The Design of Everyday Things made me re-evaluate all those hours of hair-pulling anxiety when one of my parents asked for help with a new gadget and I could’t even find the power switch. In the past, whenever I found myself stuck trying to get a piece of equipment to work, I repeated the mantra I learned from the head of IT in my undergraduate Computer Art department: “USER ERROR… USER ERROR… USER ERROR”. Turning the blame on myself usually kept me from smashing the stubborn object against the wall. But it also made me lose confidence in my ability to master objects outside my usual comfort zone.
Donald Norman’s blames errors, confusion and frustration that come with encountering new things, on bad design. Thinking back on some of my unhappy interactions with objects or software, this theory makes perfect sense. What seemed like unwarranted panic at the time had solid roots in the incomprehensibility of the gadget’s controls and a lack visual cues.
Instead of feeding fuel for complaining, the book made me more patient with puzzling technology and made me more detail oriented. I stop to examine the pros and cons of everyday elements that I used to take for granted and ignore. As a result, I am developing a better intuition about my own designs, both in professional projects and personal experiences. While I still encounter situations that call for a “user error” chant, knowing the difference between my own failures and those of objects around me, resolves the problem in a faster and friendlier manner.
PREDICTING THE SMART PHONE
It’s fascinating to read the author’s thoughts from 1988 (original publication) on good future design that will be made possible by new technological advances. In a chapter on the way we store knowledge, Donald Norman envisions a portable computer devise that would be able to keep track of appointments and perform many other organizational tasks, have a powerful graphic display, fast processing ability and could coordinate with other devises… and it could be used as a phone. That sounds suspiciously like a smart phone to me!
I’m sure Donald Norman is not the first to predict a powerful mobile computer, but it’s very interesting to follow the logic he used to arrive at the product description based on his experience with psychology and product design.
Here is an excerpt of the description:
“…I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. …. It has to be small. It has to be convenient to use. And it has to be relatively powerful, at least by today’s standards. It has to have a full , standard typewriter keyboard and a reasonably large display. It needs good graphics, because that makes a tremendous difference in usability, and a lot of memory—a huge amount actually. And it should be easy to hook up to the telephone; I need to connect it to my home and laboratory computers. Of course, it should be relatively inexpensive.
These are some of the lessons I took away from Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things:
- When an object appears overly complicated and challenging to use, blame the design (but not in front of your parents in the midst of an instruction manual crisis—they’ll just think you’re a technology snob who’s five years overdue on producing grandchildren).
- Once you’ve put on a “designer’s” hat, don’t try to squeeze a “user’s” hat on top of it. Don’t assume you can anticipate the average user’s experience—test your prototype on a variety of users and pay close attention to criticism.
- Doors, faucets and office telephones are not to be trusted. While some might be benign enough, most are out to confuse, frustrate, trap, scald or hang up on you.