How Don Norman changed my perspective
One afternoon, when I was first starting in my UX Design career, I faced a challenge in the agency I was working at: I had nothing to do. And, I still had several hours before I could call it a day. That was before the agency shifted gears and became a remote and objective-based team.
So, I was there, looking for something to fill my day with, some “sandbox” as my co-workers called it, when my boss suggested I should pick up a book and read. I opened up the digital library we had available and I chose a book called “The design of everyday things” by Don Norman. I bet you all know it by heart, but if not, I highly recommend any human being to give it a go.
I personally love reading, I read every day, so it wasn’t a challenge for me, although I couldn’t help but feel that I should be “doing something” while I was at the office. Reading was leisure time for home. Still, I couldn’t refuse. I started reading and soon I came across an idea that got burnt into my brain. Don Norman said that it was common for people to feel bad and blame themselves when they didn’t know how to use something. He said that we hardly ever blame the real source of the problem: the design.
The power of empathy
That very simple concept hit me hard. On one hand because it had happened to me (and, let’s say it, to everyone) more times than I cared to count. When I read that passage a huge thought bubble appeared on top of my head and I saw myself blushing for pushing a door when I was supposed to pull it; feeling idiotic for not being able to properly use the microwave; feeling embarrassed for having to read the manual to set the washing machine. And all that time, I had always blamed myself. I had thought I was unable and dumb. And then suddenly, there was this guy telling me it was never my fault. Well, until then at least, now it is my fault since I’m the one designing things : )
It was really interesting how the fact of extrapolating the design concept to everyday objects made such a strong impression on me and such a strong case for users. Why? because I could relate to the pain of not being able to do something. This wasn’t a book about web design do’s and don’ts, this was about the world we live in. It was about how we are constantly surrounded by design. I daresay we can’t scape from it. And it was about how the quality of design has an impact on people’s lives. And even more, it has a deep impact on the way people see and value themselves. I think that was the day when I became obsessed about making things easier for people, in whatever way I could (which was… Web Design, TADA!).
Why you should read this book
This is why I recommend this book to anyone. Seriously, you don’t have to be a designer to take something positive out of it. Of course, if you are a designer, it will change you through the all-mighty power of empathy. If you are not a designer, then you’ll find a handbook on how to blame designers :) and I think this is good for several reasons:
- You won’t blame yourself anymore. That alone is very important. Because it’s not your fault. Period.
- You will expect more from products (and services). You won’t settle.
- That will raise the bar. Average design won’t be enough anymore.
- Designers will have to work harder, and that will improve our work.
- User Experience will be more valued. A designer that makes nice things but doesn’t build interactions to please and engage users won’t cut it.
- Businesses and companies of all sizes will value the importance of this field and will (hopefully) stop trying to save money by tagging UX as a “nice to have”.
I personally think all these would be valuable and productive consequences. If I had to summarize it in a phrase it would be: “Better designers and Happier users”. And please note that I’m not only referring to web design. I’m taking about all kinds of designers. I’m looking at you, whoever designed my mom’s microwave!
A design take-away
I don’t want this post to be a summary of the book, so if you think that so far I’ve made a compelling case for the book then get on and read it.
However, I would like to include a few take-aways that have stayed in my mind all this time. And I want to do it precisely because of that. It is a known fact that the human memory tends to fade away if you don’t work to practice and strengthen the concepts. Do you remember anything from your high school geography class? or your fifth birthday? Or the details to that problem you solved at work two months ago? If you do, then you have a remarkable memory. For the rest of mankind it’s quite common to forget such things.
Although memories can fade away, sometimes something stays with us. This is what happened to me with this book and I think it’s because of its value and because these concepts are applicable to many design disciplines.
- Always give feedback to the user. Help him understand the consequences of his actions.
- Don’t hide functionality. If you want to offer a complex product with tons of features (which in any case isn’t a good option if you ask me — or any UX Designer) then you need to have visible cues for each possible feature/action. The user shouldn’t have to memorize complex combinations of buttons/commands to use a feature that is not front and center. For example: those telephones (so old school right?) with the standard buttons (1–9, * and #) that offered the user features that had to be activated with some combination of buttons like *653#.
- Shape your design in a way that is obvious for the user what he needs to do. Don’t rely on signs so much. E.g. Use the right kind of handle on either side of a door to visually indicate the user if he needs to pull or push. Don’t use ambiguous handles just because “It looks modern” and stick a “pull” sign on the door. A general rule-of-thumb is “if you have to explain it, then it’s not good design”.
Yes, I’ve mentioned that I read this book quite some time ago. Why am I writing a post about it just now? Well, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend of mine a few years ago. He said I should do “daily UX” posts in some format (blog or whatever). At the moment I had other things on my plate, but now that idea came to mind, and it triggered this post.
Sure, it’s not what he meant by “Daily UX”. His intention was that I chose some example of “good design” and trashed it wittily. And it’s all fun and good, in concept, but it’s not something I would feel ok doing. Especially because I know that, besides a heuristic analysis, there isn’t much I can say about a platform without some context and information about it. I don’t know what the original idea was, what the stakeholders wanted, what the business model was, the budget for the project, the client’s desires and a lot of other things that come into play when designing something, whether we like it or not. I’ve also learned that it’s not professional to say that something is good or bad if we don’t have data to support our claims (yes, I’m a fan of User Research).
Apart from that, when I think about “Daily UX” I can’t help but think about things that I encounter daily, and I don’t live within the boundaries of my computer. I face many challenges along the day, including my living-room’s light switch. And that too is User Experience. So, I decided I would kick off this “Daily UX” idea with this post that explains what this means to me and where this notion comes from. Maybe in the future I’ll write some more posts about any challenges I might come across due to a poorly designed user experience. Maybe my enemy will be a chair, or a swing. Who knows what the future will bring.