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Book Report: The Design of Everyday Things

Karen Fletcher
Designer and developer. Passionate about CSS and accessibility. Borderline life of the party. She/Her
・4 min read

Header Image Credit: Anca Doodles '20/100 Coffeepot for Masochists'

Quick Summary

Don Norman has a long and storied career. He has an academic background in engineering and psychology, and has worked for the likes of Apple, HP, Harvard and the University of California - San Diego. His work specializes in cognitive engineering and user-centered design.

The Design of Everyday Things (DoET) has been updated several times, most recently in 2013. The book includes snippets from history, and positions design as an equally valuable part of business. Norman weighs what makes a design "good" or "bad" based on overall usability from a Human Centered Design perspective. Is an object easy and intuitive for a person to use. If not, why not? How can we make it better?

Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well the design is invisible.

Key Takeaways

  • Design should be Human Centered, focusing on the needs, capabilities, and behavior of people and designing to accommodate.
  • Machines (or processes, or websites) are poorly designed when they force people into behaving like the machine, focusing on logic, accuracy, and precision, instead of focusing on things people are good at like imagination and common sense.
  • Allow users to make errors, and to recover from them. Provide help and guidance.
    • "Humans err continually; it's an intrinsic part of our nature. System design should take this into account."
  • Poor feedback is worse than no feedback at all. Good feedback provides reassurance, even when it indicates a negative result. Feedback is critical to managing expectations.
  • People are reluctant to admit if they can't use an object or device or website, and blame themselves instead of poor design.
    • Don't blame users when they don't use your design correctly, it's a sign the design can be improved.
  • "It doesn't matter where knowledge comes from. What matters is the quality of the end result."
  • The secret to design success it to understand the real underlying problem, not necessarily the exact problem one is asked to solve.
    • Solve the right problem while meeting human needs and capabilities.
    • Discover and define the right problem, develop and deliver the right solution.
  • Determine user's needs by observing their actions.
  • A designer's job is to determine people's needs and solve them. A marketer's job is to determine what people will actually buy.
    • "There must be a multidisciplinary team overseeing the entire design, engineering, and manufacturing process that shares all departmental issues and concerns from day one, so that everyone can design to satisfy them, and when conflicts arise, the group together can determine the most satisfactory solution."
  • Frequently, the person who buys the product is not the one who actually uses it.
  • Competition-driven design causes all products to be the same. Instead, concentrate on your product's strengths, and strengthen them further.
  • Distributed cognition: "[Technology] unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and the critical."
  • Design is inherently political.
    • Designers need to be aware of their position in a capitalist marketplace, where usability isn't the primary standard for marketing.
    • "The design of everyday things is in danger of becoming the design of superfluous, overloaded, unnecessary things."

Review 🌟🌟🌟

In my opinion, this book would be great for students in a classroom setting or a professional bookclub. I think Norman asks a lot more questions than he answers, and trying to answer those questions could facilitate better discussion and deeper understanding. Reading it solo, I spent a lot of time personally interrogating those questions but also wishing Norman had answered some of the questions he asked.

Being last updated in 2013 means it's in need of a significant update for the leaps and bounds of the past 7 years. Norman does a great job speaking to the value of the designer in business, but be ready for a lot of talk about refrigerators, pilots, and stovetops.

It's a dense 7 chapters of textbook-style language, and as someone who's not typically a fan of non-fiction, I had a hard time staying fully engaged. (my trick: put sticky notes at the start of each chapter so you can quickly see how long it is)

Overall I think it's a decent overview of the history of the design of physical and digital things, but never dives deep into any one thing. At times it felt over-long and over-explanatory, like a youtuber that knows they have to get to that sweet 10+ minute mark to get ad revenue so they keep rephrasing the same points over and over, that gives it an "old man yells at cloud" feeling.

A newspaper clipping of Grandpa Simpson angrily shaking his fist and shouting at a cloud. Season 13, Episode 13 of The Simpsons.

Will this help you level up your design skills?

Depends! If you're like me, a designer with a background in art history and anthropology who's recently transitioned from software development and feels like they're trying to play catch-up with all the formal knowledge they missed by not taking design classes in college when they had the chance -ahem- that is to say someone new to professional design, DoET is a great articulation of things I already knew and had previously wondered about, and now I can back up that knowledge by citing this source.

What's Next?

Have you read DoET, and if so, what did you think?

What should I read next? I'm looking for something more recent, and prioritizing works by femme, non-binary folxs, and people of color.

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