the moment. By using a panel on which only the relevant controls are visible, you minimize the appearance of complexity. By having a separate control for each function, you minimize complexity of use. It is possible to eat your cake and have it, too.”
(Norman, pp.208-9)

“It is characteristic of thought processes that attention to one aspect comes at the cost of decreased attention to others. What a technology makes easy to do will get done; what it hides, or makes difficult, may very well not get done.”
(Norman, p.211)

“That design affects society is hardly news to designers. Many take the implications of their work seriously...[and,] indeed, design philosophies vary in important ways across political systems. In Western cultures, design has reflected the capitalistic importance of the marketplace...[so] we are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use. Everyday tasks are not difficult because of their inherent complexity. They are difficult only because they require learning arbitrary relationships and arbitrary mappings, and because they sometimes require precision in their execution. The difficulties can be avoided through design that makes obvious what actions are necessary. Good design exploits constraints, so that the user feels as if there is only one possible thing to do - the right thing, of course. The designer has to understand and exploit natural constraints of all kinds. Errors are an unavoidable part of everyday life. Proper design can help decrease the incidence and severity of errors by eliminating the causes of some, minimizing the possibility of others, and helping to make errors discoverable, once they have been made. Such design exploits the power of constraints, and makes use of forcing functions and visible outcomes of actions. We do not have to experience confusion, or suffer from undiscovered errors. Proper design can make a difference.”
(Norman, p.216)

Donald A. Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things - originally The Psychology of Everyday Things, in its first edition - is a deceptively straightforward - even chatty - book, easy to read, that offers a wealth of insight into our unnecessarily fraught modern relationship with the built world around us, and more... By setting our natural biases against the - market-driven - dominance of aestheticism and complexity, he both illuminates this relationship, and shows us how designers could lift their game, were their employers willing to understand how this process so easily goes off the rails in the current business climate.

Ihave left it until this point to provide the most compressed summary of Norman’s conclusions re the world of design since, without further explanation and background, most could seem rather banal...a mere repetition of what we already know. Yet, as I said earlier, they are far more than that - being the result of systematic & careful enquiry into an area where poor practice dominates our lives. Understood properly - that is, in active relation to one another, rather than as isolated points - they can show us not only how we deal w/our everyday things, but also how we manage to make our way amidst the world around us. And that is no small thing...


“Design should:

*  Make it easy to determine what actions are possible at any moment (make use of constraints).
*  Make things visible, including the conceptual model of the system, the alternative actions, and the results of actions.
*  Make it easy to evaluate the current state of the system.
* Follow natural mappings between intentions and the required actions; between actions and the resulting effect; and between the information that is visible and the interpretation of the system state.

In other words, make sure that (1) the user can figure out what to do, and (2) the user can tell what is going on. Design should make use of the natural properties of people and of the world: it should exploit natural relationships and natural constraints. As much as possible, it should operate without instructions or labels. Any necessary instruction or training should be needed only once; with each explanation the person should be able to say, ‘Of course,’ or ‘Yes, I see.’ A simple explanation should suffice if there is reason to the design, if everything has its place and its function, and if the outcomes of actions are visible. If the explanation leads the person to think or say, ‘How am I going to remember that?’ the design has failed....

The principles of design are straightforward.

1. Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head.
2. Simplify the structure of tasks.
3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation.
4. Get the mappings right.
5. Exploit the nature of constraints, both natural and artificial.
6. Design for Error.
7. When all else fails, standardize.”
(Norman, pp.188-9)


John Henry Calvinist