Jim's Reviews > The Design of Everyday Things

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2non-fiction, 1paper, science

This took me FOREVER to read - but it isn't the book's fault. It was me just picking it up at odd moments & it giving me a lot to think about each time. I don't design every day things, so had absolutely no need to read this book, but found it extremely interesting. If you have any part in designing anything, you MUST read this book.

Norman points out the obvious - things I took for granted - & made me think about them in an entirely new light. He breaks down the simplest devices into their basic functions & features, then rebuilds them in a way that is both obvious & yet entirely new. He then points out places where the design elements are good & bad. He gets into the basic aspects of design that I never thought about such as aligning the number of controls with the number of functions. Best of all, he lays all of this out in an interesting manner with common examples as he delves deeper into the problems & solutions.

When you walk up to a door, how do you know how to deal with it? I never thought about it, just used it. Norman points out the clues I use, such as where the handles & hinges are located, as well as the conventions, such as pushing to go out of a commercial door, that I just KNOW & intuitively use. But what happens when designers fiddle around to make look pretty? Can anyone screw up something as mundane & venerable as a door? Unfortunately, yes indeedy!

He relates a funny story about getting stuck briefly in the foyer of a commercial building because of the 'modern' design of the doors. Hidden hinges, lots of glass, & handles that stretched across the entire center of the door gave no clue as to which way they opened. Couple that with one set of doors opening in the opposite direction from the others & a simple task - walking into a building without much thought (actually while thinking of other things, like the upcoming meeting) - became an irritating puzzle. Not a big deal? Actually, it is.

Norman pulls out some truly horrific numbers to make a great point on how important intuitive design is. The average person has something like 30,000 different instruction sets to remember on a regular basis. If each one of these took just a minute to remember, you'd spend several months learning them, assuming a 40 hour week devoted to the task! That we've absorbed these instructions & conventions over decades & are facing an increasing number of them on a daily basis makes it particularly irritating when they get redesigned into a problem.

Note: This book was published in the late 80's. While there are some desktop computing examples given, this book is pre-Internet. Think of how much additional information is required in the wake of that. (Think browsers, email, scams, viruses, ....)

While some of the examples are a bit dated, such as VCR's, they're not terrible. The multifunctional switches, confusing menus, & seemingly random options packed into those machines have carried over into their descendents in spades. Other examples, such as phone systems & stoves, are still so on target that it's absolutely infuriating. OK, phone systems are complicated, extremely proprietary & full of more options than ever, but do they HAVE to be so hard to use? I don't think so.

I know damn well that designers could do a much better job of laying out the controls for something as simple as a stove. They've had over a century & it's still a complete PITA to figure out which knob operates which burner. I can't walk up to any stove & put my hand on the correct knob. I have to read, sometimes even puzzle out symbols to figure out which is which. Even on my own simple stove, which we've had 5 years, I wind up reading to figure out the controls. OK, Marg usually cooks, but that's just STUPID design - one more minor irritation in a world filled with them, but one that could so easily be rectified with just a bit of thought!!! It's just infuriating.

While I was reading this book, a couple of examples of its relevance slapped me in the face.
- Steve Jobs died. Why was he so successful? Many people say that he was an inventor. WRONG. He rarely came up with anything truly new. His forte was in timing & design. Microsoft had a tablet for years before the iPad but their offering never made it. Why? Because the hardware couldn't support the overall expected functionality properly AND the user interface wasn't nearly as well designed as the iPad. Microsoft tried too early, designed it poorly, & FAILED themselves right out of the market.
- Amazon took the ebook market by storm. The Kindle wasn't the first ereader & it isn't really all that great hardware-wise, but it has a great interface that leverages a wonderful support system - all good design. It does one thing & does it really well.

Long review, but design is one of the most misunderstood & important concepts of our lives. I was completely shocked by my own ignorance about it. I still don't claim to be any expert, but it sure made me see the world in a different way.

Update 13May2019 Here's a new article by Norman. "I wrote the book on user-friendly design. What I see today horrifies me" with a subtitle: The world is designed against the elderly, writes Don Norman, 83-year-old author of the industry bible Design of Everyday Things and a former Apple VP.

It's a fact. I'm now in my 60s & he's right. We're a large segment of the population that isn't cool, but we have the money & time. Design for us!
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Reading Progress

June 18, 2010 – Shelved
June 18, 2010 – Shelved as: 2non-fiction
September 15, 2011 – Started Reading
February 3, 2012 – Finished Reading
December 11, 2013 – Shelved as: 1paper
September 18, 2016 – Shelved as: science

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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Boni Aditya Yes, the book takes forever to read, i tried brute force on the book i.e. spend every living minute of the day on the book. I tried the marathon, but there is so much crammed into the book and is written like a text book - i.e. not designed for reading. For a guy who talks about superior design, he for once did not concentrate on designing the book for an easy read. I had to force myself to concentrate, because i could understand how important each of the concepts that he introduces. But, he can make this book more interesting.

message 2: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim I think there is too much to reflect on to brute force this. I had to live some of his points to really appreciate them fully. I've never looked at a door the same since reading this! I went around for a week counting functions versus controls & comparing controls on proprietary systems (phones, headsets, etc.). I think that's the way this should be absorbed. It's too complex & subtle. Obviously some very smart people have screwed it up for years, too.

message 3: by Nenad (new)

Nenad Nikolić About the first sentence - the whole point of the book is that it IS book’s fault (writer’s) if it is difficult to read. Only purpose of the book is to be read, just like doors that should be easily opened.

message 4: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Nenad wrote: "About the first sentence - the whole point of the book is that it IS book’s fault (writer’s) if it is difficult to read. Only purpose of the book is to be read, just like doors that should be easil..."

I get what you're saying, but that's incorrect in this case. Read the second sentence. I didn't have a lot of time to devote to it which it requires & deserves. There was nothing convoluted about the writing, it was just dense with ideas.

Buck Jim - I read the article you linked (I'm older than you) and I put the book on my library wish list. I design not things, but places, but I am cognizant of poor design and good design in things. Thanks for letting me know about this book.

message 6: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim Glad to turn you on to it, Buck. It gives a lot to think about.

message 7: by Nancy (new) - added it

Nancy Mills Wow, never heard of this one but it sounds really cool. Even my husband would probably like it! He loves to figure out what makes things go.

message 8: by Nina (new)

Nina Fascinating review as usual, JIm. I can relate to some of the theme as I once almost walked through a glass door leading to a patio. Bad design, to say the least.

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