Navigating around everyday items, like doors, light switches, and household appliances, should be easy, yet users make mistakes all the time: Pushing instead of pulling a door (and vice versa), figuring out which switch turns on which light, and fiddling with the knobs and buttons of washers and dryers, for instance, even afer fumbling through the instruction manuals. The blame, however, according to Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things”, falls not on the user, but on the designer. “Far too many items in the world are designed, constructed, and foisted upon us with no understanding – or even care – for how we will use them”, he wrote, and therefore the central thesis is that everyday items should be made “understandable” and “usable”.
In other words: “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”.
Bearing in mind that the book was published in 1988, the principles of designing items to be user-centric and user-friendly have stood the test of time. While explaining the fundamental principles of design*, of providing good conceptual models and of making things visible, there are references to case studies of items in different settings, with psychological and behavioural explanations for these principles. The average reader, at the end, is likely to pay more attention to and to also assess the items around them. With a new item, the user should intuitively know what to do (“execution”), and then figure out what is going on (“evaluation”). And in summary, if the user and usability remain the foremost considerations, then good 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; and
– 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.
The second half of “The Design of Everyday Things” might feel a little repetitive, with Norman – through other items or case studies – reiterating and emphasising these core principles and guidelines. What was nonetheless instructive too, I thought, was him problematising the design process as being “captive of corporate bureaucracy”. That is not to say that designers are not to blame when items appear not to work (as intended), especially when they get too familiar with their products and hence forget the need for usability. Yet, “designers must please their clients, who are often not the end users”, and oftentimes other criteria (such as aesthetics, cost, functionality) which are peripheral to the actual end-user are instead prioritised. Given that design is ultimately characterised as taking on political significance, perhaps greater exposition on how users and designers can advocate for better design would have been productive.
Norman’s seven principles of design are: 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 power of constraints, both natural and artificial; 6. Design for error; and 7. When all else fails, standardise.