The psychology of everyday actions (Norman) — DAY 86

Summarizing the second chapter

The second chapter of Don Norman’s classic book The design of everyday things makes us dive into how we, as users, understand the environment, take decisions and act. This is a complex chapter with a lot of great ideas and deep explanations about psychology. My intent here is to explain, in a high-level, what, for me, were the best learnings. So, to start, according to the author, when we use something we face two gulfs:

  • Gulf of execution: it means to understand how something works;
  • Gulf of evaluation: it means to understand what happened.

Even though they are introduced as gulfs, there are ways to bridge it. People are very likely to blame themselves when something goes wrong, especially for complex tasks, but also for daily tasks. They usually think they are too stupid to do that. According to the author, this is not about people, but about design, and to bridge the gulf of execution the designers should adopt strong signifiers, constraints, mappings and conceptual models. In other words, make very explicit what the object offers in terms of actions and possibilities. The gulf of evaluation, in another hand, is bridged by a strong feedback and a strong conceptual model, helping users to identify what happened, and planning the next step.

So, as you can see, there are two main parts to an action: executing it, and evaluating the results. It means: do it and interpret it. Following this thinking, the author introduces us the seven stages of action:

  1. Goal (form the goal) — What do I want to accomplish?
  2. Plan (the action) — What are the alternative action sequences?
  3. Specify (an action sequence) — What action can I do now?
  4. Perform (the action sequence) — How do I do it?
  5. Perceive (the state of the world) — What happened?
  6. Interpret (the perception) — What does it mean?
  7. Compare (the outcome with the goal) — Is this okay? Have I accomplished my goal?

This framework is very good to help designers to plan their products and, in the case of UX designers, to understand how they take decisions, even though most of the actions don’t really need to cover every single stage in sequence. This is all true, but innovation usually starts from a good understanding of these two gulfs and these seven stages. By understanding how the users do and evaluate their actions, designers find insights and get information enough to create real solutions. A shallow analysis can usually bring great insights for incremental innovation, but if the idea is to reach a radical level of innovation, understanding these gulfs and going all the way to the root cause is almost mandatory. This is not easy, though, as most of the human behavior is unconscious. According to Norman, experts usually separate our thinking in two parts:

  • Emotion
  • Cognition

Even though they are separated for better understanding, they cannot be isolated. One depends on the other: “Cognitive thoughts lead to emotions: emotions drive cognitive thoughts”. While cognition makes sense, emotion assigns value, while the first provides understanding, the second provides value judgments. As most of our behavior is unconscious, it means that we are usually unaware of them, just acting, and justifying it later on — then with conscious thoughts. Unconscious makes us faster to decide and respond almost instantly and is necessary for everyday actions. Conscious, otherwise, is slow and labored for more complex decisions. To illustrate and make these more visual, the author introduces the three levels of processing:

  • Visceral: unconscious, is the basic understanding, responding very quickly. In design is related to the style, appearance, aesthetics, sensibility and these kinds of dimensions.
  • Behavioral: unconscious, is related to the learned skills and is triggered by situations that match a specific pattern: Driving, for example. In design is related to expectations: satisfaction or frustration. Feedback here is a very important tool, as our emotional system is very responsive to changes of states, meaning that this level can change the whole perception of an experience.
  • Reflective: conscious, is about cognition. Is where the reason and conscious thinking take place. Is deep, is slow, is well thought. The design also takes place here, as this is where the user really thinks and organizes his thoughts.

So, as we can see, the design can take a lot of lessons and create many strategies to play with the emotional/cognitive system. Good designers know how to understand, interpret and take advantages from it, increasing perceptions, experiences and making their work more pleasant and effective. Most of the way we perceive the world and the life is unconscious, and everyday actions too, so making sure we, while designers, create solutions that satisfy the user even under their unconscious state will help us on having a good perception of experience in their conscious state either. By the end the author introduces the seven fundamentals of design, that should be always present in any product development and help a lot on fulfilling every conscious or unconscious requirement:

1. Discoverability. It is possible to determine what actions are possible and the current state of the device.
2. Feedback. There is full and continuous information about the results of actions and the current state of the product or service. After an action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.
3. Conceptual model. The design projects all the information needed to create a good conceptual model of the system, leading to understanding and a feeling of control. The conceptual model enhances both discoverability and evaluation of results.
4. Affordances. The proper affordances exist to make the desired actions possible.
5. Signifiers. Effective use of signifiers ensures discoverability and that the feedback is well communicated and intelligible.
6. Mappings. The relationship between controls and their actions follows the principles of good mapping, enhanced as much as possible through spatial layout and temporal contiguity.
7. Constraints. Providing physical, logical, semantic, and cultural constraints guides actions and eases interpretation.


Roberto Pesce —

Follow the challenge on Facebook!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Roberto Pesce’s story.