Book Review - The Design of Everyday Things By Don Norman


December 18th, 2020, posted in learning
by Adelina

Get your own copy of "The Design of Everyday Things" here.


Back in the ‘80s, Don Norman wrote “The Design of Everyday Things” out of frustration from all the objects he had issues using when he travelled to the UK: faucets, light switches, and even doors. The edition I read is a lot more recent, but his key points still stand. 


This book is about the psychological aspect of design - the way objects should follow human needs and abilities. And most importantly, the way objects should be designed for proper use. Although the key subject is not web design, I believe this book is very helpful in learning the foundations of user experience design. After all, whether you’re building an app or a robot, people are still people. And they’re the ones you’re it building for.


Chapter 1: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things


Norman begins t by talking about his notorious issues with doors. You must have, at least once, pulled a door that was supposed to be pushed, or pushed a door supposed to be pulled, right? This book’s author seems to make this mistake so often, this whole issue is named after him: “Norman doors”


The author’s key point here is that when you open a door wrong, it’s not your fault. It’s the design’s. Why? A proper design should signal whether a door needs to be pushed or pulled. And it shouldn’t require a written message on the glass to let you know.


Here is where Norman introduces 2 key concepts: discoverability and understanding. He says these are the two main characteristics of good design. With any product you must be able to figure out what you can do with it and how to use it.


Now, a major problem with many products is that the engineers who work on them don’t think about the end users enough: all they know and see is the logic behind it. People shouldn’t have trouble using a product if they carefully read a manual, they say. However, that type of thinking, says Norman, is a mistake: people aren’t as rational as engineers think.


The solution here? Human-Centered Design. A way of putting human needs, emotions and even limitations first. The key here, says Norman, is understanding your products’ potential users through observation. What’s their everyday life like? How would they use the product? What kind of actions would they take with it? Where could they encounter problems?


Discoverability is based on five concepts from psychology:

  • Affordances: the connection between an object’s properties and a person’s ability to figure out how to use it. For instance, a chair affords for support, therefore, sitting.
  • Signifiers: any sort of signal that tells you how to use an object: a “pull” sign on a door is a type of signifier, as it tells you how to use it.
  • Constraints: to make sure an object is used correctly, some actions are restricted, so you don’t ruin or accidentally do something.
  • Mappings: the connection between a control and what results from interacting with it. Think light switches and the specific lights they control.
  • Feedback: error sounds, text, you name it. This concept allows you to know if you’ve used an object right or not.


Another key element Norman talks about is that of conceptual models; which he explains in the figure below:


Photo source: Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.


Chapter 2: The Psychology of Everyday Actions


As the chapter title says, the author gets into more detail about the psychological aspects of one’s everyday life, the decisions they make. So he introduces the following 2 concepts:

  • The Gulf of Execution, where people try to figure out how an object operates.
  • The Gulf of Evaluation, where they try to figure out what happened after they used it.


How does this affect design? Product designers have to ensure these two gulfs are bridged. The key here is for the product to provide clear information about its state, in such a way that it matches the way the user thinks and it’s easy to interpret. For instance, if you can’t open a cabinet door, you should be able to tell if pulling it is not working so you can try another action.


And it gets more specific: Norman also talks about the seven stages of action. These stages are each paired with a question that reflect the steps one takes when doing something:

  1. Goal - “What do I want to accomplish?”
  2. Plan - “What are the alternatives?”
  3. Specify - “What can I do?”
  4. Perform - “How do I do it?”
  5. Perceive - “Is this okay?”
  6. Interpret - “What does it mean?”
  7. Compare - “What happened?”


But how do we apply these to design? When using a product, people have to be able to answer all these questions. To achieve that, the product’s design must give enough information, which resides in things like constraints, mappings or signifiers. Think of the earlier example of doors - the handle should clearly show how you’re supposed to act on it and not allow you to use it otherwise. Or when using a stove, you should be able to tell which burner corresponds to which control, so you light the right one.


Keeping in mind this sequence, Norman says, helps guide the design process. This way, it’s human-centered. Plus, it also helps with product enhancement, as it allows designers to find what’s not working and improve it.


“We’re humans, so we know how humans think”, is an incorrect perception, Norman says. A lot of what the brain does is actually subconscious. Especially with things we know how to do very well and don’t need to pay too much attention to: walking, talking, reading. After we do something subconsciously, we explain it to ourselves consciously. In this regard, Norman presents 3 levels of thought processing:

  1. Visceral: your quick, basic human instincts. This lets you know if something is good, bad, cold, hot, and so on.
  2. Behavioral: largely subconscious, based on skills and patterns. Designers need to cater to this level by giving feedback.
  3. Reflective: where the highest level of conscious emotions go.


Chapter 3: Knowledge in the Head and in the World


In this chapter, Norman gets into some detail about the human memory and knowledge systems. There’s knowledge in the world, which is readily available, easy to access, but it might take you some time to understand it. And then there’s knowledge in the head, which comes to you faster or slower, depending on your memory and the difficulty of what you’re thinking of. What you ate today might come to your mind faster, but what you ate a year ago today will take much longer to remember. This type of knowledge needs to be learned and it’s harder to use at first.


How does this come into play with design? Human memory is a key element here. When showing important information, make sure it stays on screen long enough so the product users have time to remember it. The quicker you throw information at them and the more it is, the harder it’ll be for them. This will lead to errors, and we don’t want that. People can get distracted and miss an important signal. They can enter the right information in the wrong place. The role of design is to make sure that doesn’t happen.


A key concept that shows the connection between knowledge in the head and in the world is that of mappings: When a product’s controls are properly mapped, whether you remember how to use it or not, it won’t be hard to figure it out. When it’s not, you’ll find yourself clueless, thinking you’re unable to complete a simple task. The example Norman gives here are stove controls and their burners, where proper mapping is key.


Here are the best ways to map products, says Norman:

  1. Mouting controls directly on the items they control
  2. Putting controls as close as possible
  3. Arranging controls in the same spatial configuration as their objects


His suggestion for customers is to always try products before buying them, or at least mimic using them. This is so they can see if they’re easy to use or not, if the controls are confusing, or if they’re comfortable to use.


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


After an entire chapter dedicated to knowledge in the head, this next chapter focuses on knowledge in the world. Specifically, how designers can point people in the right direction when they’re met with a new product, action, situation. To this effect, Norman tells us about the importance of constraints, discoverability and feedback.


The author names 4 types of constraints:

  • Physical: if an object doesn’t fit somewhere no matter what you do, it’s most likely not supposed to go in there. Designers may put in such constraints so that people use products properly even when not paying attention.
  • Cultural: every culture has a set of actions you can take in a particular situation. Norman says cultural issues are the root of problems with new inventions, as there are no use standards for them yet.
  • Semantic: the meaning of things. Think motorcycle designs, there is only one obvious spot for the rider to hop on. Also, traffic lights. You know you have to stop at a red light, or go at a green light.
  • Logical: Norman gives the example of a Lego police motorcycle toy, where a blue beacon usually remains last, so there is only one place where it can go. That’s what he calls a logical constraint.


Here is where we learn about the legacy problem: be it confusing batteries or USB cables, some products have obvious design faults that can be fixed. So why aren’t they? Norman tells us it’s because changing the design of often-used objects (such as batteries) is too difficult and expensive. Lots of other products would have to change. The author says this is a classic example of corporate thinking, and we’re not escaping it anytime soon.


Norman explains the importance of placing affordances, signifiers and constraints to everyday objects. He gives a handy example: when using a door, we first need to find which side opens and how to move it. That’s the affordance. Next, we expect to see a plate, an extension, something that we can touch, grasp, turn, and so on. That’s the signifier. Last, we need to figure out how it operates, which puts signifiers and constrains hand in hand. If you pull a door that’s supposed to be pushed, it won’t open due to its constraints. In the author’s opinion, the best design that fills all these requirements are car door handles. On the opposite side lay cabinet doors. The latter can become quite unusable due to an exclusive focus on aesthetics.


A major design problem the author has faced, and which he uses to set an example, is that of light switches. He tells the story of how he demonstrates his ideas at talks by relying on how bad the light switches will be. It’s quite sad to think this is so frequent that he can always count on it, isn’t it? Lots of light switches, he says, don’t properly signal which lights they control. So what happens is people press everything until they get it right. Wash, rinse, repeat.


The author introduces a useful concept based on this example: activity-centered controls. Aside from setting controls based on devices, he suggests making it based on actions. That means having specific controls for video presentations (where the lights will be dimmed and the projector turned on) or for lectures (brighter lights and projector on).


This is where we really see what the problem is: lack of communication between the people and companies making parts of a system. The proper way to design a product is by carefully observing how one would use it, the specific tasks they use it for. And then molding the product to those findings.


Norman also talks about constraints that force desired behavior. This is common in safety engineering and he names 3 types:

  1. Interlocks, which force tasks to take place in a specific order
  2. Lock-ins, which prevent you from accidentally stopping a task too early. Think MS Word’s common “Do you want to save changes made to [your document]?”
  3. Lockouts, which prevent an action from occurring or keeps someone away from a place, for safety reasons.


Chapter 5: Human Error? No, Bad Design 


Many accidents are classified as human-error. However, Norman says there is no such thing. The issue is bad design.


In this chapter, Don Norman gets into specifics about the idea mentioned in earlier chapters. He says many products are designed without keeping in mind mental limitations. People can’t always be fully alert, remember every step of an action or complete confusing tasks. They get sidetracked, interrupted. And many product manufacturers don’t think about that enough.


The interesting thing we find out about here is that slips happen more often to skilled people. Since they’re experienced, they act subconsciously and might not pay full attention. But proper design should help them avoid mistakes.


Thus, for design, there are 4 types of relevant slips:

  • Capture slips: when instead of a desired activity, someone does something they did recently. Thus, in design Norman suggests avoiding procedures that have identical opening steps but then diverge.
  • Description-similarity slips: here designers have to ensure controls and displays for different purposes are significantly different so you don’t mix them up.
  • Memory-lapse slips: think using an ATM and forgetting to take your card after you receive your money. This used to happen so much that now you have to take the card out first. In design, you should minimize the number of steps to take to complete a task, or provide clear reminders of what’s left to do.
  • Mode errors: this happens when a product’s controls do different things when it’s in different states. Such products are made to fit in a larger number of controls in a smaller space. But in good design, you should know for sure when your product is in a specific state.


The design advice we get here is to always guide users so they know the current state of things in their objects (where needed). To have a proper conceptual model. To understand and keep in mind possible social pressures.


Machines, Norman says, aren’t intelligent enough to determine the meaning of our actions. So here are some tips on designing a product aware of possible errors:

  • Discover possible causes of error and design in such a way that they can be avoided.
  • Check if actions on a product pass a common sense test.
  • Give users an undo option.
  • Make it easy for users to know if they’ve made an error and to correct it.
  • Guide users to complete an action properly. Make it so interruptions or distractions don’t ruin an entire process.
  • Ask users for confirmation so they avoid doing something they didn’t actually mean to do. Eventually, you can make the element they act upon more visible. This way they’ll be fully aware of what they’re controlling. 
  • Using sensibility checks. This applies to numerical values which can vary with different currencies and measuring systems.


But what if people are really at fault? Norman says one way is to conduct resilience engineering. This implies designing systems, procedures and training so that people can respond to issues when they arise. This includes constant testing and improvement. Ensuring your products have constraints, natural mappings, and enough information on their usage.


Chapter 6: Design Thinking


Don Norman says one of his consulting rules is never solving the problem he’s asked to solve. Why? Usually the problem brought to him isn’t the real, root problem, but a “symptom”. He says it’s essential to look into the root issue, to ensure the right solution is taken. This is called design thinking, he says. 


We’re introduced to the double-diamond model of design. Here you start with an idea, investigate until you find the underlying issue, and then test out multiple solutions. This process is divided into 4 stages: discover, define, develop and deliver.


The human-centered design process, on the other hand, is made up of its own 4 stages:

  1. Observation
  2. Idea generation
  3. Prototyping
  4. Testing


Norman says it’s critical to properly observe your targeted users. This is so designers understand their interests, motives and needs, which they can then apply in their designs. This should also go hand in hand with market research, which is just as important. 


The author lists a series of steps we can take when generating solutions:

  1. Idea generation: also known as brainstorming. Norman tells us to come up with as many ideas as possible, to be creative without regard for constraints, and to question everything.
  2. Prototyping: Norman suggests building mock-ups of each potential solution. They don’t have to be complex - they just need to help you find out how the product might actually be used by real customers.
  3. Testing: gather a group of people as similar as possible to your target audience and have them use the product. Ask them about their thought processes in using it and see what you can find. Norman suggests doing this both during problem specification and after creating the new design.
  4. Iteration: keep on building by looking for errors and fixing them. The key here is action-centered design.


Here is where Norman comes in and tells us not to mix up activities and tasks: an activity is made up of a series of tasks. And designers have to ensure that their products provide support for its central activity, as well as the tasks it takes to complete it. There is a three-level analysis that is said to help in analyzing someone’s user experience:

  • Be-goals: fundamental, long-lasting, they govern a person’s being and determine one’s self image
  • Do-goals: the plans and actions to be performed for an activity
  • Motor goals: how the actions are performed, tasks and operations taken


However, the sad reality is that product manufacturing doesn’t go like that. Features are added to match the competition or due to new technologies. And development is always behind schedule and above budget, Norman says. Product development involves a variety of disciplines, from engineering to marketing, and the key is for everyone to work together. But in reality, it’s quite messy. Plus, in some cases the end users aren’t taken into account - and designers must please their clients. 


Chapter 7: Design in the World of Business


In this last chapter, Norman tells us about the less ideal, real world, where product development doesn’t follow all the rules. There is a lot of pressure on companies to be fast and innovative, whilst worries about cost and competition might make things extra difficult. The author introduces 2 concepts:

  • Featuritis: adding new features to a product because customers want more functions, competitors are adding new features, or the market is saturated.
  • Creeping featurism: the tendency to constantly add features to a product, sometimes extending them beyond all reason.


Next, Norman talks about the tricky field that new technologies bring. They can push companies to innovate, but some products might be ahead of their time and fail at first. This, however, is a great opportunity for learning. On the other hand, new technologies often take a long time to be adapted - the HDTV resolution was set up many years ago, but took a while to come to our TVs. Why? The inconvenience of broadcast stations and regular people changing their equipment. The author says the rule of thumb here is 20 years from the first product demonstrations and another 10 or 20 until a widespread adoption. 


He gives us the example of keyboards, where development took a very long time. They had to decide on the layout - circular, piano-like, in multiple rows; and letter order - alphabetical or not. The QWERTY format we know today was chosen after multiple experiments, all trying to avoid jamming of the levers connected to each letter. In fact, it’s said that this current layout was made so you can type “typewriter” using only the 1st row of keys. What this story tells us is the importance of testing and of identifying how a product will actually be used.


Norman tell us about 2 types of innovation:

  • Incremental: makes things better
  • Radical: changes lives and industries


Lately, there’s been a push for constant upgrades, new features, new technologies. Norman says the design of everyday things is in danger of becoming the design of superfluous, overloaded, unnecessary things. For the designs to achieve success, products need to sell. And they need to fulfill various qualities: satisfy needs, be usable, deliver positive emotions. The product might need to be upgraded, and it shouldn’t be a burden on the environment.


To wrap-up, Don Norman encourages designers to fight the battle for usability. To observe, to give feedback and encourage others to improve. He encourages users to support good designs and to give feedback to or boycott bad designs. It’s only together that we can improve the way products are made, and all it takes is getting to know ourselves and how we use them.


Intrigued? Get your own copy of "The Design of Everyday Things" here.

About the author


Artsy kid navigating the world of tech for the first time and trying to learn as much as possible about it. My biggest passions are video making, writing, and TV shows I can cry to at 2AM. I also really love IKEA.

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