“The Design of Everyday Things” (Donald A. Norman) — Summaries: EP20

What makes great design? If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by an everyday item, such as a remote control, or trying repeatedly to open a glass door, you are not stupid… It’s just that they are designed poorly.

Here’s the 1 minute summary:

Don’t blame yourself when you can’t figure out a product. It’s designed wrong. It’s not your fault

Products get more and more complex gradually, with continuously added features, resulting in confusion.

Well designed products teach the user how to use them.

Give “clear clues”: visual and audio on every action the user can do.

Take users psychology into consideration. There are 3 levels: Visceral, Behavioural, Reflective.

Identify the true root cause of a problem, by asking the “5 Whys”. The “5 why” system was originally developed in manufacturing by Toyota.

IKEA’s products are a great example of using Constraints to narrow down or eliminate user error.

Respect cultural conventions. For example: clockwise to tighten.

Remind the user of conventions they may have forgotten about. For example: saving a document. Prevent data loss.

Provide enough information about exactly what’s going on.

Be user centric, and study them in a controlled environment. When fixing issues, make sure no new issues are introduced by re-testing. To really be human centred, multiple business areas need to collaborate.

“Norman’s Law” states that products are always over budget and behind schedule at first. Expect set backs, and have lots of patience. Build in safety to account for this.

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The full summary:

  1. A lot of people have a tendency to blame themselves when they can’t figure out a new gadget, such as a new TV’s remote control. This is always, however, due to faulty design and not the user’s stupidity.
  2. One of the main contributing factors to bad design is the incremental addition of complexity of devices, due to continuously added features. A TV remote, for example, became a part of the entertainment system, used to control a TV, a DVD player, a satellite receiver, a game console, a stereo, etc. All those systems have many features, so the remote controls get increasingly complex, resulting in confusion for the user.
  3. An example of the cell phone evolution is: at first cell phones used touch pads for just making phone calls, then they started texting, taking pictures, e-mails, internet browsing, etc. So as the features gradually got added, the devices themselves got complicated also.
  4. Well designed products teach the user how to use them, on-the-fly. They do not ask the user to read a complicated manual.
  5. The way to do this is to give the user “clues” or “clear signs”. A door, as an example: has a sign to “Push” or “Pull”, and a door handle, indicating which side to do this on. If you had just a glass door, without indication which side to push/pull, a handle, and a Push or Pull label, then a person could waste many attempts having to experiment with getting a door to open. Even a simple object like a door could cause many failed attempts and frustration, and even potentially a person to get stuck.
  6. Great designs take the user’s psychology into consideration. There are 3 levels of psychology: visceral (unconscious behavior the user does without thinking, such as breathing or digesting), behavioural (quick reflexes such as catching a ball, or pulling our hand away from fire. These are conscious responses, but not involving a lot of time to think), and the reflective level (higher cognitive functions having to do with complex planning and problem solving).
  7. Any well designed product should use all 3 of these levels of psychology. If you are designing a washing machine, for instance, you will on a reflective level, have a problem (dirty clothes), which you need to wash, and set a plan (which wash cycle). So the machine should all the options displayed to fit all the types of reflective problems.
  8. At the behavioural level, the was cycles should be simple and clear to select, and there should be a clear indication when the wash cycle is complete.
  9. At the visceral level, each button should have feedback as they get pressed, and be easy to find. There should be other audio and visual indicators to indicate that the wash actually has started, and completed.
  10. In order to really fix the real problem with a poorly designed product, the root cause needs to be found, instead only putting a band-aid on a superficial problem. The way to do this is to find out why the user has made the mistake.
  11. An example of root cause analysis in airplane controls: is a button to increase/decrease velocity looking exactly the same as a button to increase/decrease the angle of descent or ascent. Many pilots confused the buttons due to their similar appearance. In this example “human error” was reduced by making the buttons look different between velocity and angle of descent.
  12. “Design Thinking” is an “open inquiry method” used for diagnosing problems by going beyond the surface, and getting to the root cause. At Toyota, this procedure is called “The Five Whys”. They keep asking “Why?” five times, even after the initial problem has been resolved, in order to find not just the obvious errors, but the hidden ones as well.

Why doesn’t the car start? Because the battery is dead.

Why is the battery dead? Because the alternator isn’t working.

Why is the alternator not working? Because the drive belt has broken.

Why has the drive belt broken? Because it has not been replaced before its designated scheduled interval.

Why hasn’t the drive belt been replaced? Because the service bay has an incorrect scheduled service interval for the belt type in question.

  1. Despite many people’s claims that IKEA products are hard to put together, they are actually easy to do so. They use a lot of clues, constraints, and limits, on how to use the product.
  2. Constraints educate the user on how to assemble the product properly. For example, when opening an IKEA item, you’ll notice there are different size holes and screws of equal size. So each screw can only go into the same sized hole, reducing the chance for error. This is called a physical constraint, which guides the user to only one type of action. It’s an important tool in ease-of-use.
  3. The other type of constraint is cultural. Screws are clockwise to tighten, and counter-clockwise to loosen. We take this for granted, but this is an adopted, common convention, that make screw drivers very easy to use.
  4. Reminder constraints tell the user of important functions which they may have forgotten about. For example: saving a document. An operating system, or a software product, should not allow the user to spend a lot of time editing something, and then lose all their changes. It should ask the user before leaving, reminding them of their unsaved changes.
  5. Providing visual feedback is an important piece of a well designed product. For example, a little alarm clock icon, in the top status bar of a smartphone, is an important cue to indicate that you have set an alarm. Feedback to the user can take place in the form of sights, sounds and vibrations.
  6. If you have a very complex system, for example, such as a “smart room”, full of technological gadgets, you want to have a “central computer” which will give the user feedback, providing enough queues and information to the user, to operate all the gadgets. Hitting any action in the interface, should also serve a confirmation that the requested action has completed. If the central computer can not understand or fulfill an action, it should also present the user with an error message, and a helpful explanation on how to proceed.
  7. Feedback also has the role of letting the user know of the status of something, such as an ON or OFF switch. An important example of this is that of an alarm system. When arming your alarm, the signal that the alarm is armed should be very clear. If it’s not, then users might leave the house without turning it on correctly, or end up setting it off themselves.
  8. Design should be user-centric. Let’s look at a dishwasher design improvement example. The four step process to getting there is: 1. Study, in a controlled environment, how people interact with the dishwasher. What issues do they face? Is the interface or sequence of actions required too complex? 2. Generate problem solving ideas. Perhaps we can simplify the interface by offering a full range of cycles, or improving the feedback mechanism by notifying of wrong actions, or eliminating their possibility altogether? 3. Make a prototype. A solution prototype should solve previous problems without introducing new ones. Does the prototype guide the user on how to set a washing cycle?. 4. Test the prototype in a controlled environment. Are the problems now solved? Did new problems appear? The product needs to be human-centered.
  9. Multiple business areas need to collaborate in order to embrace human-centered design. Products need to be of high enough quality for the designers, but profitable enough for the marketers.
  10. A great example of this were touch-screens, which were around since the 1980s, but only started getting widely adopted by the late 90s. Early touch screens were too difficult to use, but were cheap to make, satisfying the marketers, but not the designers. The screens which satisfied the designer’s high quality wants were too expensive to make for the mass market. Years later, touch screen prices lowered, and touch screens took the world by storm.
  11. Patience is important. According to “Norman’s Law”, when product development starts, the product is always over budget and behind schedule. In other words, you have to expect setbacks. Donald describes an unrealistic Christmas product release, which had to be delivered to the manufacturer in 4 weeks, before the manufacturer went on vacation. This delivery could not be made in 4 weeks, and therefore the production never happened, and the deadline not met.

If you enjoy my business book summaries, please follow me because there are lots more to come, and you can get notified as I publish new ones.

Alexei: App maker, interested in many topics.

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