Book Review & Insights: The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman

Andy Ng
8 min readApr 21, 2020

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The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman was one of my April 2020 reads. The book introduces basic psychological concepts from areas such as cognitive psychology and ties them into usability and design.

The book is about how design serves as the communication between object and user, and how to optimize that conduit of communication in order to make the experience of using the object pleasurable.

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After reading this you will never look at any door or kettles or computer program in the same way. Norman points out the obvious and makes you think about them in an entirely different point of view. He lets you understand the basic functions & features of simple devices, then lets you see them in a way that is entirely different and new. He also points out places where the design elements are good & bad.

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Norman makes me realise why my inability to get through a door safely or not being able to figure out a gadget is the fault of the designer and it’s probably isn’t my fault. People can’t read the mind of the designer to understand how the product works. When you walk up to a door, how do you know how to deal with it? You never thought about it, you just know and intuitively just use it. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the designer to take a look at how to embed the knowledge of how to use it within the product itself. How designers balance aesthetics and usability is very important. Can anyone design something bad like a door? The answer is, yes!

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I found myself agreeing with Norman’s a lot. He said that function should supersede features and usability is more important than aesthetics.

While I am working in a web design and development agency, we tend to express how stupid our users were, because things seemed obvious to us. We are the one who designs and made the website, we have a mental model of how it works, of course, it seems intuitive to us. He opened up my eyes and make me realise that it’s my fault as a designer and not the fault of the user who can’t figure it out. He also goes into the difficulties designers face in getting to a good design and the struggle to keep a good design from being changed along the way.

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The book gave me a great introduction to the foundation of UX design and how to appreciate the capabilities of doing well design products that connect to people. Besides, it also talks about user-centred design principles, UX best practises and design thinking.

While The Design of Everyday Things deals mostly with the design of physical objects, its principles are equally applicable to the design of websites and other interactive systems. Some basic things do not change even when the technology, people and culture change. The design principles will not change, the principles of discoverability, of feedback, and the power of affordances and signifiers, mapping, and conceptual models will always hold.

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Seven basic principles of design:

  1. Discoverability
    It is possible to determine what actions are possible and the current state of the device.
  2. Feedback
    There is full and continuous information about the results of actions and the current state of the product or service. After an action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.
  3. Conceptual Model
    The design projects all the information needed to create a good conceptual model of the system, leading to understanding and a feeling of control. The conceptual model enhances both discoverability and evaluation of results.
  4. Affordances
    The proper affordances exist to make the desired actions possible.
  5. Signifiers
    Effective use of signifiers ensures discoverability and that the feedback is well communicated and intelligible.
  6. Mappings
    The relationship between controls and their actions follows the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible through spatial layout and temporal contiguity.
  7. Constraints
    Providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints guides actions and eases interpretation.
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What you can learn from this book on making your design task process an easy one are these 7 steps:

  1. Use both pieces of knowledge in the world and the head.
  2. Simplify the structure of the task
  3. Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation
  4. Get the mapping right
  5. Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial
  6. Design for error
  7. When all else fails, standardise
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Takeaways

The key skills for a designer are to understand design principles, business, technology, marketing and communication.

Human-Centred Design (HCD) process: all about observing to understand the problem, ideating solutions, rapid prototyping and testing. You should test with small groups at first so that you have lots of opportunities to refine and iterate.

Design is all about focusing on people’s needs and abilities. You may think you know what those are by the virtue of being a human, but you don’t, as most human actions are unconscious. Therefore, to be a good designer, you need to learn some psychology.

Signifiers and feedback are key to designing something. The user needs to be able to quickly understand what it can do (affordances) and get immediate and appropriate feedback when they do something.

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Some of the good quotes I like from the book

We need to remove the word failure from our vocabulary, replacing it instead with learning experience. To fail is to learn: we learn more from our failures than from our successes. With success, sure, we are pleased, but we often have no idea why we succeeded. With failure, it is often possible to figure out why, to ensure that it will never happen again. Scientists know this. Scientists do experiments to learn how the world works. Sometimes their experiments work as expected, but often they don’t. Are these failures? No, they are learning experiences. Many of the most important scientific discoveries have come from these so-called failures.

Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. Discoverability: Is it possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls and settings mean?

Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are.

Good designers are quick learners, for today they might be asked to design a camera; tomorrow, to design a transportation system or a company’s organizational structure. How can one person work across so many different domains? Because the fundamental principles of designing for people are the same across all domains. People are the same, and so the design principles are the same.

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.

Human-Centred design is a design philosophy. It means starting with a good understanding of people and the needs that the design is intended to meet. This understanding comes about primarily through observation, for people themselves are often unaware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are encountering. Getting the specification of the thing to be defined is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the HCD principle is to avoid specifying the problem as long as possible but instead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the approach and the problem definition. The results can be products that truly meet the needs of people.

Never criticize unless you have a better alternative.

Eliminate all error messages from electronic or computer systems. Instead, provide help and guidance.

Why do people err? Because the designs focus upon the requirements of the system and the machines, and not upon the requirements of people. Most machines require precise commands and guidance, forcing people to enter numerical information perfectly. But people aren’t very good at great precision. We frequently make errors when asked to type or write sequences of numbers or letters. This is well known: so why are machines still being designed that require such great precision, where pressing the wrong key can lead to horrendous results?

When people err, change the system so that type of error will be reduced or eliminated. When complete elimination is not possible, redesign to reduce the impact.

When many people all have the same problem, shouldn’t another cause be found? If the system lets you make the error, it is badly designed. And if the system induces you to make the error, then it is really badly designed. When I turn on the wrong stove burner, it is not due to my lack of knowledge: it is due to poor mapping between controls and burners. Teaching me the relationship will not stop the error from recurring: redesigning the stove will.

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The next time you come across with a website, phone, or controller you will remember the lessons from this book.

Recommended for anyone who is designers, computer developers, engineers, inventors and anyone who might create something for others to use.

This book is great to read without a specific order.

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Andy Ng

I design digital products that people want and need | Senior UX Designer, DSTA | Connect @ www.linkedin.com/in/andyngjiu/