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The Design of Everyday Things


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.


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.





3 comments to The Design of Everyday Things

  • Yang Wang

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Yuliya. I read the Chinese version of this book several years ago, at that time I was still suffering by the pixels and lines and command of clients, and had never noticed about the dairy tools we are talking to everyday. Then, when you have the consciousness about usability, and the ideas about what tool should be. A new world opened, on the other hand, a new whirlpool started. Anyway, suspend the discussion of design’s meaning ( fundamental thesis ). We should really thank for iphone’s revolution. After that, user has been the main things we designer and engineer concerned, not the producer’s subjective feeling, not just beautiful, of course not just add more and more functions on our productions.

  • dm1346

    This book reinforced a lot of impressions I have had in my life as a serial interactive education-ist, software and interactive project manager, user interface contractor.

    I include the “user interface contractor” last because I have found that despite the much-vaunted emphasis on user experience and interaction design, when the crunch comes, unless you are at Apple, user interface is the first area of endeavor to be cut back on, or discounted, if its recommendations are contrary to a client’s, or perceived audiences’, goals.

    Positive changes that have occurred since the book was written are many. People or “users” no longer seem to blame themselves if a technology doesn’t work for them. I observed this most recently when watching people use the automated check-out capability at my local supermarket. The system involved is finicky, but appears simple to operate. Invariably, before you know it, you will hear the cheery mechanical voice intone, “Help is on the way!” to indicate that you can proceed in your checkout no further, and will have to wait for human assistance. Instead of cowed, timid customers sadly waiting for help from the store managers, almost all of those I observed expressed some form of annoyance with the automated checkout capability. I say “almost” because the one woman who did not overtly vent, sighed and waited patiently. She knew what to do, she’d been here before. However, she didn’t appear to blaming herself.

    Unfortunately, I think that while most users of technology no longer blame themselves when things don’t work, they are prepared to work with bad user experience, and habituate themselves to it. In some cases, they will revert to ways of working that worked in the past and actually prefer them to new processes that save time or save steps. I think in updating this book, more work should be done to investigate how this habituation to bad interfaces and/or work methods could be countered.

    On the other side of things, increasingly, I have noticed instances in which good–efficient, attractive, time-saving–interface design is being used to trick users into choices they might not have made. This strategy is on the rise among online businesses and advertisers though I doubt they would admit it. An example of this: Amazon’s click-to-pay, while very convenient, uses a tricky variation within its Amazon Prime instant movie interface. Some entertainment is free for Prime users. Yet you will still see the price for non-Prime members, and you will still be offered the option to click on the priced button, and may easily click on it since it is very close to the “free” button. In so doing you will have paid for an otherwise free show. This is deliberately confusing interface design and this kind of dual-duty is what many businesses today appreciate as an integral piece of “good” design.

  • Azure Q

    I am thinking of another example, which combined the online business,advertisement and funding.

    I visited Kick Starter few weeks ago. KS is a very good company. People who work there are all very enthusiasm and friendly.

    Basically, this company is like an online threshold pledge platform for people who need money to complete their projects.

    You can find all kinds of design in this website, even those can’t be categorized. The website provides people with chances to make their dreams come true. Many people who have very good ideas of design, but only few of the starters have money to operate with their ideas and dreams.

    KS Company basically helps people who have valuable ideas of designs in a very handy way. The company is very open for all kins of design, and helping for designers with big name or hidden in New York City. Once they identified the project is doable, they help them getting financially support by helping he designers making videos ,posters, and upload to their website,so that some small fame designers could have big chances.

    I feel like the company is doing a very meaningful thing, because it helps the world saving a lot of good ideas, and these ideas may change thing in big or small.

    On the other hand, it is also a very good website to look at when people needs inspration . I believe that when people go through KS’s website, they will find a bunches of interesting things, and maybe trigger their own mind for their own work or school projects. Most of the ideas are inspiring and breathtaking.

    I would like to donate and support some of those interesting designs, and see them grow more and more stronger.