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The Design of Everyday Things (The MIT Press) Paperback – 23 Dec 2013
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About the Author
Business Week has named Don Norman one of the world's most influential designers. He has been both a professor and an executive: he was Vice President of Advanced Technology at Apple; his company, the Nielsen Norman Group, helps companies produce human-centered products and services; and he has been on the faculty at Harvard, the University of California, San Diego, Northwestern University, and KAIST, in South Korea. He is the author of many books, including The Design of Everyday Things, The Invisible Computer (MIT Press), Emotional Design, and The Design of Future Things.
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Basically, the book is an almost emotional plea for design, based on usability, as opposed to aesthetics (the statement "it probably won a design prize" is not a compliment in this book!) and cost (of materials, manufacturing etc). These factors are also important, but they matter more to the manufacturers and the (often corporate) customers of the product, than the ultimate user, and what's the *use* of a product that the user doesn't know how to use?
Designing for usability is probably more complex than you think, even for something as small and seemingly simple as a ballpoint pen. We could overcome this complexity if we could learn from our mistakes, but the multiple forces of a competitive market often prevent this process of evolutionary design. As a result, the same mistakes get made over and over again, and new ones are constantly added too, often on the back of new technologies, which are actually supposed to make our lives easier! Norman calls this "the paradox of technology".
To overcome this, Norman proposes "seven principles for transforming difficult tasks into simple ones":
1. "Use both knowledge in the world and knowledge in the head." The design of the object should help the user to form a good "conceptual model" or "mental map" of how it works, preferably without instruction labels (if it needs them, it's probably not designed very well) or the user manual, because most users don't read them anyway. A great example of an often misunderstood object is the thermostat. Many people don't understand that this is a simple on/off switch with a single speed. If they want to heat up a room asap, they turn the thermostat to the maximum temperature, but this doesn't make it go any faster. On the contrary, you risk overheating the room and having to cool it down again!
2. "Simplify the structure of tasks." Don't rely on the user to remember too many things at once, because our memory is limited.
3. "Make things visible: bridge the gulfs of Execution and Evaluation." Make it obvious which actions the user can/should take, and provide feedback when he/she has taken that action.
4. "Get the mappings right." The left switch is for the left light, the right switch is for the right one.
5. "Exploit the power of constraints, both natural and artificial." If you don't want people to insert the battery the wrong way, then make sure it doesn't fit that way. This is a physical constraint, but there are also semantic, cultural and logical ones.
6. "Design for error." Errors are not bad, they are normal! Design things in such a way that trivial errors are easily reversed ("undo") and serious errors are avoided in the first place.
7. "When all else fails, standardize." Think of the round clock-face, the QWERTY keyboard, turn a screw clockwise to tighten it etc.
The other thing I found really interesting was the relationship between usability and aesthetics. On one hand, something that looks very complicated probably isn't very easy to use, but on the other hand, "easy looking is not necessarily easy to use (...) We found that 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 the complexity of use. It is possible to eat your cake and have it, too." This is one of the things Bang & Olufsen does very well, for example, and Normal actually uses an example of B&O in the book.
In summary, I can understand why this is a "must read" for designers, even though it was originally published back in 1988, because the seven principles are basically timeless. My only "buts" are:
1. I think the book could have been structured more clearly, which is of course ironic, considering it's a book about design and it actually includes a discussion about the structuring of writing material! I sometimes got a little bit "lost" in the text and I would have preferred to see the seven principles in the table of contents. A bit dull maybe, but very usable ;o)
2. I would love to see Norman apply his principles to some of the new technologies that have appeared and gone mainsteam between then and now. I've just found his follow-up book, called The Design of Future Things, but I'm not sure that's quite what I had in mind ;o)
Your comments are welcome!
The book is technically old in the sense that he refers to old tech/computers/phone systems that were common for the time of writing. Which as we know Tech moves on kind of fast. But you have to stop yourself from saying "this is so out of date". Because really the principles are timeless. Good design will always be based on how well the design fits its purpose.
So if you have an interest in design and particularly the design of things you rely on everyday. Or if you will be responsible for the design of everyday things. This is the book to get your ideas and thinking focused on the user.
If you're working in any area of design, whether it's web design, user experience, product, print or interior, this book will be a worthwhile investment. I'd also read it alongside other books like Steve Krug's Don't Make Me Think.