Review: The Design of Everyday Things

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I just finished reading the first book on my personal, summer reading list. It is a book called The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. This book (originally titled The Psychology of Everyday Things) gives a thorough explanation of what differentiates good design from poor design. Throughout the book the author emphasizes that truly good design considers the intended user and does not sacrifice usability for aesthetic. I really enjoyed reading this book as many of the anecdotes strongly resonated with me. I think anyone who is in any design related field (graphic, interior, architecture, UX/UI or human-center) needs to keep a copy of this close by.

There is a chapter in the book that covers knowledge in the head versus knowledge in the world. The author addresses how there are cultural and social standards that can be leveraged to help strengthen the usability of design. One example that is given is a standard sink. The knobs on a sink commonly share the same standard of tightening as a screw (righty tight-ie, lefty loose-ie). This extension of an understood mental model of how something works allows users who encounter a new sink to quickly understand its functions. However, there are some sink designs that mirror the knobs function instead, which leads to confusion and in personal instances, burned hands.

The faucet in my kitchen employs this mirrored model. It makes sense only when you are using both hands to manipulate the flow and temperature of the water. The right faucet that controls the flow of cold water follows the traditional rules where a clockwise turn closes the tap and a counter-clockwise turn opens the tap. This is pattern is mirrored by the knob that controls the hot water. Trying to manipulate the water temperature with one hand while doing the dishes is a bit of a gamble that either results in cool relief or hot, uncomfortable frustration.

Besides validating that I am not crazy for repeatedly burning my hands, the book helps explain basic principles designers should follow. It encourages bridging the gap between the gulf of execution  (how users view what actions are possible) and the gulf of evaluation (how the user can evaluate the causes and effects of their actions). One of the parts that I think is most important to take into consideration is allowing the user to undo their actions. This helps the user become more comfortable with the design because it allows them to experiment without risk. Allowing the user to comfortably experiment with a design helps them build their own mental model based off of their experience, improving the way they interact with the design.

The challenge for me is that my work typically is not constrained to a physical good. This means I need to be able to understand users’ mental models of performing tasks in professional and/or social settings that are not defined by physical cues (like levers, keystrokes, or knobs) but are sometimes constrained by intangible obstacles that exist as cultural, social, or hierarchical standards. At the same time, my designs should allow users to quickly and easily understand how to perform a function in a comfortable way. I think comfort is the silent success of design.

The designs that are truly appreciated are the ones we often ignore. They are comfortable to use and interact with, requiring little or no thought during engagement. I have facilitated workshops that have succeeded in their purpose of revealing obstacles employees face but where the workshops failed was in creating a comfortable environment. If the design is smart and intuitive it is likely to be comfortable. Designing experiences for people often involves intangible factors that must be considered, comfort is a new factor I am moving to the top of my list.

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