DOET Takeaway #1: Accept Human Behaviour For What It Is

What is this story, you ask?

I’m currently reading The Design of Everyday Things (abbreviated as DOET) by Don Norman, and I plan to write about some valuable tidbits I find as I’m reading. I think that doing this will help me better understand the content of the book, as well as provide for an interesting read.

This is the first article of this ‘series’, and I hope to write about some more pieces of knowledge I’ll be gaining!

from Chapter 1:

“Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to believe that all people must think this way, and they design their machines accordingly. When people have trouble, the engineers are upset, but often for the wrong reason. “What are these people doing?” they will wonder. “Why are they doing that?” The problem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behaviour the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.

I think that this isn’t just a valuable design insight, but also an important fact to understand if one wants to understand basic human behaviour. And I believe that in this principle lies the key to empathy.

One major tenet of the human-centered design process/philosophy is empathy — that is, understanding the user.

I’ve usually paid heed to this ‘principle’ in life, as well as in design. As Norman explains later, good design shouldn’t require the user to think about how they should use a product. Using the product should be natural, rather intuitive.

Just the fact that complex usage instructions have to be included with a product may be an indication that the product is badly designed. I don’t believe that this may be applicable in every scenario, but any product designed for usage by the most basic consumer should follow this principle.

Following this principle would require understanding the user. This is usually done by research, surveying, and observation.

Real Life Example (RLE)

[The IBO would be proud]
I’ve found a design problem with a common object involved in my daily routine. This is the everyday faucet. Here’s my best attempt at explaining my concern with the design of faucets. These problems aren’t life-threatening or anything of that sort, but certainly are a source of irritation for the human population.

Faucet Handles

There exist a multitude of faucet handle styles. Some have handles that need to be turned several times. Some handles have to be turned in either clockwise or counterclockwise direction. Some have to be turned partially. Some handles have to be turned and pulled upwards. Most often, hot water can be released by turning the handle to the left, although this, too, is not a rule set in stone.

Thank goodness for faucets with fancy sensors. They’ve saved me from that moment of irritation when a faucet doesn’t open or doesn’t shut correctly. And of course the fact that I have to touch that filthy handle to operate the faucet.

Here’s my examination of faucet operations.

An Evaluation of Faucet Operating Mechanisms

1. Cross-shaped handles


These are pretty intuitive. I know that I have to turn the handles in some direction. However, the turning direction is (quite often) not standard. Most objects that we turn [the cap on a tube of toothpaste, the lid on a jar, a screw] are usually tightened (or shut) by turning the device in the clockwise direction. However, a number of faucets do not work this way, which usually results in the user releasing water at a very high pressure (when the user really just wants to shut the faucet). Maintaining a standard rule of operation for such handles would be great!

Furthermore, when two handles are present — one for hot water, and one for cold water — the confusion only intensifies. We’ve all probably experienced this, and it is pretty annoying. It would be interesting to study how people from different cultures/regions/backgrounds naturally turn a faucet handle (especially when things get complicated with two or more handles).

2. Single stem


A number of handles like these have become trendy in the recent years. Such a design seems like a pretty practical solution to the “grasp the handle as well as all the filth on it” problem, as such handles can be operated by the mere push of a finger. Some such faucets may require the stem to be pushed upwards to release water, while some only require the stem to be turned clockwise or anticlockwise. The lack of a signifier in such an instance, though, can cause problems. It is difficult to figure whether these stems are to be turned or to be pushed upwards, or both.
 I’ve seen solutions to this problem in multiple scenarios. For example, the stem could be shaped as a flat handle, thus indicating that the handle must be raised.

3. Single-press mechanisms


Such mechanisms began appearing a few years ago. They work with the press of a “button”, similar to the flush mechanisms on mens’ urinals. Their operation is pretty simple, although the amount of water that is released seems to vary. If you are lucky enough, water is released for a good eight to ten seconds. Else, water might just be released for a couple of seconds. Perhaps it’s just a matter of luck?

The “Hot or Cold Side?” Problem
As for the hot/cold side problem, the ability to solve this issue lies with the people fitting our pipes and faucets. Speaking for myself, I naturally do expect the “hot water side” to be the left side. And I do believe this is the case in most places. If most people in a demographic do expect the left side to be the “hot water side”, it would be foolish to fit the water supply the other way around (though I am aware that this is done in places. Please explain your actions to me, kind people).

Lesson learnt? Understand your users.

I think that empathy goes a long way in designing a solution that is intuitive and not irritable to use. Users, ideally, shouldn’t have to learn how to use a product (especially something as commonplace as operating a faucet).