The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman (1988)

Book review: The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A Norman (Basic Books, 2002 [1988]), originally released as The Psychology of Everyday Things

In this entertaining and insightful analysis, cognitive scientist Donald A Norman hails excellence of design as the most important key to regaining the competitive edge in influencing consumer behavior.

Expanded and updated, with a new introduction by the author, The Design of Everyday Things is a powerful primer on how – and why – some products satisfy customers while others only frustrate them.

This time I’m doing coursework, I’m reviewing the literature that goes with it, hah! Two birds with one stone!

Psychology is fascinating, and you don’t normally realise that it can go hand in hand with design. For instance, if you look at something as simple as a door, you might not think too much about it, but how often do you encounter doors where your instinct is to push instead of pull, and find the door won’t budge? That would be because the door and/or handle design is flawed, not that you’re stupid … which is inevitably how you end up feeling.

Had that feeling recently, when I was doing something for this course. Was going to use the Facebook app for Android as an example of something to improve, because not only is it painfully slow in general, I found it impossible to comment on an image when it was in fullscreen mode. However, while poking around the app in order to take photos to illustrate the issue … I discovered that oh, all you had to do was to click the image. Simple as that. D’oh … There I was, poking around the menus! Ho hum.

This book was first published under the title The Psychology of Everyday Things, but in later editions, it’s changed to The Design of Everyday Things. There’s a reason for this, listed in the beginning of the book, but I don’t recall why just now. Not all that relevant for reading it. Either way, the point is, the book was written in the late 1980s, and this shows. I’d say that’s the let-down of the book, because everything else is very informative and interesting, but when you keep coming across examples of things where you think “I’m sorry, are you from the past?” it gets a bit … meh.

Written before the Internet Age, when computers were bricks … and about as high-tech as an Amiga (if that) … you just wish the book had been re-written to take modern day into account. Yes, underlying principles are still the same, but nowadays, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a car that doesn’t beep at you if you forget to switch the headlights off, for instance.

At one point, the author mentions being able to put information on CDs, because imagine how incredibly handy that would be for encyclopaedias, and the likes. Been there, done that, dude. That’s why Encarta and Cinemania never worked very well – they weer out of date by the time you got them. (We had the ’95 versions of both, back in the day, because they came with our then totally super awesome mega-computer: 75 MHz Pentium processor, 8 megs worth of RAM and a massive 520 meg harddrive. It had Windows 95, man! Technology at its most impressive!) Today, we have Wikipedia and the Internet Movie Database, and I do not want to go back!

So yeah, it misses out the whole thing about computer programs, because what existed in 1988 … well, times have changed. It misses out websites, it misses out mobile phones … things we today take very much for granted. And that’s a shame.

For timeless things like door knobs and office telephones, though, it’s great. Very interesting to read, and has really made me start to think more about how things are designed and how we instinctively know how to use some things, but struggle with others.

My favourite example from it is the last (7th) chapter, where the author writes about British trains, and how he really couldn’t fathom why on earth anyone would want to put the door handles on the outside only – you have to open the window and lean out to get to the handle. I experienced that when I was on a train to or from Reading last December, because I too was thinking “WTF?!” at that. Luckily, you’ll only find those on the old style train cars. New ones have a simple button which slides the door open. Like you’d expect. We are, after all, in the 21st Century …

4 out of 5 design flaws, because while it’s easy to read and quite entertaining, it’s very, very dated.

Leave a reply - comment is free (sort of)

%d bloggers like this: