I am onto my second chapter of Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things”, in which he talks about the 7 Fundamental Design Principles: Discoverability, feedback, conceptual model, affordances, signifiers, mapping, and constraints. In learning about these 7 fundamentals, I started thinking back to everyday products that I use, and tried to practice identifying these 7 fundamentals and where it existed (or did not exist) in the products. One came to mind very vividly — my work desk. The reason I’m talking about my work desk is because I’m convinced that while these 7 fundamentals of design are crucial in a broader sense, there can be exceptions to the rule where a product may be lacking in certain fundamentals but can still be good design.
This is my desk. For a little context, I’m a high school teacher. A year ago I finally inherited my own classroom(I had been a traveling teacher for a year). Along with the classroom, I had also inherited a desk! I was stoked.
The desk was perfectly functional, but there was one downside. Drawer 1 opens perfectly fine, but Drawers 2 and 3 only rattle but do not open. Unfortunately Drawer 1 is the least useful of the 3 — too thin to support any real storage. Out of desperation at times, I even tried banging Drawers 2 and 3 for a while but this old-school desk was quite sturdy for what it was. In addition, there was no lock for a key to indicate that Drawers 2 and 3 required a key to unlock.
Bringing it back to the Don Norman’s 7 fundamentals of design, this desk excelled in all aspects except feedback and conceptual model. This desk lacked feedback because after pulling on Drawers 2 and 3, there was no indication of what I was doing wrong. I also lacked the conceptual model for the desk because I did not know the design and structure of the desk, and therefore was unable to problem-solve using context clues.
For about 4 months into the school-year I happened to stumbled upon a way to open Drawers 2 and 3. This was the strategy: You must open Drawer 1 ( and leave it open) while opening either Drawers 2 and/or 3. Opening Drawer 1 is essentially the “key” for opening all the others. I discovered this by chance of leaving Drawer 1 open while fumbling to open the others. It worked!
After finding out this secret key, I was so excited, not just because of finally having some storage in my desk, but because I was able to use this secret knowledge to my advantage. Whether it be leaving my classroom door open for students who want to stay after school, or during lunch for students to eat lunch, or leaving for a hot 3 minutes to run to the restroom, I can now safely story my bags and valuables into Drawer 3 with confidence that nobody would know how to open it.
This example pushed me to think beyond just labeling design as “good” or “bad”, but now also intentional. Perhaps there were reasons for this desk to be designed in a way where only the owner knows how to open the desk. Perhaps the designer was designing for a schoolteacher who constantly had to run to the bathroom.
This “bad design” that I was so frustrated with for 4 months became “good design” in a sense because I was able to use that knowledge that “nobody” else had to my advantage. Even though this design was lacking in feedback and conceptual model, the lack of them enabled my confidence to use Drawers 2 and 3 to store important documents. On another note, for the next teacher that inherits my classroom, I’ll be sure to include instructions on how to open those drawers.