The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

This book has “must read” written all over it for people in design. And even though I’m not a designer, I’d say design is a constant theme in my job. From writing specs for applications to making slides and building excel models, any form of creation involves design. So I figured I had to read this.

Overall, I was fairly disappointed. I was looking for more concrete examples of good/bad design, but this book is extremely framework and principle heavy. It’s like reading a consulting manual. I’d argue that the title is badly designed. Maybe rename it to “The Design Principles of Everyday Things.”

1) “Norman doors” are confusing doors.

Along with the spotlight on almighty design principles, there is a fair bit of self aggrandizement that was slightly off-putting.

2) We should design things with the assumption that people will always make errors.

This sounds like common sense, but it really hit home since I was designing an excel model from scratch at the time (somehow, for the first time…) Effectively every input, no matter how straightforward, needs to have a validation check and warning messages.

3) An affordance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the capabilities of the agent that determines what’s possible.

Every time this word came up, I had to remind myself what it meant. An example is that a chair affords sitting. It also affords lifting by people who have the strength to lift it but it does not afford lifting for people who can’t.

4) Turning the knob of a wristwatch winds the springs that power its movements.

I always thought turning the knob did nothing (unless the knob was pulled out first).

5) Good design allows people to develop the correct conceptual models.

For example, I think many people set the AC or heat way past their desired temperature to get it to cool down / heat up faster. However, this is the wrong conceptual model. The temperature you set dictates when the AC / heat stops, but has no bearing on how fast the temperature changes.

6) Stove controls are a great example of bad mapping.

Users shouldn’t have to read the labels to know which control corresponds to which burner.

7) The moving text vs moving window confusion came about as touchscreens became more common.

Every time I use other people’s macs, I remember how weird it is to use the moving text model on a laptop.

8) Microsoft patented cylindrical batteries that work regardless of bipolarity.

It’s called InstaLoad, and I’ve never seen it.

9) Destination control elevators were invented in 1985 and first used commercially in 1990.

The destination control elevators are definitely my favorite part of the Singapore office. They seem far more common in Asia, probably because the buildings are newer.

10) Toyota developed the ‘Five Whys’ approach.

It’s amazing how many people (myself included) struggle to answer the “why” behind the most mundane things. Ask someone why they like their hobbies, and you’ll get a look of disdain.

Even though I didn’t like this book much and wouldn’t recommend it, I definitely took some ideas and applied them to my real life. It’s especially relevant when I go to new hotels. The mapping of the lights is almost guaranteed to be terrible. The number of times I’ve lain down on my bed, turned off the lights, and realized I had to get up to turn off some random light in the corner is too damn high.

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