The psychopathology of everyday things(September 13th)

Readings :Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, New York: Basic Books, 1988.
Chapter 1: Making Visible, Affordances, Feedback, Mappings
Chapter 3, Knowledge in the Head and in the World.The psychopathology of everyday things

There have been times when I felt really stupid on not being able to use certain devices properly, or feeling intimidated by the look of certain devices itself that are probably providing the latest technologically updated functions, or even if I have bought it, when I see the various extremely complicated controls I have tried to ignore the various actions possible and simply memorized one or two settings to approximate the required settings for what I desired to have.

But Norman saved me from having that self pity. “Never blame the user, always blame the device” . So I could sit back in peace relieved that I am not that stupid afterall; repeatedly saying to myself that it surely must have been the designer’s fault to have made something in such a way that a Layman finds difficulty in using it without making errors.

And it is indeed true. Good design comes out a good understanding of both psychology and technology. The designers need to focus on the interplay between technology and people to ensure that the products fulfil human needs while being understandable and usable. Otherwise the whole purpose of the design is lost.

Now about making errors. Nobody can give the assurance that an error will never be made. Neither can the designer, nor can the user. But we should definitely try to make as less of them as possible so that we don’t have to suffer from the cost of an error. For this the designer has to take care of two things. 1) to make a design so that the user can easily understand how to use the device and what are all actions possible with the device and 2) to make a design that has proper error correction mechanisms.

Now to take care of the first point we have the seven principles to ensure discoverability.

Affordance is the relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities if the object that determines just how the object could possibly be used. You may think of it as the ways in which you can play with it. And to be effective, affordances and anti affordances have to be perceivable.

Sometimes affordances may be present but not clearly visible to the users. But that makes its existence meaningless.

Badly designed objects again present users with some false affordances. i.e. making users perceive non existent possibilities of operation. About ten years back, once when we were playing out in the lawn of a holiday resort we were enjoying our vacation in, my brother ran straight into a glass wall. That I realize now is a case of bad design as there were no signifier anywhere to indictate that there was a glass there and even the sides were covered by some decorartions to increase its aesthetic appeal. Hence we need signifiers, to provide the user with strong visible cues to all the possible operations he can perform with an object.

Signifiers : The role of the signifier is to communicate properly the purpose , structure and operation of the device (object) to the people who use it. It can be a label (like a push or pull sign), a sound (like an audio message or at-least a beep) , a mark (like an arrow or a popup dialog box) or any other perceivable indicator required to suggest the proper action to the person. Appropriate cues which can help the users understand what is it for, what is happening, what the alternative actions could be, what is about to happen are what designers are responsible for providing the user with . Good design requires good communication, especially from machine to person

Mapping I feel deserves much importance because our brain tends to work more on inertia than on present information .And since we are creating devices for people, a good designer should put human behavior first and then design to accommodate their ways of behaving. Hence if we use proper mapping for the layout of controls and displays (the signifiers), thus combining inertial tendencies and the information at hand, we can get super-efficient designs.

Feedbacks are very important because without it there is a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty whether the action performed by the user was right or wrong, uncertainty about what actions are to be taken next. Uncertainty is scary, it leads to anxiety, worry and frustration which are exactly what a good designer should try to prevent.

Conceptual model is the mental idea of how an object will work. And the major sources of the perception as to how an object works may come from the structure i.e. the affordances, signifiers, constraints and mappings. Hence if designers use them properly, they can ensure a better overlapping of their conceptual model and the user’s conceptual model. However still on bad days, they might not overlap at all. Hence the system should be made in such a way that it allows easy reversal of actions. So that even on a bad day, a good design minimizes the cost of an error.

For the second point the designer has to consider that he is designing it for human beings. And “to err is human”. At some point, on some bad day, the user will make a mistake . And when things go wrong, a good design becomes crucial. When something goes wrong, but the machine highlights the problems, then the person understands the issue, takes the proper actions on being guided by the machine with proper feedback and signifiers and the problem is solved; just imagine how wonderful the experience with the device would feel if this collaboration works out smoothly

Confusion regarding how to use, or inconsistency in the system can often lead us to give up using that object altogether and look for alternatives that are clearer and easier to deal with (uber, or evernote, jw planner, itunes, almost all the apps shown that day). And why? Many a times because the confusion consumes more of our time and effort. But I feel another reason is the fear of making mistakes by making the wrong choices while using it . the mistakes will cost money sometimes, time sometimes, opportunities sometimes.

We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be…

Knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world

Everyday we have encounters with things that we have never interacted with before. Don’t you deserve a pat on your back to have still managed to use almost every one of these ‘never seen before’ objects successfully? Have you ever thought how u did that?

Well, you combined the knowledge u had in your head, and the knowledge that was out in the world in front of you and voila!

Working together hand in hand these two sources of knowledge enable you to approximate the actions to be performed. This minimizes the amount of material you must learn and keep in your memory as well as the accuracy and precision of that learning.

So here comes in the role of a designer. To put sufficient cues into the design, to put sufficient knowledge in the world so that even in the absence of previous knowledge, the user can still feel at ease with the object.

However, another role of a good designer is to understand the critical aspects of memory that are necessary for design of usable products.

A designer should remind himself constantly that he is designing for a USER. Hence has to put himself in the designers shoes and think of the experience himself ..of how he will go about the task ..how he will use the object. Coz people have knowledge in their minds. They have memories..they have ideas,, they have inertia. The human brain works in mysterious ways connecting one thing to another, one piece of information to another etc. the design has to be done keeping the knowledge in their minds in account. Moreover its my personal belief that the mind is in fact much more stronger and capable that what we expect it to be. A person might ignore all the current information it gets from its other senses eyes ears touch etc, and act solely on what is in its memory . Hence a very logical design might not always be a good one.

Some natural mappings are does by the human brain which play a great role in the ease of use they have in using objects as humans rely on these natural and inertial mappings more than the knowledge in the real world that is externally present around them.

But these externally provided information too are important. A good design is usually a good combination of both- a design that doesn’t rely heavily on either.

A human must be made capable of turning information into knowledge.

More the knowledge in the external world regarding an object, lesser you need knowledge of it in your head. Like phone numbers. Many of us don’t even know our parents phone numbers. Because it is in our cell’s contact-list. Can you imagine the memory power of our ancestors who used telephones to have memorized so many phone numbers?

Short term memory or working memory- it can hold very less amount of information ..about five items and again any distractions and it is gone. Though not usually considered to be so, the number of items is more important than the time in case of stm. We might remmeber three statements of instruction for an hour, but if we are given eight statements of instruction , it is very likely that we will drop one of them from our memory and operate without it. Some people(memory wizards) use certain techniques to retain larger amount of info as this . but we cant design systems expecting this level of proficiency from all the users. As usually, our brain can keep five items of information in mind, instructions should be designed in such way . However if the system has no other way but to flood the user with information, then it can use certain techniques. One suggestion by Norman has been the use of multiple sensory modalitiles. This will be definitely effective as information fed to one sense organ (say a visual )doesn’t much interfere with an information fed to another (say an audio). They pretty much maintain their own queues for inflow of information. Hence this fact can be used. Plus if the system displays critical instructions, it should make sure that it remains with the user. If it disappears before the user can make use of that information, then it will be rather more frustrating than helpful.

Long term memory — takes more time to get in as well as get out

How well we can recover information from LTM however depends on how we interpreted it in first place. What is stored in LTM under one interpretation probably would be very difficult to recover later under a different interpretation(scenario). Moreover another problem is the answer we recover from this LTM is a fabrication of the actual information along with our biases and distortions and hence might even be wholly inaccurate

An unaided mind can be very limited. Hence, if we have the resources, we should take advantage of those resources to make us smart!

Hence as designers we can focus on giving users the proper aids in the form of signifiers and also by developing designs that give meaningful structures to the information they have to take in so that the information turns into knowledge. Even if the systems do not use menus directly , we can provide some structure using constraints, proper mappings and proper feedbacks.

Many a times people have raised questions on this increasing dependency on knowledge in the world. Is this good or bad?

I can say how I look at that question

Would you hesitate to keep your wallet near your car keys so that u don’t forget to take it when u leave home? No, right? You thought it was the smart thing to do that would ensure that you don’t forget to take your wallet. Well, you just used the keys as the external help to put your knowledge in the world instead of relying only on your memory. And why did you decide to put that knowledge in the world? Because from your memories of the past,i.e. the knowledge in your head, you know that you might make the mistake of not taking your wallet. You also used the knowledge in your head to identify that you cannot leave without taking your keys and hence you could use that to remind yourself of your wallet.

That’s how we have been getting best results by the combination of both our mind and our resources without even realizing it. “United we stand, divided we fall”!!

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