Psychology of Everyday Things

The Psychology of Everyday Things book coverNo interaction designer with a serious concern for usability (as is our want) should be allowed to graduate on to later readings on the topic of user-interface / UI design, UX / UE, human factors, or any related design field, without first reading Don Norman’s book, The Psychology of Everyday Things, cover to cover. It’s has stood the test of time, in a category of books where very few do.

Those seeking user-interface/UI design solutions, or examples of perfect human-computer interaction, will be disappointed. Mr. Norman’s now famous book was copy-written in 1988. There are human-computer interface design references, but they are very quaint, by contemporary standards. But don’t let the age or state of computer science at the time of writing lead to an assumption of irrelevancy. Norman’s book is most relevant because human nature is essentially unchanged. All of the concepts are directly relevant our work as interaction, user interface, and user experience designers.

Don Norman may not have invented all, or even most, of the many elemental concepts he details, yet he certainly innovated their application, and most importantly, made them comprehensible to all readers. And by doing so, has helped make our world better and more useful. He takes pains to make difficult topics, and what could be very academic ones, easily comprehensible to all. His intelligent, and sometimes slightly folksy, prose style and examples of design gone awry, as well as all right, taken from the use everyday things, lend poignancy to the trials and tribulations that people regularly endure in the name of “progress.”

Don Norman - Seven Stages of ActionNorman draws on an experience, in Italy at a conference, to break down the doing of things in to its component parts. The presenter attempts to thread film through a movie projector. “What makes something—like threading the projector—difficult to do? To answer this question, the central one of this book, we need to know what happens when someone does something, We need to examine the structure of action.”

And so he does. “…there are four different things to consider: the goal, what is done to the world [the action], the world itself, and the check of the world.” He further exposes the pitfalls most every designer—and so user—has fallen in to when we don’t make clear connections between goals, intentions, actions, and state feedback, to form a continuous feedback loop.

Frequent themes of Norman’s wonderful book are the limitations of conscious thought, the limits of short term memory, and our ability to utilize subconscious thought. “Subconscious thought is one of the tools of the conscious mind, and the memory limitations can be overcome if only an appropriate organizational structure can be found. Take fifteen unrelated things and it is not possible to keep them in conscious memory at once. Organize them in to a structure and it is easy.” This, by the way, is how actors, like the traveling bards before Gutenberg invented his printing press, memorize long texts. Structure, organization, grouping (separating), and many other methods of design, make all arts, crafts, and software applications, possible.

Designing for Error Prevention, Correction, Recovery

In a section of Chapter Five, To Err Is Human, called Designing for Error, Norman distinguishes and classifies for us different types of errors, to help us help others prevent them. “Here is what designers should do:

  1. Understand the causes of error and design to minimize those causes
  2. Make it possible to reverse actions—to “undo” them—or make it hard to do what cannon to reversed.
  3. Make it easier to discover the errors that do occur, and make them easier to correct.
  4. Change the attitude toward errors. Those of an object’s user and attempting to do a task, getting there by imperfect approximations. Don’t think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.”

I’ve found The Psychology of Everyday Things, frankly, one of the most unexpectedly useful books I’ve ever read. Norman was ahead of his time, and I believe his time is now… any time we design and use new products. If you’re involved in any sort of design—user interface design, industrial or consumer product design—you can not afford to ignore The Psychology of Everyday Things.

The Friendly User Acknowledgment

UXdesign.com owes special recognition to Mr. Norman, who claims—and no one disclaims it—to have invented the phrase user experience design, “because I thought human interface and usability were too narrow.” The term may be most useful when applied as intended, “to cover all aspects of the person’s experience with the system including industrial design, graphics, the interface, the physical interaction and the manual.” In other words, he was not just concerned with the product’s user interface, but with the entire brand experience conveyed by a spectrum of artifacts related to the primary product, and it’s design. Indeed, as should we all.

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About Michael Cummings 31 Articles
Michael Cummings has been planning, designing, and producing interactive systems since 1995.
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