The Design of Everyday Things: Summary and Book Notes

The Design of Everyday Things book cover

Summary and Notes

In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman makes a case for Human Centered Design and describes how designers should think about users and their problems. He breaks down common design mistakes and gives readers a framework for user-centered design.

High-level Notes

If you’ve lived in the Bay Area and/or have worked at a tech company for long enough, then I suspect none of the concepts in The Design of Everyday Things will feel very new. Many of the insights and thinking frameworks in this book are (at least nowadays) very baked into how we think and talk about building and designing products. How much of that is exactly due to Don Norman and this book I don’t know. However, I don’t doubt the strong influence this book has had on the way we build products today.

Despite lots of the concepts feeling familiar, reading The Design of Everyday Things was still interesting because the book gives a formal language and structure around design thinking. I would recommend this book to anyone who is unfamiliar with tech companies/Silicon Valley and wants to better understand how people here think, or anyone who wants a refresher on the ideas underpinning design thinking and user-centered design.

Chapter 1: The Psychopathology of Everyday things

Summary

Norman introduces the concept of Human-centered design, which means exactly what it sounds like: we should design for people and their needs first. He provides lots of (funny) examples where that isn’t the case, such as doors that are perplexingly difficult to open or unnecessarily complex light switches.

Confusing light switch
Example of a confusing light switch: there is no indication of which switch corresponds to which light.

Crucially, Norman makes the point that design is about psychology, human needs, and how humans interact with machines. We shouldn’t expect humans to conform to machines and the design of our machines (and software) should reflect that.

Finally, he also introduces a few technical terms to guide how we should think about design. These terms are:

  • Affordance: Affordances describe the relationship between a person and an object. They signal to the person exactly how the object might be used. Affordances describe RELATIONSHIPS, not a property. They determine what actions are possible.
  • Signifier: Signifiers communicate HOW something should be used; e.g. the purpose/structure/operation of something. Norman makes the point that designers should focus on signifiers, but be aware of affordances.
  • Mapping: Mapping describes the relationship between a control and its results. The best mappings are intuitive.
  • Conceptual Models: We all know what conceptual models are. Good ones are derived from affordances and signifiers and allow us to predict the effect of our actions. They give us mental models for how we can think about using a product.

Highlights

“Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding.” (3)

“‘Why are people having problems?’ They wonder. ‘You are being too logical’, I say. ‘You are designing for people the way you would like them to be, not for the way they really are.'” (7)

Human centered 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.” (9)

“Design requires the cooperative efforts of multiple disciplines. The number of different disciplines required to produce a successful product is staggering.”

Chapter 2: The Psychology of Everyday Actions

Summary

To motivate the idea of human-centered design in The Design of Everyday Things, Norman explores human psychology and how we choose and evaluate our actions. He dives into conscious and subconscious thinking (you might find these explanations lacking if you’ve also read Thinking Fast and Slow). Finally, he also explores our emotions, and how we feel when things go right vs. when things go wrong.

My two big takeaways from this chapter were:

  1. Root cause analysis: keep asking the user “why?” and don’t assume anything. This will help you get to the bottom of a user’s true pain points, which may be very different from what they might originally say.
  2. Don’t blame the user for errors.
  3. The Seven Fundamental Questions of Action, that lead to seven design principles that all designers should be familiar with:
    1. What do I want to accomplish?
    2. What are the alternative action sequences?
    3. What action can I do now?
    4. How do I do it?
    5. What happened?
    6. What does it mean?
    7. Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?

Highlights

“When we interact with objects, there’s a Gulf of Execution (how do we determine how to interact with the object to get what we want?) and a Gulf of Evaluation (what’s the feedback that’s been given to help me evaluate my action)?” (38)

“Most #innovation is done as an incremental enhancement of existing products.” (43)

People are innately disposed to look for causes of events, to form explanations and stories. That is one reason storytelling is such a persuasive medium. Stories resonate with our experiences and provide examples of new instances. From our experiences and the stories of others we tend to form generalizations about the way people behave and things work.” (57)

“Human error usually is a result of poor design: it should be called system error. Humans err continually; it is an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account.” (66)

Chapter 3: Knowledge in the Head and in the World

Summary

In this chapter, Norman describes what we know (“knowledge in our heads”) vs. explicit design cues that we see (“knowledge in the world”). For each person, there is a gap between the knowledge in our heads vs. the knowledge in the world, and it is a designer’s job to bridge that gap. Later, Norman presents a few more user-centered design principles. These principles are based on an understanding of how the human brain works and how people understand concepts.

Some takeaways from this chapter in The Design of Everyday Things:

  1. Have good, intuitive mappings that make sense.
  2. Go out and observe how users are actually doing things.
  3. Don’t let cost be a reason to have a bad user experience (surprisingly common).
  4. Understanding how people think is key to understanding how people solve their problems, which in turn, is key to understanding how to be a good designer

Highlights

“Our understanding of the world is imprecise, we rely on a mixture of knowledge in the head and in the world to get us where we need to be. It’s important for designers to understand this so they can anticipate why and how products may succeed or fail.”

“What appears good in principle can sometimes fail when introduced to the world. Sometimes, bad product succeed and good products fail. The world is complex.” (82)

“Even systems that do not use menus need to provide some structure: appropriate constraints and forcing functions, natural good mapping, and all the tools of feedforward and feedback. The most effective way of helping people remember is to make it unnecessary.” (100)

“Effective memory uses all the clues available: knowledge in the world and in the head, combining world and mind.” (105)

Chapter 4: Knowing What to Do: Constraints, Discoverability, and Feedback

Summary

This chapter in The Design of Everyday Things begins with how products often fail users, and then more actionably, discusses how designers can use knowledge in the world (as mentioned above, explicit design cues) to guide user behavior and action. This is particularly important if these are new users and they are just figuring out how to use your product, or if your product is teaching a new behavior.

Highlights

“The lack of clear communication among the people and organizations constructing parts of a system is perhaps the most common cause of complicated, confusing designs. A usable design starts with careful observations of how the tasks being supported are actually performed, followed by a design process that results in a good fit to the actual ways the tasks get performed.” (137)

“An interlock forces operations to take place in proper sequence. (142)

“A lock-in keeps an operation active, preventing someone from prematurely stopping it. Standard lock-ins exist on many computer applications, where any attempt to exit the application without saving work is prevented by a message prompt asking whether that is what is really wanted.” (143)

“The clever designer has to minimize the nuisance value while retaining the safety feature of the forcing function that guards against the occasional tragedy.” (145)

Reduce the amount of learning and change for people. Consistency = key! “Standardization is indeed the fundamental principle of desperation: when no other solution appears possible, simply design everything the same way, so people only have to learn once.” (155)

Chapter 5: Human error? No, bad design

Summary

Errors shouldn’t ever be blamed on the user. Rather, errors are the result of bad designs. Norman covers different types of errors and classifies errors into mistakes (wrong goal, potentially correct actions) and slips (right goal, wrong actions). There are three types of mistakes: skill-based, rule-based, and knowledge based. Similarly, there are a few types of slips, including: capture slips and description similarity slips.

At the end of this chapter in The Design of Everyday Things, Norman provides some tips on how to design for error, which include:

  • Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes.
  • Do sensibility checks. Does the action pass the “common sense” test?
  • Make it possible to reverse actions — to “undo” them — or make it harder to do what cnanot be reversed.
  • Make it easier for people to discover the errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct.
  • Don’t treat the action as an error; rather, try to help the person complete the action properly. Think of the action as an approximation to what is desired.

The salient point here is: preventing error means understanding how humans think and how they are motivated.

Highlights

“The study of slips is the study of the psychology of everyday errors — what Freud called “the psychopathology of everyday life.” Freud believed that slips have hidden, dark meanings, but most are accounted for by rather simple mental mechanisms.” (173)

Capture slips: The capture slip is defined as the situation where, instead of the desired activity, a more frequently or recently performed one gets done instead: it captures the activity. (174)

Description similarity slip: The error is to act upon an item similar to the target. This happens when the description of the target is sufficiently vague. (175)

“Never underestimate the power of social pressures on behavior, causing otherwise sensible people to do things they know are wrong and possibly dangerous.” (187)

“Many slips can be minimized by ensuring that the actions and their controls are as similar as possible, or at least as physically far apart as possible. Mode errors can be eliminated by the simple expedient of eliminating most modes, and if this is not possible, by making the moves very visible and distinct from one another.” (207)

“Difficulties arise when we do not think of people and machines as collaborative systems, but assign whatever tasks can be automated to the machines and leave the rest to people, thus instead requiring people to behave in machine like fashion in ways that different from human capabilities.” (215)

Chapter 6: Design Thinking

Summary

This chapter feels like the pinnacle of The Design of Everyday Things. Using all the concepts covered in previous chapters, Norman finally goes through human-centered design and design thinking, going into specific techniques like idea convergence and divergence. In essence: there are two components of design: 1) solving the right problem and 2) meeting human needs and capabilities.

Highlights

“Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are. As a result, rather than converge upon a solution, they diverge, studying people and what they are trying to accomplish, generating idea after idea after idea.” (218)

“In design the secret to success is to understand what the real problem is.” (217)

“In the real world, the problems do not come in nice, neat packages. They have to be discovered. It is all too easy to see only the surface problems and never dig deeper to address the real issues.” (218)

“Human centered design is the process of ensuring that people’s needs are met, that the resulting product is understandable and usable, that it accomplishes the desired tasks, and that the experience of use is positive and enjoyable. Effective design needs to satisfy a large number of constraints and concerns, including shape and form, cost and efficiency, reliability and effectiveness, understandability and usability, the pleasure of the appearance, the pride of ownership, and the joy of actual use. HCD is a procedure for addressing these requirements, but with an emphasis on two things: solving the right problem, and doing so in a way that meets human needs and capabilities.” (219)

Chapter 7: Design in the World of Business

Summary

This chapter describes what the design principles covered in The Design of Everyday Things actually looks like in action. Norman covers how successful corporations can encourage user-centered design thinking. To be honest, the discussions in this chapter felt quite pedantic. I suspect that if you’re a CEO looking to unlock design thinking in your organization, you’d probably want a more targeted, actionable book.

Highlights

Most radical ideas fail: large companies are not tolerant of failure. Small companies can jump in with new, exciting ideas because if they fail, well, the cost is relatively low. (269)

Most new inventions fail. And even the few that succeed to take decades to do so. (271)

In general, people tend to think of innovation as being radical, major changes, whereas the most common and powerful form of it is actually small and incremental. (279)